Sun, 23 November 2014
Continuing our look at Haunani Kahalewai and her seemingly countless appearances on the Hawaii Calls radio program…
The recording studio affords an artist an almost infinite number of attempts to get a song just right. I have session tapes from Frank Sinatra’s 1950s Capitol Records sessions where there are countless false starts on the same tune – for everything from an out-of-tune flute to a saxophone that comes in a beat late to some “clams” from the singer. (Sinatra fans will know immediately what I mean by “clams.”) Haunani Kahalewai’s recording output – which featured the finest musicians in Hawai`i of the moment, many also fellow Hawaii Calls cast members – were truly perfect. (By contrast, there were some notable issues with Alfred Apaka’s recordings of the same period – missed cues, flubbed intros and endings – which for some reason nobody felt deserved a mulligan. And so we have these mistakes on vinyl for posterity to prove that our heroes weren’t perfect.) But I mention this because Haunani’s radio performances were also damned near perfect every time! In a 1980 interview with KCCN Radio, cast member Nina Keali`iwahamana spoke of the inherent dangers of doing a live radio broadcast. The musicians who didn’t read music worked from chord charts, and as Nina put it, it was easy enough in the heat of the moment to read a “G” as a “C,” and the singer ends up singing higher or lower than they ever thought possible. I have heard many, many hours of Hawaii Calls broadcast recordings, and I have heard such mistakes. But for some reason there was nary a mistake when Haunani stepped up to the microphone – as if the musicians and singers alike tried just a little harder for her. Because Haunani simply could do no wrong under any circumstances.
I mention this because this set opens with a number for the hula (at which – as you have read here previously – I believe Haunani truly excelled). The group settled on quite a tricky arrangement for “Na Ka Pueo” – startling even me when Haunani took the first verse in the key of “C,” but then the ladies chorus takes the repeat of that verse in the key of “A.” Those who understand music theory will no doubt see the difficulty in getting from “C” to “A” in one bar of music. They are unrelated key centers. (“Am” is the relative minor of “C” – making getting “C” to “Am” a little easier. But there is no direct path from “C” to “A.” You’ll just have to trust a musician on this.) But the arrangement was quite intentional – putting a verse in a key comfortable for Haunani’s contralto and another verse in a key suited to the higher voiced ladies. But you could not trip up steel guitarist Barney Isaacs who upon seeing the “A” on the lead sheet took a vamp in E7. (Nice job, Barney!) But more surprising still is that for the last verse, the musicians deliberately stay in “A” after the ladies chorus finish up their verse – allowing Haunani to outdo even herself by closing out the song by making the leap from her contralto to her mezzosoprano.
“My Isle of Golden Dreams” was previously made famous in not one, but two recordings by Alfred Apaka earlier in the decade. He also performed the song frequently on the weekly radio broadcast. But now it was Haunani’s turn as she had just waxed the song for her then recent LP, Hawaii’s Favorite Singing Star: Haunani, released in the spring of 1962 and recorded with musicians culled from the Hawaii Calls group and a new vocal backing group led by Nina Keali`iwahamana. (This is also one of the few records in my vast archives to boast a colon in its title!) Here they use the same arrangement for the radio show as they used in the recording studio and – as they always did for Haunani – pulled it off with aplomb.
Finally, I continue to marvel at the number of songs performed by Hawaii Calls cast members which clearly have the feel and flair of a locally-written tune but which were written by someone far, far away from the islands. This time around it is “Blue Water and White Coral,” composed by two New York jazzmen, Sherman Ellis and Arthur Barduhn. There are few recordings of this song in its history, but according to my archives, Haunani is the only artist from Hawai`i ever to record it. Who knows if Haunani found the song or it found her, but either way the lush and lovely melody is perfect for her (and vice-versa). This was also included on the same LP release as “My Isle of Golden Dreams” performed earlier in the same 1962 broadcast.
I am winding down this day-long tribute to Hawai`i’s “First Lady of Song.” But perhaps one last look at Haunani in action on video.
Next time: Because you have not yet seen Haunani do the hula…