Hawaii Calls – Jimmy Kaopuiki

I have written here at Ho`olohe Hou previously – likely in reference to The Sons of Hawaii’s Joe Marshall – that while bass players in other musical idioms (such as jazz) are often revered, in Hawaiian music the bass player is an afterthought – a necessity, of course, but never the front man or the “star.” While this is true of all Hawaiian music throughout its history, a notable exception is the Hawaii Calls radio programs which perhaps made a more grievous error: It often featured their bass player’s vocal abilities but rarely credited him. 

Albeit more than 50 years late, that all changes today if I can help it. 

Google “Jimmy Kaopuiki.” Finished yet? Don’t give yourself carpel tunnel syndrome clicking away to solve the mystery of one of Hawai`i’s most seen, heard, and recorded bass players. You will find a few credits for him on the few vintage Hawaiian music albums that have been reissued as CDs. (And they are too few.) But you will not find a single portrait of the man, but you will find a scant few pictures where the caption indicates that he is present but likely hiding behind the steel guitarist. The bass player is part of the rhythm section in any band in any genre of music, and the mark of a good musician in the rhythm section is not merely that he knows his instrument. It is that he knows his instrument and is content to spend his career making others sound good while he remains largely anonymous. It is a support role that must be fulfilled admirably. 

And that is the best description I can offer of Jimmy Kaopuiki about whom there is little other information floating around. 

If you are a fan of Hawaiian music, you have no doubt heard Kaopuiki as he is probably the most recorded bass player in Hawai`i from the 1950s through the 1970s. His name appears on countless record covers, but that is not really a “credit” since those covers – especially those for LPs by the Hawaii Calls cast – usually offer long lists of names without clarifying which musician plays which instrument or which singers sing which songs. But make no mistake, Kaopuiki was the bassist on most of your favorite Hawaiian music albums, even those on which he was not credited – from the Maile Serenaders to the New Hawaiian Band, from Alfred Apaka to Hilo Hattie, from Vicki I`i to Bill Kaiwa, from Mahi Beamer to Danny Kaleikini, from Japan’s Ethel Nakada to Nashville’s Tennessee Ernie Ford. In fact he was so busy as a performing bassist with so many aggregations throughout the 1960s, one has to wonder when Jimmy had time to sleep. 

So by his associations we can assume that Kaopuiki was the musician’s musician, the consummate professional. Otherwise he would have been sitting at home waiting for The Lucky Luck Show to come on rather than rushing to his next gig. Long time boss Danny Kaleikini – for whom Kaopuiki served not merely as bassist but also as musical director and arranger for his long-running show at the Kahala Hilton Hotel starting in the mid-1960s – came closest to extoling the virtues of his long-time musical associate. In an interview with Linda Andrade Wheeler for her book Aloha: The Spirit Within You, when Wheeler asked how he became so polished as an entertainer, Kaleikini responded by watching, observing, and learning from local professionals like Kaopuiki. 

But while Kaopuiki’s distinctive voice was often the first one heard on a Hawaii Calls broadcast each week – kicking off the show with an up-tempo number – he was rarely credited by host Webley Edwards as the vocalist. We needn’t wonder why, however. This was not a deliberate slight. It was simply that Kaopuiki was not the star of Hawaii Calls. He was a member of its rhythm section. He was the bass player and occasional vocalist, and yet today he remains one of the most recognizable voices from the show – a voice without a name. Ho`olohe Hou sets the record straight today with a brief tribute to Kaopuiki with selections he led on late 1950s and early 1960s Hawaii Calls broadcasts – most of which have likely not been heard since they first went to air more than 50 years ago. And, surprisingly, on a scant few, Edwards identifies the man behind the voice. But on others, as you will soon hear, only the most ardent fan would know that it was Jimmy Kaopuiki at the microphone. 

Jimmy opens the set with Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs’ “Ta-ha-ua-la,” a peppy reworking of the song that came to be known as the “Hawaiian War Chant.” Originally composed by Prince Leileiōhoku, one of na lani `eha (or “the heavenly four,” the affectionate name for Hawai`i’s last reigning royal family, two brothers and two sisters who were also amazingly talented composers), the lyrics for “Kaua I Ka Huahua`i” speak of love and desire. How hapa-haole musician, composer, and arranger Johnny Noble co-opted the lyric, changed the tempo, and ascribed the exact opposite meaning to the lyric than what the composer intended remains beyond most ethnomusicologist’s comprehension still nearly 150 years later. It may have been for this reason that composer Isaacs wrested back the lyric and did some creative word play to give the song back its more sensual nature while retaining the jazzy feel. Kaopuiki’s playful voice is perfect for just such a junket. 

A fairly new song at the time Jimmy performed it on Hawaii Calls, “(Look Out For) The Girl In The Hula Skirt” was composed by Prince Kawohi (the stage name of Ernest Kawohilani) and Steve Graham (the pseudonym of Michael H. Goldsen). The songwriting pair only copyrighted the song in 1955, and it first appeared at about that same time on Prince Kawohi’s album At The Luau. Steel guitar aficionados will no doubt appreciate the efforts here of Jules Ah See. 

Finally, Jimmy performs the snappy love song “Palolo” from the prolific pen of Charles E. King. One source cites “Palolo” as a mele pana, or a song honoring a place. I have to take issue with this given the lyric content. Despite that the song takes place in Palolo Valley on O`ahu, the poetry clearly uses kaona (Hawaiian-style poetic metaphor) to describe something more intimate. In Hawaiian mele (song craft), the rain is often a veiled reference to love-making. Here King’s reference is not at veiled as in some other examples: 

Ka ua no ia olu ka mana`o / The rain is soothing to my thoughts 

Ho`oni a`e nei i ku`u pu`uwai / Despite my pounding heart 

Pumehana kāua i ke aloha / Warmed by our love 

I ka pili i ke anu o ke kuahiwi / We snuggle, the mountain is cold 

Ua lawa kāua e ke aloha / Our love making has ended 

Honi iho nei ho`i i ka pu`uwai / Kisses return to remain in my heart  

I laila no wau i ka po nei / Last night I was there 

A ua paia kou puka i ka laka ia / Trapped by rain 

I don’t think we have yet adequately given Jimmy Kaopuiki his due. But it’s an excellent start, I think. 

Next time: More of Hawaii Calls bassist and vocalist – including his knockout falsetto…


Direct download: 14_Hawaii_Calls_-_1957-1962.mp3
Category:50s and 60s -- posted at: 7:09am EDT