Hawaii Calls – Stars and Steel Guitars

Since the 1970s, Hawaiian music has diversified and its sound evolved to allow such instruments as the slack key guitar and even the diminutive `ukulele to lead a large group. But in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the signature sound of Hawaiian music was the steel guitar. To this day, many who remember tuning into Hawaii Calls each week can barely remember the name of even one of its singing stars, but almost anyone can remember the two sounds that made the radio show iconic around the world: waves crashing on Waikiki Beach and steel guitars. 

As you have already read here, for a period of 15 years from 1937 through 1952, the sole steel guitarist for Hawaii Calls was the incredible David Keli`i. His departure marked the beginning of the reign of another steel guitar wunderkind, Jake Keli`ikoa. Regrettably, there is a gap in the Ho`olohe Hou archives, and so I have no programs from 1952 until 1957 – when Keli`ikoa was featured on the show. (As I am also a steel guitarist, that conspicuous gap is as conspiratorial as the Bermuda Triangle.) Then one day, a tragedy that changed Hawaii Calls – and Hawaiian music – forever. Keli`ikoa had an accident on the way to the taping of that week’s Hawaii Calls broadcast, and there was no steel guitarist available on such short notice to take his place. Host Webley Edwards had the brainstorm to allow the three female vocalists in the cast to sing the steel guitar parts that week. This forever changed the arrangements one heard on the Hawaii Calls show for now the wahine singers would often coo and sigh in three part harmony instead of (or even in addition to) the steel guitars. But it changed another practice of the show: Edwards vowed never to go live with fewer than two steel guitarists at the same time. For a short while, the pair was Keli`ikoa and Jules Ah See, the latter at the time known for his work with Alfred Apaka. But after Keli`ikoa’s departure from the show later in the decade, he was replaced by Barney Isaacs who was already one of the most widely respected steel guitarists in the islands. And, at least for my money, the duo of Keli`ikuihonua and Kalanikau (as host Edwards usually referred to Jules and Barney respectively by their Hawaiian names) are the iconic pairing that signified the sound of Hawaii Calls, Hawaiian music, and – dare I say – Hawai`i as mysterious island paradise in the 1950s and early 1960s until Jules untimely death. 

In Hawaiian music, the steel guitarist often has very little “space” in which to demonstrate his virtuosity – usually nothing more than a two-bar intro or ending or the ubiquitous two-bar “vamp” that connects one verse to the next in most Hawaiian song forms. But while the arrangements for the Hawaii Calls show offered am occasional solo for its steel guitarists – fully understanding that it was the sound its audiences relied upon, even demanded – there was always that interlude during the approximate middle of the program in which host Edwards read the air and water temperature at Waikiki and allowed the steel guitarists to weave their magic solo for a minute or so as they lead seamlessly into the next vocal number. This is always the highlight of the program for me. I have already spun a few of these as “connecting issue” previously when featuring Hawaii Calls vocalists. But here are a few moments from the show when Jules and Barney were not merely background or atmosphere, but the main course. 

In a clip from a 1959 broadcast, Webley introduces Jules in a number “by request” from the audience through their many cards and letters. Having just released their ninth LP as part of the cast’s contract with Capitol Records, the album entitled Hawaiian Strings which featured Jules and Barney, Web invites Jules to perform a song from that album, “Red Sails In The Sunset.” But those who have heard the album will understand immediately that Jules plays it completely differently here – in the more jazzy vein that characterized his sound when he recorded with such other artists as Alfred Apaka and Sterling Mossman. 

Then, in a clip from approximately the same era, Barney is permitted the solo on the hula standard “`Alika” which then segues into a vocal number for the cast. You will no doubt hear the difference in Jules’ and Barney’s styles. 

As we enter the period of the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s for the Hawaii Calls broadcasts, I thought I should introduce you to the steel guitarists of that period. Because, as they say, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. As we soon return to the show’s vocalists of this period, you will hear more and more of Jules and Barney. See if you can tell which one is playing when… 

Next time: Another look at Barney Isaacs who plays the same song twice – completely differently… 


Direct download: 22_Hawaii_Calls_-_1957-1962.mp3
Category:50s and 60s -- posted at: 4:57am EDT