Hawaii Calls – Sonny Nicholas (Part 1)

I only recently finished paying tribute to the unheralded bassist and vocalist of Hawaii Calls for many decades, Jimmy Kaopuiki. But much of what I wrote about Kaopuiki would apply to other cast members as well. Take, for example, Sonny Nicholas. 

Because Joseph Papapa Halemano Nicholas, Jr. shared a name with his father, as often happens in such cases at some point family and friends simply began referring to him as “Sonny.” But as an entertainer, the name suited him because he could not help but spread sunshine wherever he went. Even when singing the saddest of songs, the joviality in Sonny’s voice shined through. Perhaps it is for this reason that they rarely handed him a sad song to sing. Like bandmate Kaopuiki, Nicholas often opened Hawaii Calls programs with an up-tempo ditty – the kind of song perfectly suited for him. And, like Kaopuiki, he often opened the program uncredited, and like Kaopuiki, this is likely because Nicholas was not one of the stars of Hawaii Calls, but a member of its rhythm section. And when he was credited, it was most often – as host Webley Edwards was wont to do – by his Hawaiian name “Halemano.” (Edwards did this with numerous members of the cast – as you will read eventually – but who among the show’s listeners could know if these were the musicians’ first names, last names, or middle names?) 

Edwards took great pains to combat the criticism that “All Hawaiian music sounds alike,” but more often than not, the critics were right. The show had such natural constraints as a limited repertoire and an expected instrumentation. (An accordion would have been novel, but also inappropriate.) That does not mean the music and presentation were any less beautiful. Sonny Nicholas already had a long and storied history in Hawaiian music – leading his own groups at times, and playing the supporting role for other Hawaiian music legends other times. Some of his old bandleaders – like Alfred Apaka and Pua Almeida – would eventually play more prominent roles on Hawaii Calls than Sonny would. But like Kaopuiki, Nicholas was a utility player, content to do whatever he needed to do to make the stars shine brighter. Known mostly as a bassist, Sonny played rhythm guitar with the Hawaii Calls group. But it was his vocals that added character to what at times might have been considered by some critics as an awfully repetitive show.  

If you have Googled “Sonny Nicholas” as I invited you to Google “Jimmy Kaopuiki” previously, you will find… next to nothing. Not a single profile or article referencing him. Not a single photo except, perhaps, as part of an ensemble like the cast of Hawaii Calls (and even then likely obscured by one of its stars). So while local Hawai`i musicians through the ages understand the myriad reasons why Nicholas should be considered Hawaii Calls’ MVP, for the rest of the Hawaiian music-loving world, while they might recognize his voice from having heard it every week on radio for years as well as on nearly every Hawaii Calls LP record from the second one (Webley Edwards Presents Hawaii Calls At Twilight on which he sings the lead on “I Wish They Didn’t Mean Goodbye”) through the twentieth, Sonny Nicholas remains a voice without a name. 

Ho`olohe Hou aims to right this wrong with selections Sonny led on a few 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. There were many to choose from, but these are just a few of my favorites. 

The brilliant engineers Hawaii Calls employed – in this era, likely Bob Lang – attempted to capture every last nuance of a largely visual show somehow with an audio representation of it. Here you can clearly hear the flourish of the pu`ili ­– wands of bamboo split multiple times part of the way down their length so that when they are beaten against each other (or even against the hula dancer’s body) they make a percussive crash – as (an uncredited) Sonny Nicholas leads the orchestra and chorus on Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs’ composition “Analani E.” 

Webley does give Sonny the courtesy of an introduction before he launches into one of the comic hula songs for which he is best known – in this case, “Keep Your Eyes On The Hands,” a song which reminds the gentlemen (or, perhaps, their wives) where they should focus when watching the hula. Composed by Mary Johnson (often credited as “Liko Johnston”) and Tony Todaro (the pair also composed such hapa-haole favorites as “Somewhere In Hawaii” and “There’s No Place Like Hawaii), “Keep Your Eyes On The Hands” would have been very new at the time that Sonny performed it on this 1957 episode of Hawaii Calls. It made its debut in the 20th Century Fox film The Revolt of Mamie Stove just a year earlier in which it was sung by Jane Russell. You’ll notice that Web introduces Sonny as “Halemano” on this number. 

Hearing Sonny again only makes me want to hear more. One good tribute deserves another… 

Next time: A second look at Sonny Nicholas…


Direct download: 07_Hawaii_Calls_-_1957-1962.mp3
Category:50s and 60s -- posted at: 7:11pm EDT