Hawai'i Takes On The Beatles (Part 1)

50 years ago this month, four little known about lads that called themselves The Beatles released their first recordings in the U.S. and  - on February 9, 1964 at 8pm – the Fab Four made their U.S. television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. And music – and the world – were changed forever. 

That story has been chronicled countless times. But what has not been discussed has been the effect of the British Invasion on the evolution of music in Hawai’i. 

As has been discussed in this blog previously, Hawaiian music took some very interesting – albeit expected – turns in the 1960s.With statehood and the jet plane came the need for Hawai’i’s musicians to remain relevant for the burgeoning tourist crowd – not necessarily for record sales, but certainly to remain viable as Waikiki club acts. Traditional Hawaiian music and hula began to share nightclub and record store shelf space with rock-and-roll, bossa nova, and even go-go. Once The Beatles were “the thing,” this, too, became a force for the local musicians to reckon with. There are several examples of this on record, and, as one might expect, most of these examples were from the popular Waikiki nightclub acts of the era. 

Buddy Fo and His Group, performing live at the Shell Bar of the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel, take Lennon and McCartney’s “Daytripper” at a slightly peppier clip than the mopheads did. The beat is the go-go and has more in common with Don Ho and the Aliis (working down the street at Duke Kahanamoku’s) than with The Beatles. (You can picture the coeds rocking out with their frug and watusi at this rhythmic pace.) Guitarist Sonny Kamaka arranges the tune as an homage to – not a copy of – the original. He could easily have copped the iconic opening 12-string guitar and bass unison intro that George Harrison and Paul McCartney crafted, but Kamaka instead crafts a new guitar and bass unison intro all his own. Buddy Fo and His Group – the remnant of the jazz vocal group “The Invitations” which had both Hawai’i and mainland success – show off their harmony skills on the refrains and on the ending – a vocal feat The Beatles could not have pulled off.

Despite being better known for the commercially viable blending of Hawaiian and country music throughout the 1970s, Melveen Leed actually began her career as a nightclub singer performing in a variety of genres. Like Buddy Fo, Melveen was also performing at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in its Garden Bar with a larger aggregation arranged and conducted by Bernie Hal-Mann who held court at this hotel for many years. On her LP “Melveen Leed Sings Today’s Hits,” Melveen tackles two Lennon-McCartney chestnuts. I opted for “And I Love Him” because – like Buddy Fo before her – what she and Bernie chose to do with this song is far afield from John and Paul’s original intentions – speeding up the tempo and once again giving the tune a modern go-go flair aimed directly at the coeds. Also notable is that the Melveen Leed and Buddy Fo LPs were both produced by Harold Chang (formerly of the Arthur Lyman Group) and both for Makaha Records – a label that was instrumental in revolutionizing Hawaiian music through this period with other acts such as Sonny Chillingworth and Marlene Sai. (As for the other Beatles tune on this album, there’s always tomorrow…) 

Perhaps the most peculiar find in this set is a rendering of “Eleanor Rigby” by Hawai’i-based vocal group The Family Tree. The group’s repertoire ranged from jazz standards (“Stella By Starlight”) to traditional Hawaiian (“Lei Aloha Lei Makamae”) to Broadway (“Fiddler On The Roof”). The group did not mimic their contemporaries on the Hawai’i vocal scene such as the jazzier stylings of The Invitations or Billy Gonsalves and the Paradise Serenaders. The group has far more in common with a group across the ocean – Sergio Mendes and Brazil ’66. And if you were sad that Buddy Fo's group abandoned the original intro for "Daytripper," listen closely here at the bass line for "Eleanor Rigby." Hmmm... Clever! The entire album – “Watch What Happens” – is a curiosity worth hunting down and enjoying from end to end.

Alternately known throughout their career as The Surfers and The Hawaiian Surfers (chronicled on this blog previously), this group gives us the Alex Among-arranged “Yesterday.” This tender four-part harmony version is in stark contrast to the McCartney original since McCartney recorded his version with only a solo vocal at a slow but steady clip of a tempo, while Among increases the drama with a tempo that ebbs and flows like waves of emotion crashing on the heart. This is from the album “Today” on Decca/MCA.

Finally, a Beatles tribute without “Hey, Jude” can hardly be considered a tribute. Here we have a version by Al Lopaka. Performing nightly at the Hale Ho and billed by his record label as “The Young Sound of Hawaii,” Lopaka combined traditional Hawaiian songs performed in a modern way (think the energy of Trini Lopez with a voice somewhere between Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck) with originals, songs by other local Hawai’i composers, and the hits of the day. How Lopaka approaches “Jude” is indescribable – even for me. You have to hear it to believe it. This is from the Lehua LP “The Isle of Al Lopaka." 

The Al Lopaka and The Surfers recordings have been remastered for digital download. (Check iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, or Rhapsody.) But The Family Tree, Buddy Fo, and Melveen Leed are all out of print. And that is why Ho’olohe Hou will continue to exist – to bring back to life forgotten artists and forgotten recordings.

But this was only the 1960s and early 1970s. What happens to The Beatles' music with today's popular musicians in Hawai'i? We will find out next time...

Direct download: Hoolohe_Hou_-_2-19-14_-_Beatles_Tribute_Part_01.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 7:35am EST