Sat, 27 September 2014
Ho`olohe Hou continues to honor the musicians of the Hawaiian Room – the New York City venue which for nearly 30 years delivered authentic Hawaiian song and dance to exceedingly appreciative mainland audiences.
The Lexington Hotel’s managing director Charles Rochester schemed to make his New York establishment the East Coast outpost of Honolulu, and he succeeded by luring the finest talent in song and dance directly from Hawai`i. But his real coup was hiring Ray Kinney as emcee, bandleader, and chief talent recruiter. Kinney returned to Hawai`i twice in his first three years running the show at the Hawaiian Room – once before the room opened in 1937 to recruit a core team of musicians and dancers, and again in 1940 when he returned with a star so bright it outshined all others.
Alfred Aiu Afat could play `ukulele and upright bass, but by the tender age of 14 he was already becoming widely known for his baritone voice. Besides singing tenor in a Mormon Church choir, Alfred won numerous inter-island singing contests. When Don McDiarmid, Sr. became the orchestra leader at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 1938, he launched a search for a new vocalist. He auditioned seven young men. The 18-year-old Alfred sang Harry Owens’ composition, “To You Sweetheart, Aloha,” and Benny Kalama, arranger for the orchestra, whispered to McDiarmid, “That’s the boy.” Alfred rightfully earned his first professional engagement – and the whopping $30 a week salary – singing at the prestigious Royal Hawaiian Hotel. McDiarmid’s wife, Lucile, coached Alfred on his breathing and diction to prepare him for the most challenging engagement of his young life.
Ray Kinney hired Alfred away from Don McDiarmid on his recruitment trip home in 1940. Alfred enthusiastically accepted the role as featured vocalist at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room in New York City. But as you have read here previously, managing director Charles Rochester insisted on authentic Hawaiian talent straight from Hawai`i, and he insisted on authenticity right down to his starring performers’ names. He took issue with such names as Kinney, McIntire, and Chung because they weren’t Hawaiian enough. The others acquiesced to taking second billing to their fellow band member with a more Hawaiian sounding name: Andy Iona. But what to do about the new Hawaiian-Chinese-Portuguese singer with the strictly Chinese name? Hawaiian music archivist Harry B. Soria, Jr. recounts the story in the liner notes to his compilation Hawaii’s Golden Voice:
Alfred Aiu Afat, Jr.’s name went through a dramatic transformation. It would undergo a popular process transposing Hawaiian consonants for non-Hawaiian letters and adding appropriate Hawaiian vowels. The “f” in Afat would become a “p,” while the “t” in Afat would become a “k.” Since no Hawaiian word can end with a consonant, an “a” was added to the end. The resulting name was “Apaka.” Alfred’s maternal family name “Ahola” became his middle name. He would legally change his name to “Alfred Ahola Apaka,” and his father would eventually follow suit.
In this era before jet air travel was readily available or affordable, Alfred and his first wife, Diane, sailed for the mainland in March of 1940 with Ray Kinney and his newly recruited bevy of musicians. Ray took advantage of a stop in Los Angeles to schedule a recording session. On April 11, 1940 in Decca Records’ Hollywood studios, the newly minted Alfred Apaka stepped up to the microphone to record “Hawaii’s Charm,” with lyrics by Honolulu radio personality Harry B. Soria, Sr. and music by Dick Gump. Released as the B-side of a song Kinney wrote and sang for his daughter, “Ululani,” “Hawaii’s Charm” was Alfred Apaka’s first record. Alfred would be featured on still more recordings with Kinney on the Decca and Victor labels. Here are just a few.
Unlike “Hawaii’s Charm” which was recorded only with the core group of musicians from Hawai`i (including George Kainapau on `ukulele and Tommy Castro on steel guitar), “Moon Over Burma” more replicates the sound one might hear if they visited the Hawaiian Room one evening and heard Apaka fronting Kinney’s large orchestra designed for dining and dancing. Recorded October 9, 1940 at Victor’s New York City studios, Burma seems like an unusual subject for a song performed by a Hawaiian music orchestra. It is highly likely that that the song was chosen for Alfred to capitalize on the popularity of the film Moon Over Burma released earlier that year and in which Dorothy Lamour sings the title song. The Apaka/Kinney version even saw a special release in Indonesia.
Alfred sings the traditional Hawaiian hula song “Kane`ohe Hula” with largely the same aggregation heard on the last number. This, too, was recorded at the Victor studios in NYC just a few weeks earlier on August 29, 1940. The same group backs Alfred on the Charles E. King composition “Uhe`uhene” in a Victor session on December 9, 1940 – an arrangement that opens with a beautiful chorus featuring Tommy Castro’s steel guitar. And, finally, a session a year later on December 19, 1941 features Alfred in front of a similar band on “Blue Shadows and White Gardenias.” Although the personnel on these recordings – except for Kinney’s recruits from Hawai`i – remain anonymous, we can reasonably conjecture that these are musicians Kinney employed at the Hawaiian Room engagement and that these are not unlike the sounds you would have heard had you been a lucky patron of the Lexington Hotel in the Kinney/Apaka era.
Alfred performed at the Lexington through the outbreak of World War II and, being rejected from military service for “first degree flat feet,” went on to tour the country for eight months with a traveling production of “Hellzapoppin’” – the same Broadway show in which Kinney and the hula dancers known as the “Aloha Maids” were featured nightly between their Hawaiian Room shows. Now divorced, Apaka returned to Hawaii in 1943 and rejoined another band led by Don McDiarmid at the Kewalo Inn.
From the “Don’t Believe Everything You Read” department, one biographer notes that Apaka sadly had a recording career of “less than a decade.” Not true. You just heard his first recording from 1940, and he made his last shortly before his passing in 1961 – more than two decades later. So this is not the end of Apaka’s story but only the beginning. Apaka is so important to the history of Hawaiian music and in popularizing it around the world that we cannot possibly cover so much ground in a single article. Rest assured that Ho`olohe Hou will pay fitting tribute to Apaka when we celebrate his birthday in March.
And now you know who the “mystery singer” was.
Next time: Andy Iona would not stay forever. The next in a long line of steel guitarists who would honor the Hawaiian Room with their greatness…