Importing A High Riser To The Big City

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.  

Often asked how he discovered and developed his high, clear falsetto, George would simply respond, “It was a gift from God.” With no formal lessons or any music training whatsoever, he began playing and singing in his teens at clubs around Hilo as well as with the town’s fame Haili Choir. Then, one day, while performing at the Volcano House, the captain of a Matson liner heard George singing and invited him to perform aboard the ship – resulting in his first (but surely not to be his last) professional traveling engagement in 1926 at the tender age of 21. 

Kainapau was soon discovered by the already well established steel guitarist and bandleader Sol Ho`opi`i who – despite being barely a year older than George – was already making a name for himself across the islands and the nation. After an inter-island tour with Ho`opi`i, Kainapau made his first mainland appearance with him at the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. During their stay the group cut two sides, George’s first recording sessions. On April 16, 1928, Sol Ho`opi`i’s Novelty Trio – the third in the trio being the not yet legendary Sol K. Bright – recorded “Hanohano Hawai’i” and “Hawai`i Nei.” Adding to the novelty was that Ho`opi`i also employed a saxophone trio for the sessions led by (who else?) Andy Iona. 

Kainapau returned to the mainland in 1932 to perform at the Kalua Club in San Francisco with Lani McIntire (in a group featuring the steel guitar wizardry of Bob Nichols). George then followed the same McIntire-led aggregation to the famed Seven Seas supper club in Hollywood for an extended engagement there before opening with Ray Kinney at the Hawaiian Room in June 1937. (Fortunately, George arrived with a Hawaiian name that did not need to be changed to suit the Lexington Hotel management.) By one account, George seems to have taken a brief absence from this engagement in 1938 – returning home to Honolulu where he performed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and the Waialae Golf Club. But he rejoined Ray in New York City for another 22 months from March 1938 through January 1940. 

Kainapau and Kinney were a most fruitful collaboration which not only made the Hawaiian Room a success, but which also led to numerous recordings together, both with the traditional Hawaiian quartet (or quintet once Alfred Apaka would join) as well as with a larger orchestra not unlike that heard every night at the Lexington Hotel. (Except the members of the core quartet/quintet, it remains unclear whether the other musicians on these recording dates were Hawaiian Room regulars or studio musicians playing from prepared charts.) These recordings plus the weekly radio broadcasts direct from the Hawaiian Room made George a national sensation. Although you have already heard a few examples of his fine falsetto with Kinney’s group in previous Ho`olohe Hou articles, let’s hear a few more where George’s incredible falsetto are clearly out front. To please mainland audiences, George had to perform both hapa-haole numbers (songs about Hawai`i but written in the English language) and traditional Hawaiian fare in the Hawaiian language. And depending on what material he sang, the versatile George would change up his style and approach. This set focuses on the more traditional Hawaiian repertoire since such songs allow George to show off the range of emotion the falsetto voice can exhibit including the use of ha`i (the break in the voice between the higher and lower registers which sounds like a brief yodel). 

The set opens with “Ho`okipa Paka” – recorded with just the quintet on April 11, 1940 (the same session that produced the Alfred Apaka-led “Hawaii’s Charm”). The quartet here – as on all the recordings made in the traditional quartet/quintet setting to follow in this set – is Kainapau on `ukulele and vocals, Kinney on guitar and vocals, Apaka on `ukulele and vocals, Henry Paul on the second rhythm guitar, and bassist Sam Makia (often incorrectly cited as “Makea”). This cut – and all of the selections in this set – were recorded at Decca Records’ New York City studios.

A December 15, 1938 session yielded George and Ray’s most requested number, “Ke Kali Nei `Au” (which, although not about weddings or marriage, became popularized with an English-language lyric as the “Hawaiian Wedding Song”). Written by Charles E. King for his 1925 opera “Prince of Hawai`i” as a duet for a male and a female voice, traditional gender roles were subscribed to in Hawaiian entertainment during this period: The men were the musicians, and the women danced hula. This recording follows what has since become a long-standing tradition rooted in these gender roles: Whenever there is no “girl singer” in the band, the male falsetto singer takes the wahine part. Kinney always applauded Kainapau for being the only singer he knew who refused to take a breath during the second repeat of the chorus. A slow, four-bar passage (beginning with the male singing the lyric “kō aloha makamae”) in which the female – or, in this case, falsetto – sings a high obbligato counterpoint, most singers pause for a (nearly indiscernible) breath at the end of the second bar. But not George. Listen to the master at work. The group is the same as above but without Apaka who had not yet been “recruited.” (This is an oft imitated arrangement of “Ke Kali Nei Au” – particularly the a capella intro by the vocal trio which was repurposed note-for-note for an arrangement for a recording by the Hawaii Calls Orchestra and Chorus more than two decades later.) 

Taking another leap backwards chronologically, “Aloha `Ia Nō `O Maui” comes from a Kinney quartet session on April 7, 1938. Composed by Alice Johnson (who is responsible for such other well-loved Hawaiian songs as “Nani Wale Ke`anae” and “Ho`okipa Paka” which you just heard George sing a few moments ago), the song speaks of the beauty of the island of Maui, but those who understand the Hawaiian language may find more than one veiled reference to lovers in the Hawaiian text. The arrangement affords Tommy Castro to show off his jazzy steel guitar work. Listen to the short phrases he employs to accent those sections of each chorus when George is not singing – like a duet for falsetto and steel guitar. 

From the same recording session as “Ke Kali Nei Au” in December 1938, “Mai Po`ina `Oe Ia`u” was composed by Lizzie Doirin – wife of Kaua`i poet laureate Alfred Alohikea but a prolific composer in her own right. Intended as a love son (the title of which means “Don’t forget me”), Queen Lili`okalani – then imprisoned in a single room in `Iolani Palace – co-opted the song as a message for her people, sharing the phrase time and again in messages to her visitors by leaving each of them with a keepsake – a yellow ribbon emblazoned with the words “MAI POINA OE IA‘U.” Often sung as a duet, again George and Ray share the vocal duties in what has become with time my favorite version of the song because I feel it imparts to the listener not only the sadness of the two parted lovers Lizzie wrote about, but the message and meaning the song took on in time - the melancholy of a queen who through no fault of her own could not fulfill her duty and honor. 

(Interestingly, the group did two takes of “Mai Po`ina `Oe Ia`u” in a row at this session. While usually only the better take is released, Decca released both takes in different regions of the world. I cannot be certain which take we are listening to here, and I cannot locate an alternate take.) 

While prolific composer John Kamealoha Almeida is reputed to have many surreptitious dalliances throughout his life (and a song for each of them – making the partners not so secret after all), he composed “Ku`u Ipo Pua Rose” for his first wife, Elizabeth. I am an ardent fan of Almeida’s songwriting, and while the version of this song by Uncle Johnny’s hanai son, Pua, remains my favorite, this version by George, Ray, and the group – from the same December 1938 session cited above – is a close second.  

George departed the Hawaiian Room just after the new year in 1940 for reasons unknown. (Ray would stick around until 1941.) Still only in his mid-thirties when he ended his run at the Hawaiian Room, there was a still a lot of career remaining before George who did not pass away until more than a half century later in 1992. But how to top the success he found in the Big Apple? Ho`olohe Hou must regrettably save the rest of the story for when we celebrate the 110th anniversary of his birth next May.  

Next time: Who will replace Ray Kinney, George Kainapau, and Tommy Castro when they are ready to return to their island home?...

Direct download: Hawaiian_Room_-_Ray_Kinney_with_George_Kainapau.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 6:12am EDT