Fri, 26 September 2014
If you have been following Ho`olohe Hou, then you have by now read that the Lexington Hotel’s “Hawaiian Room” – aimed at recreating the Hawaiian nightlife experience in the heart of New York City – succeeded in spades – due, in large part, to managing director Charles Rochester’s stroke of brilliance to recruit talent right from the islands. But by this point in Hawai`i’s history, there was nary a full-blooded Hawaiian to be found. This posed a small problem for Rochester who insisted on a native Hawaiian cast. According to Adria Imada’s Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire:
The Hawaiian Room and other venues enshrined the island-born-and-bred Native Hawaiian as an ideal; Rochester himself insisted on Hawaiian musicians, preferably direct from the islands.
The problem, of course, was that the musicians walking through Rochester’s door were Kinnneys, McIntires, and Chungs.
But Rochester knew he had landed the best of the best in Hawaiian music. So he solved his problem with a slight twist on the marquee:
Yet most Hawaiian entertainers claimed racially mixed backgrounds with their names or by personal admission. Throughout his career, Ray Kinney referred to himself as the “Irish Hawaiian,” but because “McIntire and Kinney” sounded too Irish, the opening billing of the Hawaiian Room originally read “Andy Iona and His Twelve Hawaiians.”
Subscribing to Shakespeare’s notion, “What’s in a name?,” Kinney accepted the position and fulfilled it – for many years to come – with aplomb. It is clear from most books and other sources on the history of Hawaiian music – including Imada’s – that Kinney was the guy in charge – the bandleader, the emcee, and the recruiter. He had Rochester’s confidence because Kinney had the resume to go with his good looks and abundant talent.
The charismatic Kinney was already playing `ukulele and singing in his fine tenor while in high school in Salt Lake City (which he attended with his six older brothers). When he returned to Hawai`i, Ray was cast as the lead in the opera "Prince of Hawaii" – written by noted Hawaiian composer Charles E. King - in 1925. The opera began touring in California in 1926, and Ray played the same role in the touring company.
In 1928 noted composer, arranger, music publisher, and bandleader Johnny Noble was enlisted by the Matson Navigation Company to choose three musicians/singers to represent Hawai`i on a national one-hour radio program - originating from station KPO in San Francisco – aimed at promoting tourism. Noble naturally chose Kinney – the beginning of a long and productive collaboration. Later that same year Brunswick Records signed Noble and Kinney to a recording contract that resulted in a whopping 110 sides being issued. (Hawaiian music still represented three out of every five songs played on mainland U.S. radio during this period.) The “Prince of Hawaii” tour, the radio program, and these recordings and subsequent airplay helped make Kinney a household name – culminating in a national tour followed by an 11-month engagement at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.
Returning to Hawai`i again in the 1930s, Kinney was approached by bandleader Harry Owens to join his orchestra for their opening at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Ray appeared on the inaugural broadcast of Webley Edwards' "Hawaii Calls" radio show from the Moana Hotel in July 1935 – which was followed by countless appearances on this long-running program. And, finally, the recording studio beckoned again when Decca Records signed Johnny Noble and His Orchestra – with Kinney as vocalist – to another contract in 1936 – the incredible sales from which kept them under contract to the label for four years. In his “spare time,” Kinney penned any number of songs now considered classics including "Across the Sea", "Not Pau", and "Hawaiian Hospitality.” Kinney was already a nationwide sensation when he got the call to open at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room.
Like Andy Iona profiled here previously, there is so much more that can be said about Ray Kinney’s life and music. But the goal is to provide an overview of the many musicians and singers who graced the Hawaiian Room – and New York City – with their formidable talents. Ho`olohe Hou will continue to celebrate Ray Kinney when the occasion arises. But for now, as with this segment on Iona, we focus on Kinney’s recordings at or around the time the Hawaiian Room took off.
From a session for RCA Victor dating to October 9, 1940, you hear Ray taking the lead vocals in front of a band that sounds not unlike the band he would be leading at the Hawaiian Room during this period. (In fact, as we do not know all of the recording session personnel, any number of these gentleman could have been Hawaiian Roo associates.) But we do know that the `ukulele – and the high voice in the backing vocals – is again none other than George Kainapua, and the sensation steel guitarist is Tommy Castro (later of Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs’ Royal Hawaiian Serenaders, a group we recently celebrated at Ho`olohe Hou). And you hear them perform an Alvin Isaacs composition entitled “Analani E.”
Ray Kinney sings his own composition, “Leimana,” in front of a large dance band not unlike the one on the last cut (again, with personnel unknown, but possibly Hawaiian Room musicians). Still under contract to RCA Victor, Kinney recorded “Leimana” on December 19, 1941 – just a few days after that fateful day back home at Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II.
The same session as “Analani E” (on October 9, 1940) produced the swinging take on Prince Leleiohoku’s composition “Ke Ka`upu.” The steel guitar again belongs to Tommy Castro, and the high falsetto voice in the quartet is again George Kainapau. But that isn’t Kinney taking the lead vocal. Who, then, is singing the melody lead in this vocal quartet? Such a familiar voice…
An August 29, 1940 RCA Victor session –with unidentified personnel aimed at achieving that Hawaiian Room sound – yielded three sides including “Kane`ohe Hula.” Again, Kinney steps out of the spotlight and gives the vocal lead to a member of the band. Who is the mystery singer?
I cannot find any session documentation for the last selection offered here, but it was worthy of inclusion nonetheless for Kinney’s lilting vocal. Although a natural tenor, Kinney’s vocal register ranged from a low bass to high sweet falsetto with clean and crystal clear transitions from one part of his range to the next. “Goodnight, Aloha” is a prime example of his vocal technique – and an example of how I imagine an evening at the Hawaiian Room sounding in that era.
By 1938 – less than a year into his four-year stint in the Hawaiian Room – Kinney beat out the likes of Rudy Vallée and Guy Lombardo in a popularity poll of American singer. And in between performances at the Lexington Hotel, Kinney also managed to become the first Hawaiian entertainer in a major Broadway production. Ray and several of the dancers he recruited – referred to as the "Aloha Maids" – were cast in the Olsen and Johnson Broadway revue "Hellzapoppin'" in September 1938. The show lasted 1,404 performances and ran until December 1941.
Next time: Ray returns to Hawai`i briefly and returns with the crème-de-la-crème of Hawaiian talent – including our “mystery singer…”