Thu, 25 September 2014
You have already read that Lexington Hotel managing director Charles E. Rochester conceived of an idea to capitalize on mainlanders’ growing fascination with the paradise known as Hawai`i by turning the hotel’s largely unused basement into the “Hawaiian Room.” Designed for dining and dancing and an evening hula floor show, in order to become everything Rochester envisioned he would need to enlist entertainers who could “do it all” from traditional Hawaiian to swing jazz. But where would he find such versatile musicians? He would have to lure them away from Waikiki’s finest showrooms.
This is where the Hawaiian Room story gets murky. I have scoured more than a half dozen (rather thick-ish) books on Hawaiian music history and every website which discusses the many names who eventually appeared in (what became) the famous Hawaiian Room. All of these sources disagree by virtue of saying very little at all. Many sources indicate that Andy Iona opened the room on June 23, 1937. Other sources cite that Ray Kinney did. Who’s right? Or, perhaps, they worked together.
But according to one seemingly credible source – the well-researched Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire by Adria L. Imada – Kinney, in fact, was Rochester’s first choice. Imada writes:
The talent scout of Hotel Lexington president Charles Rochester signed the Hawaiian and Irish tenor Ray Kinney of Honolulu as the Hawaiian Room’s orchestra leader in 1937. Hotel management also contracted steel guitarist Andy Iona and composer-singer Lani McIntire.
If the order of these sentences is any indication, then Kinney was hired first and was intended to be the room’s star. But it does not clarify the question about whether Kinney and Iona appeared together in one aggregation or in separate groups perhaps featured on different evenings in the Hawaiian Room. Imada goes on to provide (I think) this clarification:
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.”
This would imply that all of these fine musicians appeared as one aggregation under the billing of the most Hawaiian sounding name, Iona. (And this is ironic given that Iona’s birth name was, in fact, Long.) It should not be surprising that these musicians would work happily together as there is a long history of incestuous relationships among Hawaiian musicians. In short, anybody would perform or record with anybody else. What should be considered surprising is that – despite that Iona and Kinney were already superstars in Hawai`i at this point – there does not appear to be any evidence (using the same sources I mentioned above) that the two ever performed or recorded together until just shortly before their tenure at the Hawaiian Room.
This one meeting of Andy Iona and Ray Kinney in the recording studio – on November 30, 1936 at Decca Records’ Los Angeles studios – produced a scant few four sides. “The Palm Trees Sing Aloha,” “Tropic Love”, and “When The April Showers Reach Hawaii” were all Iona originals. (The composer of the fourth tune – “Tropic Madness” – is unverifiable given my sources but was likely also Iona.) With Andy on steel guitar and lead vocals by Ray, these recordings are our only glimpse into how the pairing might have sounded together in the Hawaiian Room days (although the band heard on these recordings is much smaller than the bands assembled for the Hawaiian Room). Regrettably, I only have two of these sides in my collection. But I hope you enjoy hearing “The Palm Trees Sing Aloha” and “Tropic Love.” Notice the unusual addition of the harp on these sides – an instrument rarely heard in Hawaiian music but which adds an ethereal quality to these sides.
Next time: I have only told you that Ray Kinney arrived. I have failed to tell you how he got there…