There’s No Steelin’ The Spotlight

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.  

There is no question that the signature sound of Hawaiian music for the last 100 years since its invention has been the steel guitar. Anyone can recognize the steel guitar when heard. But how often have I been playing a steel guitar in public when somebody approaches the bandstand to inquire, “What the hell is that thing?” When we talk about Hawaiian music, we talk about the men and women in the spotlight, and these are typically singers. Very few steel guitarists sing – or, at least, they don’t sing and play the steel guitar at the same time because the steel requires so much attention since (a) there are no physical frets to feel one’s way around on and (b) the bar can be slanted backwards and forwards for effect which requires looking at the guitar to make sure the bar aligns with the desired frets. (As steel guitar great Jerry Byrd used to say about the anti-social nature of the steel guitarist constantly staring down at the fretboard, “We’re not selling toothpaste up here!”) But the point is that while the steel guitar defines Hawaiian music for many generations, very few outside of Hawai`i can name a steel guitarist. This is why I hesitate to refer to any particular steel guitarist as “legendary.” By definition, “legend” – while not always written down – is almost always verifiable. When we speak about steel guitarists, we are really in the realm of “lore” – that which has been spoken about but which we have difficulty verifying. Those who were there – those who witnessed the greats of yesterday – are gone. Little if anything was written down. If we are being completely truthful, the only people talking about steel players are other steel players. 

Whether of legend or lore, Tommy Castro was an integral part of making the Hawaiian Room of the Lexington Hotel a success if only by virtue of the fact that he wielded the steel guitar and that was the sound most instantly identifiable with Hawaiian music. What patrons of the Hawaiian Room could not have realized was that they were hearing one of the greatest steel guitarists of all time (if gauged only be how often Castro is spoken about and cited as an influence by other steel guitarists). Because he is more lore than legend, opening any book or website about the history of Hawaiian music reveals the same thing about Castro as it largely does for every other steel guitarist that graced the Hawaiian Room stage. Any entry that mentions a steel guitarist by name is usually a one-liner of the “And he was there too” variety. And, so, like Inspector Clouseau, we have to piece together the story of Tommy Castro – and all other steel guitarists to follow him – in relation to the Hawaiian Room’s history. So this article may only add to the lore rather than clarify the legend. 

We can be confident – although not 100% certain – that Castro did not open at the Hawaiian room in June 1937 with Ray Kinney. We know this because the Lexington Hotel’s talent agent contracted separately with Ray Kinney – to emcee and lead the band – and Andy Iona – another steel guitarist. We also know that Kinney returned to Hawai`i in 1938 to scout out additional talent to come back to NYC with him to play the room. Because – just as in the case of Castro – there is so little written about Iona, we have read only that he opened at the Hawaiian Room with Kinney in June 1937, but we cannot determine when he left. I posit that Iona left the venue after about a year and was replaced by Castro after Kinney’s recruitment trip. What do we have for evidence if not biographies of Castro and Iona? We have – what might be much preferred by archivists and ethnomusicologists – discographies. While each record label has a discography (available online, many still in the process of being compiled as they can be vast), there is one that is better than all of these combined. A great friend of the steel guitar and its players – T. Malcolm Rockwell – compiled the quintessential multi-artist, cross-label discography Hawaiian & Hawaiian Guitar Records – 1891-1960. If we use this magnificent work wisely, we can make some inferences about these musicians’ whereabouts at any given point in time by which groups they were recording with and where the recording sessions took place. 

  • After arriving in NYC in the summer of 1937, Ray Kinney’s first recording session in the city – on December 10, 1937 – was with a band led by fellow Hawaiian Room employee Lani McIntire. The steel guitarist on the session was Bob Nichols – not Tommy Castro.


  • Ray Kinney’s second recording session after assuming Hawaiian Room duties was on April 7, 1938. However, the session took place in Los Angeles – not in NYC. Tommy Castro played on this session – his first with Kinney – and the April 1938 date coincides with the accounts of Kinney (about whom people have documented things because he was a singer and bandleader – not a steel guitarist) and his voyage back to Honolulu to recruit more talent for the Hawaiian Room – the return trip for which would have occurred around April 1938. It seems logical that this would be Kinney’s first opportunity to record with Castro and have some new recordings of his new band to shill upon their return to NYC and their first performances together.


  • Andy Iona made no recordings from December 15, 1936 (recorded in Los Angeles) through August 12, 1938 (also recorded in Los Angeles).


  • Tommy Castro’s first NYC recording session with Ray Kinney took place in NYC on June 1, 1938, and his last NYC recording session with Kinney was on July 3, 1941.


  • Ray Kinney’s last NYC recording session during his Hawaiian Room tenure – on December 19, 1941 – featured no steel guitarist whatsoever. 

What might we deduce from these few pieces of data? Iona was likely in New York for most of 1937 and 1938 fulfilling his Hawaiian Room duties (as evidenced by the fact that Iona made no recordings whatsoever during his stay in NYC), and Castro likely took over for Iona at some point between April and June 1938 (as corroborated by the recording sessions in L.A. and NYC marking his journey across the country and Iona’s departure before August of that same year). 

But these are only educated guesses. The lore tells us that Tommy Castro was at the Hawaiian Room at some point with Ray Kinney, and the recorded evidence indicates that he was in NYC between the above sessions on June 1, 1938 and July 3, 1941. (The documented legend of George Kainapau is far more precise about his comings and goings to NYC. But then Kainapau was a singer – not a steel guitarist. You are beginning to get my point, no doubt.)  

To try to get past lore and further toward legend, permit me to share with you some tidbits about Castro… 

If you are a steel player, then you have already read all there is to read on any website or in any book about Hawaiian music… Tommy Castro was born Thomas Koani on April 12, 1912 in Anahola, Kaua`i… One of his earliest professional engagements was with Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs’ K.M.M. Syncopators (discussed at Ho`olohe Hou previously) in 1934. He went on to play with Gigi Royce’s Orchestra at the Young Hotel Roof Garden in 1936-37 before heading to NYC with Ray Kinney. 

What you might now know: Tommy had a well trained ear which made him the consummate arranger. If we flash-forward to 1947, Castro did most of the arrangements for a set of Columbia Records releases by singer/composer Lena Machado (arrangements which by most discographies and liner notes are erroneously attributed to Andy Cummings). When Tony Todaro (composer of such hapa-haole classics as “Keep Your Eyes On The Hands,” “Somewhere In Hawaii,” and “There’s No Place Like Hawaii”) finished writing his first song ever – entitled “Hawaiian Moon” – he called his friend Gigi Royce about the tune, and Gigi immediately wanted a lead sheet to teach the song to the band. Todaro hung up the phone and ran over to the Young Hotel as quickly as he could – completely forgetting to bring the lead sheet! Tommy said he could help, and so Tony sang the melody to Tommy while Tommy dashed off a lead sheet in real time. Gigi liked the song, and by the next evening’s performance Castro turned the single melody lead sheet into a full blown arrangement with parts for the entire orchestra. This leaves us to wonder how many of the arrangements used at the Hawaiian Room or on Kinney-led recordings were done by Castro. 

While it may not be apparent to those who don’t play the steel guitar, Castro was among the most tasteful and yet inventive steel guitarists to ever grace the instrument. A brief Physics lesson: Because the steel guitar is played with a straight bar, there are limitations on the different configurations of chords (a combination of notes played at the same time). In order to achieve different chords not available to them in one tuning, the steel player must change tunings – or retune the guitar, one string at a time. A steel guitarist might in his/her lifetime master a handful of tunings and only perhaps one tuning particularly well – limiting their choices of chords for any given song. (For example, a song needs a Cm7 chords, but - shucks – your tuning doesn’t have this chord in it when playing with a bar laid in a straight line across the strings.) To solve this problem, many steel players took to playing guitars with multiple necks – each neck a different set of strings tuned to a different tuning – and might jump back and forth between the necks to attain the chords needed. Not Castro. Tommy played primarily in the A minor tuning, but he also mastered other tunings involving minor 6th, major 6th, and major 7th chords while insisting on only carrying and using a single six-string guitar. This means in addition to mastering these many tunings, Castro also mastered the art of changing tunings not merely between songs, but in the middle of a song. 

Other steel guitarists were keenly aware of Castro’s wizardry when it came to varying his tunings. According to an anecdote from Merle Kekuku – nephew of the steel guitar’s inventor, Joseph Kekuku, and a steel guitarist himself – one steel player in particular was “ever vigilant to guess Tommy’s latest moves.” That steel guitar great – Joe Custino – would eagerly await every new Castro recording and report to other steel players what new heights of innovation Tommy had most recently attained. (Much of this innovation occurred while Castro was on the mainland, and so the Hawaiian steelers back home could only hear what Tommy was doing next through the recordings and occasional radio broadcasts.) Because Castro was known to use primarily the aforementioned A minor tuning, it was immediately apparent to Custino that Castro has struck a new chord (pun intended) when he first heard the Ray Kinney recording (from a January 1, 1939 session in NYC) released as “Makala Pua” [sic] (real title “O Makalapua”). This was the first time anyone back home in Hawai`i had heard Castro use the Am7 (or sometimes called C6) tuning. 

The desire to broaden the palate of the steel guitar to incorporate more jazzy tunings likely came from his long association and friendship with none other than Duke Ellington. Castro was known to “quote” – or repeat snippets from – his friend Duke’s compositions and arrangements in the middle of otherwise traditional Hawaiian songs. 

By now you have already heard Castro’s steel guitar on the previous sets offered by Ho`olohe Hou about singers Ray Kinney and George Kainapau. According to the discographies, there does not appear to any solo recordings of Castro’s steel playing during this period – only the steel guitar in the service (as it typically was) of accompanying the singer. But it is only fair that we spin a few more such recordings and give Castro his full due (if such is even possible). 

From the same session that yielded the Kainapau-led “Aloha `Ia Nō `O Maui,” Castro accompanies leader Ray Kinney on the hapa-haole comedy ditty “Manuela Boy” from this aggregation’s first session together on April 7, 1938 at Decca Records studios in Los Angeles. Castro’s solo here is his usual stellar fare, but I urge you to pay closer attention to the “vamps” (the two bars between each vocal chorus) as well as to the accents he plays behind the singer while they are singing – changing his approach from one moment to the next from a single-string melody (such as tenor saxophonist Ben Webster might have played behind a Billie Holliday vocal) and the huge jazz chords (which under other circumstance might be mistaken for the entire trombone section of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra). 

In a prescient moment that predates his work with Lena Machado by nearly a decade, Castro recorded Machado’s composition “Ho`onanea” with Ray Kinney at the microphone once again on June 1, 1938 at Decca in New York City. Tommy plays it fairly straight during his solo, but musicians will not help but notice a singular arpeggiated augmented chord here – a jazz element Castro surreptitiously inserts into this fairly traditional Hawaiian style arrangement. 

Kinney’s vocal leads a session nearly six months later – on January 31, 1939, once again at Decca’s New York studios – on “White Ginger Blossoms.” The irony about this recording is that it would be another member of the band – Alfred Apaka – who would make this R. Alex Anderson composition a classic when he recorded it with an orchestra led by steel guitarist Danny Stewart more than a decade later. (It would be interesting to compare those two vocal performances.) Castro plays it fairly straight and traditionally Hawaiian here, but listen to his phrasing – not unlike listening to a human voice, which is one of the virtues of the steel guitar.  

The same session that yielded “White Ginger Blossoms” also gave us “Pili Me `Oe” (sometimes erroneously referred to as “The Cowboy Hula” as it is about a cowboy who aims to round up the apple of his eye with a lasso). Kinney takes the lead vocal yet again. (Hey! It was his band, and he was the one winning the popularity awards.) Castro takes a lovely solo chorus to open the song and another in the middle – playing it fairly straight and typically Hawaiian again, proving he could go both ways depending on what approach the material called for. 

Like the other Hawaiian music greats who came and conquered NYC but eventually returned to their island home, there was a life and a career for Castro after the Hawaiian Room. Ho`olohe Hou will circle around to Castro’s story again when we celebrate his birthday in April. 

So far two amazing steel guitarists – Andy Iona and Tommy Castro – graced 48th and Lexington in NYC with their greatness. But Iona was gone, and soon Castro would be gone too. Kainapau had already left a few months earlier, and Kinney would not be far behind. One member of the Kinney aggregation would stay behind and make New York City his home forever. But he would not be the next to lead the orchestra at the Hawaiian Room. 

Next time: How will the Lexington Hotel replace the seemingly irreplaceable band?...


Direct download: Hawaiian_Room_-_Tommy_Castro_with_Ray_Kinney.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 5:52am EST