Sat, 1 November 2014
When discussing the famed “Hawaiian Room” of the Lexington Hotel which had its heyday from its opening in 1935 through its demise in 1966, we talked about the earliest part of the career of a man who would become an icon of Hawaiian entertainment. Alfred Apaka had a humble start in entertainment, but with a voice and good looks like he possessed, he would eventually be rubbing elbows with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, and Dorothy Lamour. Apaka was not the first to be discovered and urged to take Hawaiian music beyond its island borders and across the mainland U.S. and around the world. But more than a half century later, Apaka’s is the name that is best remembered – perhaps thanks to his recording contracts with Decca and Capitol Records which can be found even in the record collections of those who do not consider themselves Hawaiian music aficionados. For a brief shining moment, Alfred Apaka was a household name – from the finest stages to records to TV – but as almost everyone who loves Hawaiian music already knows, the flame flickered out all too quickly and too soon when Apaka succumbed to a heart attack on a paddle ball court. He was 40 years old.
Time and history are funny things – distorting truths in order to romanticize them. Most historians agree that Apaka’s passing left a void in the Hawaiian entertainment scene, and this is true. But there were still many fine voices left – many of them still very young – who would carry Apaka’s mantle. If one is looking for an Apaka sound-alike, there is none more uncanny than Eddie Kekaula who was not impersonating Apaka but who simply sounded like him without even trying. Still, the void in the Hawaiian Village Hotel’s Tapa Room – where Apaka held court for nearly six years before his untimely passing – was filled with a woman: Mrs. Clara Haili Inter, better known to Hawai`i as Hilo Hattie.
More tragically, Apaka left behind a 13-year-old son, Jeffrey. Rightful inheritor of his father’s good looks, talent, and self-effacing charm, Jeff hit the entertainment scene running in September 1968 – barely 22 years old (although many started out even younger) – with an engagement at the Sheraton Hawaii Hotel, followed almost immediately with appearances at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in October of that same year. A rising star, Jeff hopped a flight to the mainland for an extended engagement at the Huntington Sheraton in Los Angeles, the Everglades Club in Palm Beach, and hopping another flight in the other direction for performances at the New Otani Hotel in Tokyo. And, the only thing Jeff and I have in common: We have both been first call performers for the Hawai`i Visitors and Convention Bureau. All of this acclaim landed Jeff a recurring guest spot on the weekly Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts – just like his father nearly 20 years earlier.
And this is where time and history get it wrong, I think. Despite that Jeff’s career has come full circle and he now appears weekly at the Hilton Hawaiian Village – just steps from where his father performed five decades earlier, steps away from the bronze statue that honors dad – Jeff is not now – and never was – a tribute act. He has not capitalized on the name. He does not exclusively perform his father’s repertoire. He is simply one of the countless sons or daughters of Hawaiian music legends who chose to forge the same path as their famous parents. Just as nobody accuses brothers Norman, Atta, and Barney Isaacs of riding their father’s coattails or Nina, Lani, Lahela, or Boyce Rodrigues of buying their way into a career in Hawaiian music solely on the name of their famous mother, neither is Jeff Apaka’s success the result of entertainment nepotism. Simply put, Jeff Apaka was and remains the real deal.
When Jeff was just breaking into the business, he made this very clear with his first recordings – despite recording under the Hawaii Calls moniker, forging a new sound that was not all `ukulele and steel guitar. Jeff’s first foray into a recording studio showed that he was not merely his father’s son by bringing to the table new compositions offered up in a style that bespoke a new Hawai`i – a young Hawai`i. Hence the title of the Capitol Records LP The Young Hawaiians which featured Jeff in the company of such other up-and-comers as Alex McAngus, Boyce Rodrigues, and Varoa Tiki. Here Jeff sings “Wonderful World of Aloha” from the pen of arranger/conductor Jon DeMello (who would later help give rise to the voices of Nina Keali`iwahamana and the Brothers Cazimero) and “Young Hawaii” which was composed by a pair of `ukulele wunderkind, Herb Ohta and Alvin Okami (the latter of which went on to found the KoAloha `Ukulele Company). The trio of ladies’ voices on “Wonderful World” are the aforementioned Rodrigues sisters (Nina, Lani, and Lahela, also of Hawaii Calls fame, and daughter of former Hawaii Calls cast regular Vicki I`i Rodrigues). The Fender Rhodes electric piano and the full drum kit (rarely used in Hawaiian music until the advent of rock-and-roll) signal the young Hawai`i of the album’s title, while the one holdout of old Hawai`i – the steel guitar – is wielded by Barney Isaacs (son of Hawaii Calls veteran Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs). “Wonderful World of Aloha” is special for a number of reasons, but chief among these has to be that three legacies of Hawaiian music – and the Hawaii Calls broadcasts, in particular – are perpetuated in this recording while managing to take Hawaiian music in new directions.
Many will no doubt hear shades of the elder Apaka in son Jeffrey’s voice. But seasoned musicians can hear more deeply that he is by no means a carbon copy. He proved that he was his own man – his own personality – in these early recordings, and he continues to prove it every time he steps on stage. He is simply the next in the many legacies of Hawaiian musical families – this one starting not with his father but, in fact, with his grandfather – and regardless of how time and history cast him, you really have to listen for yourself to understand what Jeff Apaka is all about. And when you do, you will understand that Jeff’s arrival on the Hawaiian music scene did not fill a void. Rather, Jeff Apaka forged a path forward while leaving open a crack in the door to a precious past that should not be forgotten…