Fri, 1 February 2013
Mel Abe is one of the most underrated of the steel guitarists from Hawai’i. Unless you are a steel guitarist, you’ve likely never heard of him. He appeared uncredited on a number of classic recordings. In fact, his name only appeared on one album cover ever. And yet he must have been some hell of a musician to assume the steel guitar chair vacated by the untimely passing of the legendary Jules Ah See.
Masao Mel Abe was born on February 1, in Waimea, Kaua’i. Like so many amazing musicians, he learned to play the steel guitar by watching and listening to the greats and emulating – counting Dick McIntire and Eddie Bush among his heroes, but first and foremost admiring Jules. (It is no small irony that because of their names, “Abe” and “Ah See” are always one right after the other in such tomes on the subject as “The Golden Years of Hawaiian Entertainment” and “The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and its Great Hawaiian Musicians.”) He joined the Hawaiian Village Serenaders – led by arranger Benny Kalama and so named because they held court in the Tapa Room of the Hawaiian Village Hotel – after the passing of Jules Ah See in 1960. The group had been supporting legendary artists from Alfred Apaka to Hilo Hattie. So the steel player had to be really good.
On record, at least, Mel Abe demonstrates the technical prowess of Ah See – the tone and the technique – if not, perhaps, Jules’ jazz sensibilities. But that assessment is not entirely fair since artists tend to be much more careful in situations where they know they are being recorded – such as live recordings where there is no opportunity for a second take. Much of what we know about Jules’ jazzy side is from any number of bootlegs that have emerged over the years during which he would have had no idea he was being surreptitiously recorded and could simply “let loose.” Mel does not really “let loose” on record but instead provides a fine example of Hawaiian style playing when the steel guitar is not the solo instrument but critical support for the singer.
And you hear his able support on the first medley. Hilo Hattie (née Clara Haili) recorded two live LPs in the early 1960s featuring the same incarnation of the Hawaiian Village Serenaders. On this 1965 RCA Victor release - “Hilo Hattie with the Hawaiian Village Serenaders Recorded Live At The Tapa Room” - Auntie Clara sits out while bassist Jimmy Kaopuiki sings “Dance The Hula In The Moonlight” and Benny Kalama sings “Dancing Under The Stars.”
Mel Abe and Benny Kalama’s Hawaiian Village Serenaders backed many a fine singer during this period - both in live performance and in the studio. Another of these recordings on which Abe is not credited is the 1963 Ed Kenney classic “Somewhere in Hawaii - Ed Kenney Sings.” On the uptempo numbers on this amazing LP - such as “Hula Belle” and “Ukulele Island” - you can hear Abe incorporate his influences - here, a little Jules Ah See and a little Barney Isaacs - into his own amalgam of a style. In fact, a listener could be fooled into thinking that this is Jules Ah See, but sadly Jules passed away in 1960, and “Ed Kenney Sings” wasn’t recorded until 1963.
Next we hear Mel with Hawai’i’s Ambassador of Aloha, Danny Kaleikini. Before his more than 25 year stint at the Kahala Hilton Hotel, Danny was emcee of the evening lu’au at the Hilton Hawaiian Village - hence the LP “Luau At The Hilton Hawaiian Village.” But contrary to the title, this was not recorded live at the luau. This was a studio effort - hence the pristine recording quality. The recording likely features the support of musicians who comprised the Hawaiian Village Serenaders, but besides Abe - who identified himself as the steel guitarist in his own biographical information - the other players are unknown. In the vocal chorus we can hear the voices of what may be Sonny Kamahele and Jimmy Kaopuiki. Here we get a glimpse of Abe’s tender side on the ballad “Sands of Waikiki,” and on “Kona Hema O Ka Lani” we hear more of Mel’s influences such as the single string work reminiscent of Dick McIntire. This beautiful recording has been remastered and re-released on both CD and MP3.
The last selection is one of my favorites because I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know the featured artist, Sonny Kamahele, graduate of both the Hawaiian Village Serenaders and the Hawaii Calls LPs and radio broadcasts. Mel and Sonny had a long friendship and musical relationship dating back to the Hawaiian Village Serenaders days. In fact, after the demise of that group, Mel went on to perform with Sonny for many years in the Surf Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. In the early 1970s, Sonny and Mel did an LP together for a record label based in Toronto, Canada and masterminded by steel guitar aficionado Tom Shilstra. The album - “Beautiful Hawaiian Steel Guitar” - is strictly instrumental featuring the dual steel guitars of Mel and Sonny (who was also a fine steel guitarist, more of whose steel playing you will hear on Ho’olohe Hou soon). To help you distinguish between Mel’s and Sonny’s playing styles on “Sophisticated Hula,” Sonny played primarily in an unorthodox D9th tuning. So his style is based on large, full chord strums and deep, growling glissandos that signal the chord changes. For the most part, one might think of Mel as the featured soloist in a band such as Count Basie’s and Sonny as the Basie saxophone section. And the tune opens with unison playing by Mel and Sonny that is so tight that they sound like one huge steel guitar.
Because of his facility with the instrument, his tasteful approach to backing a vocalist, and the diminishing number of steel guitarists through the 1960s and 70s before the resurgence in the popularity of the instrument, Mel can also be heard on numerous recordings of this period with Marlene Sai, Mel Peterson, Eddie Kekaula, and others. This means that we will hear more from Mel Abe in the future on Ho’olohe Hou…
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this blog post contained a selection which may not have featured Mel Abe after all. A version of “Puka Shell Lei” from Sonny Kamahele’s album “Mine ‘Til The End of Time” offers a fine steel guitar solo which - according to the liner notes - was most likely Bernie Ka’ai Lewis. With my thanks to a great friend, fellow collector, and Hawaiian music enthusiast Norman Markowitz for the possible errata notice. However, that is not the end of the story. The steel player on “Puka Shell Lei” may or may not have been Bernie Ka’ai Lewis. In the Hawaiian music industry, there is a long history of erroneous or incomplete liner notes that don’t tell the whole story. Bernie Ka’ai Lewis would have celebrated a birthday in September. When Ho’olohe Hou honors him, we will return to the issue of the “mystery steeler” and do some A/B comparisons of Abe’s and Lewis’s styles. In any case, because of this possible gaff on the part of your friendly blogger, I have reposted this Mel Abe tribute with four additional tracks on which I can confirm that the steel guitarist is - beyond a shadow of a doubt - Mel Abe based biographical and discographical information offered by Abe himself.