Sun, 17 February 2013
Charleston Puaonaona Almeida was born February 17, 1922 in Honolulu. The too few historic documents which speak about Pua at all refer to his “father,” the legendary composer and musician John Kameaaloha Almeida - affectionately known as “Uncle Johnny.” But in fact, Pua was not John’s son. He was his nephew. Uncle Johnny took Pua into his home in the Hawaiian tradition known as hanai in which a child is informally adopted and raised as one’s own. Not only were they - by blood or by fate - father and son, they also had an amazing musical relationship which might only have been possible because of these family ties. One can only wonder if Pua’s musical talents would have flourished had it not been for the tutelage of Uncle Johnny.
Pua first performed professional with Uncle Johnny at the Club Pago Pago in 1941. He later perfomed at the Ramona Café until the tragedy at Pearl Harbor, and during the ensuring war, performed in U.S.O. shows as well as with an orchestra led by Randy Oness.
We begin this look at Pua Almeida’s career with the earliest recordings we can locate. Many believe the earliest recorded work from Pua are the 78 r.p.m. sides he recorded for the Bell Records label in the late 1940s with the group led by Randy Oness. But there are some commercially unreleased recordings which date back just a little earlier than that. Some of you may be old enough to remember movie shorts - so named because they featured short performances of music and dance which could be shown between the movies at the Sunday matinees in the 1940s. Pua did a few such shorts which are the first recordings heard here. First we hear Pua in a short featuring a composition from Uncle Johnny, “Ho’oluana” in which Billy Hew Len plays the steel guitar and we hear for the first time Pua’s unique rhythm guitar playing. His rhythm guitar playing is reminiscent of jazz guitar legends such as Freddie Green and is punctuated by syncopated passing chords such as you hear around 0:58 into the set. You then hear the same group perform another Uncle Johnny Almeida composition, “Ku’u Ipo Pua Rose.” Loosely arranged, you will hear Pua say “lawa” to indicate to the band and hula dancer that the song will end with that verse - which they end on a seventh chord and a guitar roll, a nod to the vaudeville era still in their rearview mirror.
We then hear two of those Bell Records 78s. For the sake of comparison, we hear the same two songs on the commercially released Bell sides as we heard on the movie shorts a moment before.
Notice the different approach to “Ho’oluana” - clearly arranged for the dance hall in the big band style so popular on the mainland at the same moment in time, a style which was ushered in by the bands of Sonny Cunha, Johnny Noble, and Harry Owens in the preceeding decades. Pua assembled an orchestra comprised of four saxophones, two trumpets, a trombone, drums, piano, bass, rhyhtm guitar, and steel guitar. These are the sounds one might have heard at the Club Pago Pago in this period - the unique melding of the Hawaiian and jazz idioms well represented by the slurping saxophones and muted trumpets combined with a more Hawaiian style rhythm section featuring the steel guitar and a vocal group right out of the playbook of Tex Beneke and the Modernaires who sang with Glenn Miller’s group at about this same time. Pua leads the first vocal chorus punctuated by the trumpets and saxes and then juxtaposed against a chorus of steel guitar and clarinet duet - the steel guitar played by Pua and the clarinet by Randy Oness. At 4:50 we hear Uncle Johnny sing a chorus of his composition, and then Pua and the vocal group pick up the tune in the out chorus. You may need to rewind to discover that this version is at a tempo intended for dancing while the earlier version from the movie short is taken a much more peppy clip.
And, finally, a second version of “Ku’u Ipo Pua Rose” recorded for Bell Records by Randy Oness’ Select Hawaiian Serenaders. This should be considered an all-star group which later spawned legends in their own right including Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs (who went on to lead the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders), Buddy Peterson, Steppy de Rego, Pua Almeida, and a then still up-and-coming singer named Alfred Apaka. Pua plays steel and sings every other verse, while Alfred Apaka leads the group on the alternating verses.
Next time: Pua enters his most prolific period - the 1950s…