Remembering Don Ho

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Don Ho. This is as difficult to explain as if I were obsessed with Barbie’s Dream House. But there you go. Those of you who know me – or those of you who merely follow this occasional blog – know that I have been obsessed with Hawaiian music all my life. But now we’re talking about Don Ho, and Don Ho is not Hawaiian music. That is neither a criticism of Ho nor a value judgment against Ho’s fans (among whom I count myself the leader of the club). It is simply a reflection of the reality I have encountered across the 48 contiguous states: That whenever I mention that I perform “Hawaiian music,” that is typically met with some mocking version of “Tiny Bubbles.” “Tiny Bubbles” likely should not be considered Hawaiian music. But those who are not Hawaiian by birth or who have never lived or spent any considerable time in Hawai’i should not be expected to understand this distinction – that Hawaiian music is a genre of music, not music from a specific place or made by a specific person of a certain ethnic descent. A quick analogy: Should one consider a Britney Spears album recorded live in Madrid a form of Spanish music? Should one consider Menudo’s songs Puerto Rican music? Should one consider a Chris Botti album recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra some kind of British music? No, no, and no. Menudo were young men of Puerto Rican descent, but they were clearly a modern pop “boy band.” Chris Botti will always be smooth jazz – no matter where he records or with whom he records. So we should not immediately jump to the conclusion that music made in Hawai’i or by a Hawaiian is necessarily Hawaiian music. It might be. And it might not.

So, if Don Ho was not Hawaiian music, what was he? Simply put, Ho was one of the finest entertainers of his generation – able to wrap audiences of women and men alike around his little finger like so much lo mein noodle – and a much underrated pop singer combining the swagger of Dean Martin with the vocal technique of Frank Sinatra who, no doubt viewing Ho as an apostle, eventually signed him to a recording contract with his own Reprise Records. Ho’s history is well documented elsewhere. That was not my aim by celebrating him today on the fifth anniversary of his passing. My purpose was to attempt to put Don Ho’s legacy in context – give it some perspective. For while he was known as a savvy businessman, the life of the party he conducted every night from the portable pipe organ that was as much a prop for his ever-present Chivas Regal and soda as the Rat Pack’s rolling bar, a raison d’etre for hundreds of thousands of co-eds who went to unknown expense to cross the great Pacific Ocean to flock to Honolulu at the infancy of jet air travel just for a chance to taste the sweat on his lips or rub up against his velour shirt, and a most dignified ambassador of the then new 50th state to the rest of the nation and the world, Ho is rarely spoken about for what he was: a damned fine singer of popular songs. Sinatra knew it. The critics got it. And even legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb knew it – well enough to pen the Vietnam protest song “Galveston” for Don Ho. (It’s true. Ho’s version was released first in 1968; Campbell’s not until 1969. And Webb was documented as preferring Ho’s version because Campbell’s too peppy performance belied the somber and serious tone the composer had intended.)

So despite that there may no connection between Ho and Hawaiian music except that both were born in Hawai’i, I have had a lifelong obsession with this man. I remember running home from kindergarten in 1976 to catch “The Don Ho Show” on ABC every day (and mourning its much too short run). I remember foraging through flea market bins to find the much elusive Ho albums released as promotions for the Singer Corporation. Then already long out of print, you had to have actually purchased a sewing machine to receive those LPs, and only true fans knew that the two Singer releases contained songs that were not available on any other Ho releases. I caught Ho on such talkfests as those hosted by Merv Grffin, Mike Douglas, and Dinah Shore and – as the adult collector I became – ultimately located the “holy grail” of Ho TV appearances on “The Joey Bishop Show.” I became a collector of Ho ephemera of all sizes and shapes – the concert tour magazines, the table tents from his Las Vegas casino/hotel appearances, newspaper clippings, reviews, “Billboard” magazine spreads… As the writer of the liner notes from his Instant Happy LP wrote, “You wonder what the hell Ho’s got?” I didn’t wonder what Ho’s got. I understood well what Ho had. What I wanted to understand was how he got it.

And to this day, every time I step foot on stage – whether I am performing Hawaiian music or jazz or anything else – I pray that a little of the Ho swagger and confidence shines through. Because after all the reading and studying and listening to the man for nearly 40 years, the only thing I have come to understand is that you have to be born with whatever it is that Ho had.

So when I finally had the opportunity to host a radio program, I was able to publicly celebrate my hero, my Don Ho – regrettably, not until his passing. But I felt the need to honor him in a way that none of the media outlets had. Because, predictably, every news outlet played a snipped of “Tiny Bubbles” – a song which Ho had confessed he had come to revile in much the way that Sinatra came to despise “Strangers In The Night.” And if there is anything that his fans understood, it was that there was nothing predictable about the man who Kimo Wilder McVay introduced every night at Duke Kahanamoku’s in Waikiki as “the wild, the unpredictable Don Ho.” So my radio segment focused on those recordings in which Don gave his most tender and poignant readings of some beautifully written songs. No “Tiny Bubbles,” no “Pearly Shells,” no co-ed audience sing-alongs. Just Don and the microphone.

Just the way it all began.

If you haven’t already been listening to the audio clip, I hope you enjoy this segment from the Ho’olohe Hou radio program. Grab your Chivas or whatever warms you up as the sun goes down, and toast each other with the toast that Ho himself coined.

Suck ‘em up!

Direct download: Don_Ho_-_4-15-13.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:07pm EDT