Fri, 21 November 2014
Teddy Randazzo often referred to himself as a “misplaced Hawaiian.” Many of us can relate to this sentiment – that no matter where we were born or whose blood flows through our veins, we believe we may have been Hawaiian in a previous life (or pray we might be one in the next). Randazzo had a long association with Hawai`i dating back to his days as a teen idol in the 1950s. In 1957, Randazzo was starring opposite Tuesday Weld and Alan Freed in the rock-and-roll film Rock! Rock! Rock!, while a young Tom Moffatt was a budding disk jockey in Honolulu. Moffatt thought that Randazzo was the real deal and spun his records frequently – more frequently, perhaps, than they were heard on the mainland U.S. For this reason some of Randazzo’s records which flailed in the rankings elsewhere sold more copies in Hawai`i than anywhere else. Because of his early popularity there, in a way Randazzo always belonged to Hawai`i.
When Teddy married Hawai`i born Shelly Kunewa, he had no excuse finally but to make Hawai`i his home. Tired of touring and performing and preferring a quieter life close to home and family, Randazzo settled into writing, arranging, and producing records for others. But even before Randazzo called Hawai`i “home,” when old friend and fervent supporter Tom Moffatt launched Paradise Records in 1978 and signed slack key guitarists and brothers Keola and Kapono Beamer for the first release on his new label, he also enlisted the talents of Teddy Randazzo as arranger and co-producer who flew in from the mainland for the assignment.
Those of us who can relate to the feeling of being a “misplaced Hawaiian” can likely also relate to another feeling: That bittersweet melancholy that invades your soul every time you board the plane to leave the islands for home that makes you wonder if you will ever return – that you might be leaving for the last time. For the recording sessions, Keola Beamer brought to the table what is to date the quintessential song to capture that very feeling, even moreso than Andy Cummings’ “Waikiki” 40 years earlier. “Honolulu City Lights” became not merely a sentimental favorite among Hawaiians and Hawaiians-at-heart, but made Hawaiian music history by becoming Hawai`i’s’ biggest selling song of all time. While the song is a beautiful marriage of lyric and melody, arguably the song would not have achieved nearly the success it found without the artfulness of the arrangements and production of Teddy Randazzo. Together, the Beamers and Randazzo achieved perfection and were rewarded with six Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards (for Best Contemporary Hawaiian Album, Best Song and Best Single for "Honolulu City Lights", Best Composer for Keola Beamer, Best Produced Album, and Best Engineered Album for Herb Ono). In an era now referred to as the “Hawaiian music renaissance” when local musicians were experimenting with every outside influence they had been bombarded with since statehood, Randazzo’s tasteful string arrangements, the restrained use of the drum kit, and the folk spirit of two young Hawaiian men with their slack key guitars played in such a manner that you could actually hear the `aina firmly embedded under their fingernails helped Hawaiian music evolve at a pace that was neither too slow nor too aggressive, but just right – achieving a sound that was perfectly at home in Waimanalo, Omaha, or Los Angeles in that era.
It was a sound that helped bring Hawaiian music to the masses.
Randazzo applied similar production wizardry to Hawaiian classics such as Auntie Irmgard Aluli's "Puamana" and John Pi`ilani Watkins’ “Nanakuli” a few more Beamer originals, and a now iconic slack key instrumental. “Kaleponi Slack Key” was heard by locals daily for over two decades when it was adopted as the closing theme song for the KHON 2 news. And the Beamer original "Only Good Times" was featured in a surf film starring Jan Michael Vincent. As a collection, the album Honolulu City Lights was a cohesive whole – one of Hawai`i’s first concept albums – and became the standard by which all other Hawaiian music albums would be judged for at least 15 years (until it was matched – or surpassed – by Keali`i Reichel’s Kawaipunahele in 1993). And in 2004, a panel of respected local Hawai`i musicians and recording industry veterans convened by Honolulu Magazine ranked Honolulu City Lights #1 on the list of “50 Greatest Hawai`i Albums of All Time.”
Co-producer Frank Day told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s John Berger on the 20th anniversary of the record’s release, "Between the vocals that the boys did and Teddy's arrangements, I got goose bumps. It was a classic song that said a lot and it had emotional lyrics -- a perfect combination." But hindsight is 20/20. Keola and Kapono Beamer went on to wax two more LPs for Moffatt’s Paradise Records – inexplicably both without the assistance of Randazzo – and neither attained the success of Honolulu City Lights. Some most unkindly consider these two LPs “flops” – which commercially they were (although artistically the records had their better moments). Both Keola and Kapono went on to enormous solo successes, but the brothers have not recorded together again in nearly 30 years. One can only wonder if the two follow-up LPs had been recorded with Randazzo if they would have achieved a three-peat.
What Hawaiian music history often forgets, however, is that Randazzo followed up Honolulu City Lights with an equally artful endeavor for singer Marlene Sai. This time around, however, Randazzo had even more creative control not only as the sole producer and arranger, but also by contributing more than half of the album’s dozen songs. One of Teddy’s originals written especially for Marlene Sai has become almost as iconic and well-loved as anything the Beamers did the year before, and like “Honolulu City Lights,” it was no doubt the combination of songwriting poignancy and Randazzo’s production magic that made “I Love You” a sentimental local favorite. And then, again, just as he did with traditional Hawaiian standards for the Beamers, Randazzo applied some modern touches to Hawaiian classics – resulting in one of the finest versions of Uncle Johnny Almeida’s “Maile Swing” on record. (That version of that song made it on to every mix tape I made from the 1980s through the 2000s.) And while this album was remastered and rereleased briefly on CD in 1998, I personally think it is criminal that this album that I consider to be a classic is again out of print in any format.
This day began when Teddy’s wife, Shelly, reminded family and friends that today is the anniversary of her husband’s passing. But as long as we are talking about Honolulu City Lights, it should not merely be a footnote to this story that Shelly would never have even gotten to know Teddy had it not been for this album. Shelly was good friends with Sweetie Moffatt (wife of Tom Moffatt) from their days doing promotions together for Hawaiian Airlines. And although Shelly first spied Teddy in New York City, it was while Randazzo was staying at the Moffatt’s Nu`uanu home while working on the Honolulu City Lights album that the two fell in love.
Because this story desperately needed a happy ending…
Trivia: What famous local Hawai`i music icon played piano on the Beamer recording of “Honolulu City Lights?” (Difficulty Rating: Easy if you know the few great pianists in Hawaiian music history. Medium if you’re s good guesser!)
More trivia: Teddy Randazzo based the string section arrangement for “Honolulu City Lights” on a melody written by the Beamers' great-grandmother, Helen Desha Beamer. Name the song. (Difficulty Rating: Hard as hell for anybody but a local Hawai`i musician or a Beamer historian.)