Wed, 9 January 2013
I was somewhat remiss, I think, in discussing The Surfers in the context of their work with Elvis on the “Blue Hawaii” soundtrack without first discussing them as the unique vocal and instrumental group they were on their own and the electrifying stage personalities they became.
There are few musical aggregations in the history of Hawai’i - or anywhere, for that matter - in which all the participants were as strong vocally as they were with their instruments. But The Surfers were. While the arrangements may seem dated so many years after, the musicianship is undeniably timeless. And the vocal harmonies were as intricate as any offered by the finest jazz vocal groups before or since - reminiscent of the Four Freshmen or the Hi-Los in the 1950s or their contemporaries of the time, the Manhattan Transfer. As rare as this combination is - in Hawai’i, only the Aliis or Society of Seven came close - now add Clay and Al Naluai’s rapport with an audience and fearlessness for doing anything to make an audience come alive in the tradition of the Smothers Brothers.
From time to time we offer a segment we call “Waikiki After Dark” in which we recreate a moment in the history of Hawai’i nightlife with a rare live recording. I recalled seeing The Surfers only once. The year was 1976, and I was waiting for the afternoon kindergarten session, plopped in front of the TV set in our New Jersey living room waiting dutifully for the short-lived “Don Ho Show” to air on ABC. Don’s guests on this particular day were The Surfers and they performed a serious vocal number - the beauty of which was not lost on this six-year-old and which literally and figuratively knocked me off my chair - followed by a hilarious comedy bit which riffed on a popular song from a 60s Broadway musical. As I taped the show every day, I still have that show, but it is of the poorest sound quality. Little did I know until years later that the songs and the comedy routine The Surfers performed on Don’s show that day - which made me a lifelong fan - were also a regular part of their evening show at The Outrigger Hotel which was captured one fateful evening and issued on record as The Surfers - Live. After an overture befitting a Las Vegas show group - which, essentially, they were - the lads launch into a medley of tunes about people (including the audacity to cover an iconic Streisand staple). In the short a capella section, listen to the close harmonies - often just one full tone apart, known in harmony language as “seconds,” impossible but for only the finest singers with the best tuned ears. Then the boys caress a Paul Williams classic, and then finally their comedic take on one of the numbers from “Hair” which they use to educate their most willing audience with a fictionalized account of Hawai’i history.
Despite the changing times and changing styles, the powerhouse performing style that was The Surfers remains a classic.
On one of my many visits to Hawai’I, in 2008, a friend and fellow musician called me to ask me where I was on the island. I told him I was in Kaka’ako. He told me to head toward Kapahulu and meet him at the Elks Club. He didn’t tell me why. Once we met up, he signed us in, ordered us some beers, and then called the evening’s entertainment over to our table - which, to my delight, was The Surfers’ own Pat Sylva. We chatted, and soon after I was sitting in with Pat, singing “Waikiki” near Waikiki while looking out at the surf rolling in on Waikiki while Pat played the piano for me. And for one brief moment even I was touched by the greatness that was The Surfers. That was a dream come true.
Hawai’i misses you, Pat. This is dedicated to you and to the great friend who made sure I didn’t miss out on the opportunity to know such an amazing musician and person - Ocean Kaowili.