Tue, 11 November 2014
I was supposed to have published this article two days ago. But for two days I have been sitting in front of a mostly blank, white screen staring at the only three words I could think to type.
I’ve got nothing.
Webley Edwards is impossible to write about. Just ask biographer Allen Roy who has been attempting to compile a biography about Edwards for more than seven years. Roy and I met through the various internet chat boards dedicated to Hawaiian music and its history, and we bonded over our mutual love of the weekly Hawaii Calls radio show which was the brainchild of Edwards. A child of the Pacific Northwest, Roy relocated to Hawai`i where he attended Hawaiian Mission Academy. But like so many Hawai`i locals and transplants, he never attended a live Hawaii Calls broadcast despite that it was practically in his backyard. Like so many others, he took it for granted that it would always be there.
Until it wasn’t. Hawaii Calls was never the most financially stable entertainment enterprise, and in 1975, the Hawai`i Visitors Bureau pulled its funding – ending the show’s 40 year run after more than 2,000 live broadcasts.
Roy’s difficulty in writing about Webley Edwards is that there is little or no biographical information available about him – no diaries or journals, few first-hand accounts from those who knew him. He has even interviewed the few living stars of the Hawaii Calls shows, and while they unanimously have only the kindest of words about him, they didn’t really know him. He was simply the boss.
But that is not my difficulty in writing about him. My problem is that my blog is about Hawaiian music and musicians, and despite that the music of Hawaii Calls has been in my home since I was a child – or more than 40 years now – I have never been clear on what Edwards’ contribution to Hawaiian music really was. That is not an attempt to discredit the man. It is merely that I couldn’t figure out what to credit him with. And this after rifling through the Ho`olohe Hou vaults and listening to the more than two dozen Hawaii Calls LPs produced and nearly 100 hours of the actual radio programs I have archived spanning more than 25 years from 1949 through the show’s demise in 1975.
But with Mr. Roy’s unflagging and enthusiastic assistance, here is what I have managed to come to understand…
Edwards is not the kind of guy I would typically write about. He was not a singer or a showman. He did not play an instrument. He did not arrange music. And he composed fewer songs than I can count on the fingers on one hand.
But Edwards was an ardent supporter of Hawaiian music with the best of intentions. He aimed to bring real Hawaiian music to the world (after hearing a half-hearted attempt at so-called “Hawaiian music” on a mainland U.S. radio program). He is the one who recruited Hawai`i’s cream or the crop of musicians, singers, and dancers and gave them an audience outside of their island boundaries. He is the one who signed on more than 750 radio stations on five continents (often giving the show away to a station simply for the pleasure of reaching listeners in that region). He is the one who brokered the Capitol Records recording contract that took the voices and instruments of the Hawaii Calls cast farther faster with the advent of the long playing record. He is the one who wrote the scripts that augmented the music with his unique poetry-in-prose – each week’s broadcast a love sonnet to Hawai`i. And Edwards is the one who decided to report the air and water temperature at Waikiki and stick that microphone next to the ocean to transmit the aural grace of the waves in lieu of the visual grace of a hula dancer.
For a period of time before Iz, the Brothers Cazimero, and Keali`i Reichel, Hawaii Calls was Hawai`i’s biggest entertainment export. Or, at least, it was its biggest export of purely Hawaiian music (since, arguably, Don Ho was bigger but did not actually perform Hawaiian music). The radio show painted a vivid picture of an island paradise that many felt they needed to see at least once in their lifetime – making Edwards at least partially responsible for the strong upticks in Hawai`i tourism first after jet air travel became more widely available (and less expensive) and again after Hawai`i became (for better or worse) the 50th state.
So, in a sense, Edwards is not unlike me (or, at least, I see a little of him in myself): Two haole guys who loved Hawaiian music so much that they often did the wrong thing for the right reason in an attempt to gift Hawaiian music to those who have never experienced it or return memories to their rightful owners.
Ho`olohe Hou is planning a month-long celebration of everything Hawaii Calls in June 2015 when the radio show celebrates its 80th anniversary. But for now, I thought the best way to honor Edwards’ birthday might be to spend a few weeks presenting the voices of the local Hawai`i entertainers who gained worldwide prominence thanks to his efforts. Because most of my reader audience is rooted in either of two Facebook groups – Waikiki & Honolulu in the 1950’s and 60’s and Waikiki & Honolulu in the 1970’s and 80’s – I am going to focus on the show and the stars it bore during that period. Not only do I propose to offer as many of their performances as possible from the live programs along with Edwards’ poetic introductions, I will also bring back three complete Hawaii Calls broadcasts, one from each decade of interest to my readers – the 50s, 60s, and 70s. And maybe – if you’re lucky – I may even produce some rare video of these entertainers you are not likely to find elsewhere.
Only then will we together remember the real contribution of Webley Edwards to the Hawaiian music-loving world…
Next time: Hawaii Calls in the 1950s and one of its first breakout stars…