The King and Kai

Lani Kai got his show business start in 1959 when he auditioned for the TV series “Adventures In Paradise.”  He had only hoped for a part as an extra but ended up a cast regular.  Lani was called upon for numerous other roles, whenever a handsome, well-built Polynesian man was needed - including the role of Carl, a beach boy in the Elvis Presley vehicle “Blue Hawaii.”

But Lani Kai was much lesser known as a singer.  His clear tenor was well suited to both traditional Hawaiian-language songs and the English language hapa-haole standards.  You’ll recall from the earlier post about The Surfers that MCA was the parent company of both Decca Records and Paramount.  Perhaps to capitalize on his success on TV in ABC-Paramount‘s “Adventures,” in the early 1960s Decca released “Island Love Songs,” an album of Hawaiian songs by Lani Kai using local Hawai’i musicians arranged and conducted by Chick Floyd.  Chick’s arrangements - a combination of the more traditional ‘ukulele and steel guitars and the burgeoning exotica movement which incorporated flutes and Latin percussion - suited Lani’s larger than life personality which could not help but translate to his vocal style.  Like the "Hawaii Calls" radio broadcast which was still popular during this period, the album featured the dual steel guitars of Barney Isaacs and Danny Stewart.

There isn’t a single song on this album not worth hearing again and again.  So it was difficult to choose something to share with you.  Ultimately, I chose the swinging “Seven Days In Waikiki,” a Jack Pitman composition seldom performed then or now, and “Moana,” another seldom heard gem from the pen of Lani’s beach boy friend, Alex Kaeck of the vocal group The Invitations.

Lani went on to record only one other album in his lifetime - the ill-conceived Disco-oriented “The Many Sides of Lani Kai,” an album comprised solely of Jerry Marcellino originals, in 1979.  But with “Island Love Songs,“ Lani left an indelible footprint on Hawaiian music history for the lucky few who can locate a copy of this long out-of-print LP.

Direct download: Lani_Kai_-_Seven_Days_In_Waikiki-Moana.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 6:40pm EST

The King and Naluai

For most of his career, Elvis was backed on stage and screen by an incredibly talented vocal group he cultivated called The Jordannaires.  But when it came time to film “Blue Hawaii” in 1961, a slightly different vocal flavor was in order.

Years earlier, in 1957, at Glendale Junior College in California, musical brothers Al and Clay Naluai teamed up with two other Hawaiian boys, Bernie Ching and Pat Sylva, who - like them - could play every instrument they put their hands on.  In addition to their talents on guitars, piano, vibes, even trombone, these young men could all sing really, really well.  Together they joined the college choir, and eventually the choir director asked these four Hawaiian friends to arrange some traditional Hawaiian songs for their unique vocal style which they would performas a spotlight act during the choir’s concert performances.  They took up the challenge, and The Surfers were born.  The Surfers made a handful of records for the Hi-Fi Records label which featured their unique harmony style - reminiscent of such mainland vocal groups as The Hi-Los, The Four Freshmen, and The Lettermen - and went on to do more of the same and better when signed to Decca Records (when they - for reasons unknown - changed their name to The Hawaiian Surfers).

Decca’s parent company - MCA - also controlled Paramount Studios which produced Elvis’s films. According to an interview with the surviving Surfers, Clay once recalled, “On the soundtrack recording, they wanted to have an authentic Hawaiian sound. So they asked us if we'd be willing to do the soundtrack album with him." On March 21, 1961 at Radio Recorders in Hollywood, three days of recording sessions commenced in which The Surfers added their touch to the legacy that would become “Blue Hawaii” and its iconic soundtrack.  If you are a fan of Hawaiian music or The Surfers but it escaped you that it was their voices in the film, it is likely because - despite their rugged Hawaiian good looks - The Surfers were not asked to actually be in the film.  They were guns for hire - voices intended to add the Hawaiian touch to the music, which - second only to the local scenery - may have been the most “Hawaiian” aspect of the film.

Elvis and The Surfers were beyond a shadow of a doubt a successful combination.  The “Blue Hawaii” soundtrack album was #1 around the world - holding the top position for 20 weeks in the United States and remaining on Billboard's Album Chart longer than any other Elvis album. Moreover, the single - "Can't Help Falling In Love With You" on one side and "Rock-A-Hula Baby" on the other - earned a Gold Record.  You may not have known that it was The Surfers - not The Jordannaires - whose voices graced what may be Elvis’s most popular and enduring ballad - or that it was Alan Naluai - not Elvis - who sang the most memorable introduction to “Rock-A-Hula Baby.”  Both deserve a listen again.  Rather than the released soundtrack versions, I offer you an unreleased version of “Rock-A-Hula Baby” with some of the playful studio banter still intact and an alternate version - with a slightly different arrangement than heard in the film - of “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

Direct download: The_King_and_Naluai.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 5:40pm EST

Elvis and Hawaiian Music

Nobody would accuse Elvis of performing what would typically be thought of as “Hawaiian music” - not even in any of the three films he made in Hawai’i.  But Elvis did associate with some greats of Hawaiian music, and these local Hawai’i musicians and personalities added more than a little local flavor and flair to the precedings.

In honor of what would have been Elvis’s 78th birthday, I am thinking of ways to celebrate with some rarities that show how Hawai’i musicians contributed to some of the most memorable moments of the The King’s legacy.  Stay tuned to this space for two more posts today.  (We can’t celebrate his birthday tomorrow.)

Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 4:57pm EST

Hal Aloma

Hal Aloma was born Harold David Alama on January 8, 1908.  He attended Kalihi-Waena School and McKinley High School before dashing off to the mainland and New York City where he became extremely popular for his modernized hybrid of Hawaiian music.

A composer, singer, and eventually band leader, Hal Aloma was first and foremost a steel guitar player with a style like no other.  Upon his arrival in NYC, he started out as the steel guitarist with Lani McIntire at New York’s famed Lexington Hotel “Hawaiian Room,” and then later led his own band in this same location as well as the Luau 400 and various night spots up and down the east coast.  He appeared on television shows hosted by Arthur Godfrey, Ed Sullivan, and Perry Como, and was even a mystery guest on the game show To Tell The Truth.  Aloma also appeared in the MGM film Ship Ahoy with Tommy Dorsey.  He capped off his amazing career as the first band leader at the Polynesian Village for the grand opening of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Although born Alama, Hal changed his name to Aloma - presumably to capitalize on the popularity of a Polynesian-themed film of that era, Aloma of the South Seas.  He was the brother of another Hawaiian entertainer, Sam Alama, a singer and composer who left a lasting legacy with a song still sung today, "Kanakanui Hotel."

As a songwriter, while not as prolific as, say, Harry Owens or R. Alex Anderson, Hal’s paeans to his homeland are often just as beautiful - a few even catching on with local Hawai’i artists.  I have heard his “Echoes of the South Pacific” covered by such Hawaiian music traditionalists as Violet Pahu Liliko’i, and his “Wikiwiki Mai” has been recorded over and over including a memorable rendition by Charles K.L. Davis.

Hal was an extremely popular recording artist - landing a coveted record contract with Dot Records in the late 1950s.  His recordings sold extremely well on the mainland, but you will rarely find one in the used record shops throughout Hawai’i.  This may be because the local music trade was focused on its local artists, or it may indicate that Hal Aloma’s brand of modernized, mainland-influenced Hawaiian music was not the appetite of local Hawai‘i listeners.  I have chosen two songs - both Aloma originals - from his Dot Records period - tracks that are about as different as they can be.  The first is a rollicking hapa-haole swing number, the aforementioned “Wikiwiki Mai,” in which you will hear the influences of the mainland dance hall jazz combos, including - again - the drum kit with its persistent ride cymbal and occasional gentle “crash.”  You will also immediately notice that there are two steel guitars - a sound typically identified with the Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts.  The two steelers here are Hal and his great friend, NYC local Sam Makia who also left an enduring legacy.  I have as many Sam Makia sides in this collection as I do Hal Aloma, and as my father was an occasional musical partner of Makia in later years, I can safely identify the lead steel on “Wikiwiki Mai” - a solo played with what I can only call “wreckless abandon” - as Sam.  The other number is far more traditional - a modern take on chant which Hal called his “Hawaiian Love Chant.”  The chant is in the expected rhythm and minor key and sung in Hawaiian, but it is then followed by a fox trot-style hula tempo sung in English.  In both cases, despite the changing times and changing sounds, I hope you can also still hear all that is innately Hawaiian in Hal Aloma’s music.

Direct download: Hal_Aloma_-_Wikiwiki_Mai-Echoes_of_the_South_Pacific.mp3
Category:Steel Guitar -- posted at: 7:35am EST

From time to time we will look at two versions of a Hawaiian song from different periods to see how they compare and contrast. But what if the versions were recorded nearly 40 years apart and yet are practically identical?

Singer Leinaala Haili recorded Bina Mossman’s composition “Ku’u Home Aloha” for her No Ka Oi album on the Makaha Records label in the mid-1960s. We have been talking a lot about the changes in Hawaiian music during this period.  One of the leaders in this “new sound” in Hawaiian music was arranger Benny Saks.  When you listen to this version of the song, you will hear the indelible stamp that Saks left on his kind of Hawaiian music.  Besides the drum kit (which was a stranger to Hawaiian music until this period), you also hear a departure from the typical introductions and endings.  In the hula ku’i form, you would typically hear the three chord vamp (II7-V7-I or A7-D7-G in the key of G) that signals the transition from one verse to another. This three chord vamp had doubled as an introduction and ending to most Hawaiian songs until this period.  But the chords that Saks chooses for his introduction come more from the R&B and doo-wop idioms.  (Listen closely and you might be able to superimpose the melody of “Blue Moon” or “Silhouettes” over those chord changes.)  Then listen again and you will notice that Saks goes even further by doing the introduction and (what would ordinarily be) the vamps between verses in an asymmetrical time signature.  Try counting it out and you will find a pattern of beats something on the order of 3-3-2-4.  He is moving from waltz time to march time to the typical hula tempo.  But because of this pattern of beats typically foreign to the hula ku’i form, this can no longer be considered music intended for hula.  Finally, the series of chords used in the introduction comes not from the Hawaiian music tradition but, rather, from the type of small combo jazz being put forth by the George Shearing Quintet. Even the instrumentation mirrors that of Shearing’s classic combo - piano, vibes, bass, guitar, and drums.  Saks even mimics the Shearing arranging style by having piano, vibes, bass, and guitar play in unison.  Simply add Billy Hew Len’s steel guitar for a slightly more Hawaiian touch, but those steeply trenched in tradition may ask anyway… Given all of these variations from the norm, is this even Hawaiian music?

But that is a debate for another day.  The question really becomes… Is it really possible to top such beauty?  The answer appears to be “no” since the song has only been recorded once since Leinaala Haili did it.  And when Raiatea Helm and her producers took it on for her Sweet & Lovely album, they wisely decided on an arrangement that would ultimately be an homage - a beat-for-beat, note-for-note faithful recreation of the Leinaala Haili/Benny Saks original.

To this day, I have wondered how many of today’s generation recognized this homage since we so rarely hear Leinaala Haili or this version of the song anymore?  But what better occasion than Bina Mossman’s birthday to hear these two beautiful voices in agreeance on the beauty of the mele and how to present it?

This is Bina Mossman’s “Ku’u Home Aloha” - then…and again.

Direct download: Kuu_Home_Aloha_-_Then_and_Again.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:55pm EST

Bina Mossman's "Kaleponi Hula"

When celebrating Bina Mossman’s birthday, I almost forgot her most famous composition of all.

It has been a few years now since the participants in the Hawaiian music forum known as were having fun reminiscing about Auntie Bina Mossman's ode to California, "Kaleponi Hula."  This short, yet most intriguing song speaks of a young man journeying from Hawai’i to California who asks his sweetheart what type of souvenir she might enjoy.  The young lady then begins a laundry list of the latest and greatest fashion accessories.  Those who understand Hawaiian poetry and its hidden layers of meaning - referred to as “kaona” - may or may not find some additional social commentary in this list of items.

Regrettably, there are few versions of the song still in print on CD or MP3 for us to enjoy.  But to aid the members of in their discussion, I threw together a short montage of excerpts from four very old out-of print versions of the song - by Uncle Johnny Almeida, Charles Kaipo Miller, Alice Fredlund with the Halekulani Girls, and Sonny Chillingworth.  The Puerto Rican-influenced katchi katchi rhythms of the Sonny Chillingworth version again speak of the changes in Hawaiian music occurring in the late 1950s and 1960s.  And aficionados of Hawaiian music will recognize that one of the voices harmonizing with Sonny is none other than Nina Keali`iwahamana.

The Hawaiian language lyric and English translation can be found in Na Mele o Hawai’i Nei - 101 Hawaiian Songs by Samuel H. Elbert and Noelani Mahoe.

Direct download: Kaleponi_Hula_-_Four_Versions.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:40pm EST