Pua Almeida on Waikiki Records

Engineer Young O. Kang had been cobbling together equipment to bring Hawaiian music recordings to the world since the early 1940s. But by 1958 Kang was finally in business for himself - with state of the art equipment - courtesy of local Hawai’i entrepreneur Tommy Kerns. Together Kerns and Kang founded Waikiki Records, and for an eight year period from 1958 to 1966, they produced some of the finest sounded recordings of Hawaiian music to date by some of the most popular artists of the era - including Pua Almeida who recorded three LPs for the label in addition to countless 45 r.p.m singles and songs that appeared on compilation albums. Piecing together a complete discography of Pua on Waikiki can be difficult since not all of the 45 r.p.m. singles (or their “B” sides) appeared on the LPs or compilation albums or vice-versa. So while I devote my life to finding all of it, let’s enjoy what we already have for a while…

Also notable during the Waikiki Records period is that Pua did not always record with the same musicians. This is why I previously wrote that the obscure LP “Pua Almeida Sings with Billy Hew Len and the Moana Surfriders” may be our last best chance at hearing Pua’s steady working group. Some of the Waikiki sides are cited as being by the Moana Serenaders, some by the Moana Hotel Orchestra, and others still by Pua Almeida and His Polynesians, Pua Almeida and the Sunset Serenaders, or even Pua Almeida and the Sunset Trio (even when there are conspicuously more than three musicians playing). This means that we get to hear Pua in combination with different musicians - most unidentified - while trying to maintain his unique “sound.” Some of the musicians are recognizable by their unmistakable styles, so I will try to cite a few along the way.

Don McDiarmid‘s hapa-haole “Do The Hula” is - according to different sources - either by Pua Almeida and His Sunset Serenaders (45) or Pua Almeida and His Sunset Trio (LP). So clearly these were groups assembled solely for the recording sessions but which had no name recognition as a live working ensemble. Otherwise somebody at the record company would have been more careful about the naming conventions. This is Pua on the steel guitar - what little we hear of him, anyway. Steel guitarists are quick to admit that the difficult instrument requires so much concentration - it is not an instrument that can be played by feel since it has no frets, so you must constantly watch where you’re putting your hands - that it is also difficult to play steel and sing at the same time. So you hear only the steel intro and a few accents here and there - one sure sign that this is Pua focusing on the singing and ignoring the steel. Another essential clue, however, is the intro which features large, growling chords as opposed to single string soloing - a signature of Pua’s steel playing. The 45 r.p.m. version is plagued by an annoying echo on the vocal - not a hallmark of Young O. Kang’s sound. A mastering error, perhaps? So the version you hear now comes from the Waikiki compilation album “Do The Hula.”

The vocals toward the end of “Pearly Shells” share this same “echo” affliction as the 45 r.p.m. version of “Do The Hula,” so this was clearly a deliberate engineering approach (which may or may not have been executed successfully). This song is credited to “Pua Almeida and His Sunset Serenaders” and features Billy Hew Len on steel guitar and the deep bass voice of Sonny Kamahele leading the call-and-response with Pua. So that is likely Sonny’s rhythm guitar you hear as well.

Danny Stewart’s lovely but seldom heard “Nohea” abandons the steel guitar altogether for something more like the Latin sounds Pua had been cultivating earlier and features - like recordings by his friend and contemporary Jesse Kalima - the piano. The lovely and sensitive jazzy guitar solo you hear is Pua! Aficianados of Pua’s music have long been aware of his sensibilities with an archtop guitar - playing his jazzy style on a Gibson L-5 with a DeArmond pick-up with which he is pictured on the cover of “Surfrider” from which this cut was taken. Pua was called upon frequently during this period for both his rhythm guitar playing and provided sultry improvised guitar intros and endings on recordings by the Hawaii Calls radio show orchestra, Mahi Beamer, Eddie Kekaula, the New Hawaiian Band, and even Tennessee Ernie Ford. In fact, the recordings on which Pua performs uncredited as a sideman might outnumber those on which he was cited as leader.

Available both as a 45 r.p.m. single and on the LPs  “Poolside Music Hawaiiana“ and “Dancing Under The Stars With Pua,” “Ahulili” is credited to Pua Almeida and His Polynesians and offers us two surprises - a lead vocal by Kalakaua Aylett and steel guitar by Joe Custino.

Next… Pua caresses a composition by his hanai father, Uncle Johnny Almeida, with both his voice and his steel guitar. The simply lovely “Lei Mokihana” is one of my favorite recordings by Pua. How do we know this is Pua on the steel guitar? Listen first to the intro in which Pua plays huge, beautiful chords with a shimmering vibrato. The vibrato is a signature part of Pua’s style. Another signature - listen at around 10:28 in the set - is Pua’s reverse strum (from the highest string to the lowest) very close to the bridge - providing an eerie, almost harp-like presence. That, too, is right from the Pua playbook, and he does it to end the vamp after nearly every verse. (Pua had developed that technique long before as you will hear it more than 20 years earlier on his recordings with Randy Oness and Alfred Apaka.) And again, note that the steel guitar playing ends when the singing begins - a sign that the steeler and the singer are one and the same.

The Latin rhythms return with “Papalina Lahilahi” taken from a Waikiki 45 r.p.m. and credited to Pua Almeida and the Moana Serenaders. This is probably closest to his working group at that time. Pua trades vocals with Kalakaua Aylett who is also likely the rhythm guitarist, and we hear the steel guitar of Billy Hew Len and the vibes of Benny Saks.

Closing the set we hear the Sam Koki composition “Hoe Hoe” (sometimes affectionately referred to as “Sam Koki’s Hukilau”). Also found on the Waikiki LPs “Poolside Music Hawaiiana“ and “Dancing Under The Stars With Pua,” this one is also credited to Pua Almeida and His Polynesians and again features vocals by Kalakaua Aylett and steel guitar by Joe Custino. While both Pua and Joe play a very jazzy chord melody style on the steel guitar, those familiar with the nuances of different steel players know that this is Joe’s tone (a little more harsh on the treble side than Pua’s tone), attack, and almost complete lack of vibrato - more like a string organ than a steel guitar. For comparison, listen to Joe’s earlier work with Honey Kalima or the Chick Floyd group which performed weekly for the Lucky Luck Show.

Next time: Can‘t get enough of Pua on Waikiki Records? Neither can I…

Direct download: Pua_Almeida_Week_-_Part_7.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:20pm EDT

Exotic Meets Exotica

Despite being an island in the middle of the Pacific, Hawai’i has always been subject to the influences it has imported. From its food to its clothing styles, Hawai’i has long been a melting pot of cultures ranging from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to the other South Pacific peoples.

But nowhere is the melting pot theme more apparent than in Hawaiian music. Already on this blog we have discussed the influences of American big band jazz and small combo jazz and the incorporation of the rhythms of the Latin Americas. But what happens when you take everything you have ever heard and thought about music from around the world and throw it into a cosmic blender?

Between 1958 and 1960, two records of “Hawaiian music” were released on the popular Liberty Records label based in Hollywood. The covers bespoke something slightly less than traditional Hawaiian music but, rather, some cheesy mainland version of it. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? The covers featured scantily clad women, and the titles could not have been more ill conceived - one completely unmemorable (“Little Grass Shack”) and the other an odd play on Parisian men ogling dames on the Champs Elysées (“Hu La La”). Now add to this a name not yet immediately associated with Hawaiian music - Chick Floyd - and all elements considered lovers of Hawaiian music would have immediately passed this record over as another affair from the Longines Symphonette. Who was going to shell out for a recording of Hawaiian music by “Chick Floyd and His Orchestra” when pressed to make the choice between available Hawaiian music recordings by a guy named Floyd and other guys named Aloma and Pineapple?

But this is one of those cases where the whole is clearly more than the sum of its parts. So let’s look at the parts.

In the 1930’s Chick Floyd was the arranger with Orville Knapp’s orchestra. This was not a jazz band per se but, rather, a band that played “sweet music” - something slightly less than jazz, but heavily arranged and intended for the dance halls as opposed to pure listening pleasure. The band featured a sweet music singer - Edith Caldwell - whom Chick wasted no time wooing and marrying. As arranger for the band, Floyd relied on exaggerated brass and unison saxes  - a sound later perfected by such arrangers as Billy May. But success was fleeting. Chick and Edith gave other bands a go, but their success - and the marriage - were ultimately doomed.  Eventually Chick moved to Hawai’i and started a new orchestra which was the featured band for the Lucky Luck Show. Chick also went on to arrange albums for such talented Honolulu-based singers as Lani Kai and Ed Kenney.

In January 1954, Don the Beachcomber brought pianist Martin Denny to Honolulu for what was to be only a two-week engagement. But like Chick, he fell in love with the islands and stayed. More than this, the inspiration of the melting pot that was and is Hawai’i helped Denny forge a new sound all his own. By 1955, Denny and his group were performing at the Shell Bar of the Hawaiian Village Hotel. It was in this exotic setting that Denny’s new sound was born. To try to outdo the sounds of the frogs croaking in the nearby pool, Denny and crew began a unique approach to vocalizing with a series of bird calls. To make matters more exotic still, Denny used the burgeoning jet plane to import instruments from all over the world. The Martin Denny Group was reinventing the standards written by the Gershwins and Cole Porter by arranging them for entrancing rhythms on percussion instruments from around the world while issuing bird noises from deep within their lungs. Denny and crew were soon signed to Liberty Records, and label head Si Waronker branded this new sound “exotica.“ Martin soon after became the label’s A&R man in Honolulu - seeking out the best and brightest in talent from the islands.

By 1959, the “Hawaii Calls” radio broadcasts heard around the world were nearing their 25th anniversary. So the luminaries of the show’s cast were already becoming household names beyond Hawai’i’s borders. But there was still more local talent that were not “Hawaii Calls” regulars but who were becoming wildly popular with the tourists. In a stroke of genius, Martin Denny decided to bring together members of the “Hawaii Calls” orchestra and chorus, members of his own band, and to stir this soup, arranger Chick Floyd. And to round out the cast, Floyd brought some talent of his own - members of the cast of the evening Polynesian show at Don the Beachcombers, a show for which Floyd was now the arranger. This amazing all-star cast led to the two presumably “cheesy” albums mentioned earlier - “Little Grass Shack” and “Hu La La.” The albums were not cheesy at all, as it turns out, but two of the finest examples of the blending of Hawaiian music and other cultures on record. Some - but not all - of this talent was credited on the album covers, so for many years those who have had the rare pleasure of hearing these recordings may have wondered just what and who they were hearing. Pua Almeida was a key vocalist on both albums. So in this segment, we feature songs from both albums which highlight Pua’s voice while identifying the contribution of the other players along the way.

The set opens with an obscurity only recorded once. From the “Hu La La“ LP, “There’s Still A Lot Of Steam In Kilauea” was written by Sam Kaapuni who became famous for his work with the California-based Hawaiian music group known as The Polynesians. On this tune, Pua Almeida trades lead vocal duties with Hawaii Calls’ cast member Sonny Nicholas. You also hear Martin Denny’s piano (despite that he goes uncredited), Julius Wechter (then of Denny’s group but later of the Baja Marimba Band) on vibraphone, and the bass clarinet of Denny group collaborator Willard Brady.

From the “Little Grass Shack” LP we hear Pua take the vocal lead on the lovely “Sweet Someone” - a song adopted by Hawaiian musicians but which was actually made popular by Nat King Cole’s brother, Eddie Cole, and his musical partner, wife Betty, during their long engagement in Honolulu. Again, the “sweet music” style arrangement centers on Denny’s piano and an unidentified woodwind section.

Also from the “Little Grass Shack” LP, we then hear “Hukilau” again featuring Pua and Sonny Nicholas on lead vocals - getting their Bobby Darin on - and the backing vocals of the “Hawaii Calls” vocal chorus comprised of singing sisters Nina Keali’iwahamana, Lani Custino, and Lahela Rodrigues. None of these artists are identified in the liner notes.

And the last song has been one of my favorites since childhood. Pua takes the vocal lead on a Chick Floyd original, “Late At Night” and turns in what may be his most haunting performance ever. We again hear Denny’s piano, the flute and oboe of Willard Brady, the steel guitar of Danny Stewart, and a vocal chorus consisting of Pua, Sonny Nicholas, Sonny Kamahele, and Sonny’s sister, Iwalani Kamahele whose high soprano in octave unison with Pua give this number an even more haunting quality.

And these are just the selections from these two LPs which feature Pua! There are 18 more selections across these two albums which feature other greats of Hawaiian music of this period exotically interwoven with the members of the Martin Denny and Chick Floyd aggregations. We will get to these other tunes eventually. But if you ever passed up one or both of these LPs on your crate-diving adventures, don’t think twice should you ever see them again.

Next time: Pua transitions gracefully from the jazzy 50s to the groovy 60s…

Direct download: Pua_Almeida_Week_-_Part_5.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:43am EDT

A Pua Curiosity

These three songs are from a 1959 G.N.P. Crescendo compilation LP released on the mainland entitled “Hawaii - A Musical Memento of the Islands” - which is a curiosity on many levels.

G.N.P. stood for “Gene Norman Presents.” Norman was a jazz impresario whose Crescendo label released recordings by such legends as Lionel Hampton and Charlie Shavers. What would such a jazz promoter want with Pua Almeida, Haunani Kahalewai, Andy Cummings, Benny Kalama, or Ray Kinney? What commercial value would they have to him? Apparently, Norman knew better as he released three records of Hawaiian music between 1957 and 1961. The label still banks on these recordings, too. Although they have not been continuously available, they have been available in almost every format from the LP to the cassette tape to the CD and now MP3 which can be found on such reputable download services as iTunes and Rhapsody.

But what of the origins of these recordings? How much credit does the jazz impresario deserve for assembling this talent into an all-star cast for a stellar recording from end to end? Perhaps none at all! As mentioned on this blog previously, during this period it was becoming more and more common for the small labels in Hawai’i to license their masters to larger record companies around the world - not merely for the additional revenue, but for the greater purpose of spreading Hawaiian music as far and wide as possible. Hula Records licensed recordings of Gabby Pahinui, Eddie Kamae, and Genoa Keawe to London International Records, Bell Records licensed Alfred Apaka and George Kainapau masters to Urania Records, and on and on and on. So it may have been with these G.N.P. releases most of which have their provenance in 10” LPs from years earlier released by Terna Hawaii Recording Co.

This might require further exploration. When the long playing record was introduced in the late 1940s, it was the same 10” in diameter as the previous 78 r.p.m. format. Playing at the 33 1/3 r.p.m speed, it could hold multiple songs as compared to the 78’s single song format - hence the term “long playing.” The LP employed the 10” size of its predecessor because turntables were being built to accommodate both formats. Had the LP increased in size - as it later did after some experimentation at Columbia Records - manufacturers of record players would have needed to redesign their turntables for the larger size record (and, ultimately, throw away a lot of parts inventory).

So the 10” LP had a short period of popularity from about 1948 to 1955 when the 12” LP as we know it overtook it in popularity. This means that songs by Haunani Kahalewai, Andy Cummings, and Ray Kinney released on Terna 10” records predate 1955 and, therefore, long predate their appearance on the 1959 G.N.P. label to which they were licensed.

But this only accounts for a few of the artists. What about Pua Almeida? The songs by Pua which appear on the G.N.P. Crescendo album do not appear on a previous Terna release or - for that matter - any release from Hawai’i. Were these recorded for Terna and locked up in a vault somewhere? Were they released as obscure Terna 78 r.p.m. singles? (I have seen a few of these from Haunani Kahalewai.) Or were they recorded fresh by Gene Norman for his 1959 release? This is an issue of tremendous interest since it would help us not only date the recordings, but also help us elucidate whether they were recorded on the mainland where Pua spent much of the mid-1950s or in Hawai’i where he had already returned by 1959 and was the featured entertainer at the Moana Surfrider Hotel.

Either way, the one element that binds these disparate recordings by Haunani, Andy, Ray, and Pua into a cohesive whole is the hula. The Terna Records titles from which most (but, now we know, not all) of these recordings came were labeled “Hawaiian classics for the hula.” This means that much of the experimentation we heard previously in Pua’s music would not be possible in music for the hula which relies heavily on repetition of such elements as the vamp (or transitions from one verse to another). So perhaps because this is music intended for the hula, we hear a much more traditional Pua Almeida here. To assert his uniqueness, Pua must rely on certain other signatures to achieve his “sound” -  the tight vocal harmonies and rhythmic arrangements which this time around rely not on elements fromt the Latin Americas, but rather on traditional Hawaiian percussion found in the ipu (or gourd), pu’ili (split bamboo sticks), and 'ili 'ili (lava rock stones). We hear two of the three selections from the G.N.P. release here - Maddy Lam’s “Ku’uipo Onaona” and Lilian Awa’s “Mahina O Hoku.”

In these recordings we also can begin to understand the key to Pua’s success on the entertainment scene in Waikiki during this period: He could do it all, from traditional music for the hula done in his own unique style to music for couples dancing under the moonlight. Such was the magic that was Pua Almeida…

Next time: When the new sounds of exotica met the traditional sounds of Hawai’i and some Pua Almeida you’ve likely never heard before…

Direct download: Pua_Almeida_Week_-_Part_4.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:07pm EDT