Kui Lee – The Entertainer

Kui returned to Hawai`i in 1961 bringing him with great success and an even greater prize – a wife. He met singer and hula dancer Rose Frances Leinani Naone – a Hawaiian girl born in New Jersey – when she auditioned to perform in the famed Hawaiian Room of the Lexington Hotel in New York City where Kui spent the last year and a half of his mainland career as a choreographer and knife dancer. The couple was earning $1,700 a week when Kui decided to pack it in and go home. This dynamic duo would eventually find engagements across both O`ahu and Maui – eventually headlining the Queen’s Surf, selling it our night after night. But the couple started out much more modestly on their return – at a small mom-and-pop joint in the neighborhood they made their home, Kane`ohe. The place was called Honey’s. Should it matter that the club was owned by a family named Ho and that the house band was led by their then unknown son, Don? It turns out it matters a great deal. In fact, it is the very definition of “serendipity.”

It would be an understatement to say that in the early running Kui made a nuisance of himself at Honey’s. According to Jerry Hopkins’ “Don Ho: My Music, My Life,” Kui would show up at the club at 10 o’clock in the morning when Don – being the owner’s son and not yet a “star” – was doing whatever family needed to do to make a bar and restaurant run. Kui would urge Don to hear a new song he had written, and Don would tell Kui that the songs – because of their complex melodies and harmonic structures – weren’t “Hawaiian” enough for Honey’s local audiences. And the criticism was mutual. Kui – no stranger to large mainland showrooms – would offer Don unsolicited advice on everything from lighting and staging to his singing, remarking, “When you sing, you look like you’re constipated.” It is difficult to conceive that a relationship born in perpetual appraisal and fault-finding would culminate in a lasting friendship and artistic collaboration that endured until Kui’s early demise. But both became huge stars through this no doubt symbiotic relationship. With this bickering, each propelled the other on to greater heights – each becoming a legend in his own right, but the whole always remaining greater than the sum of its parts. Don needed Kui’s songs to become legend. And Kui – despite being the consummate showman – needed Don’s charisma and universal appeal to bring his songs to a worldwide audience.

Despite Don joking to Nani that he would hire her for the band but “definitely not your husband,” both became regulars in the Honey’s Kane`ohe group – a group that was the launching pad for countless other future stars of Hawai`i entertainment including songbird Marlene Sai, slack key guitarist Sonny Chillingworth, `ukulele virtuoso Tony Bee, bassist and romantic baritone Gary Aiko, singer and entertainer Zulu (who went on to his own stage show in Waikiki as well as starring in several seasons of the original “Hawaii Five-0” TV series), and singer Alvin Okami (who put his singing aspirations aside for 40 years to build first a successful plastics firm and then – today – KoAloha `Ukulele). (And, yes, Don really played the Hammond chord organ. It was not merely a prop.) There is little tape remaining from that era. But there is a particularly controversial one that lingers in the vaults of ardent Hawaiian music collectors.

In 1962 – long before Don would become famous – Hula Records’ owner Donald “Flip” McDiarmid II heard about the magic that was happening in Kane`ohe every night at Honey’s. So he went over there one evening with a portable tape recorder and captured part of the magic of an evening at Honey’s exactly as it happened. The material recorded that evening was eventually released on the Hula Records label under the title “Waikiki Swings!” despite that the recording was of subpar sound quality. It sounded like what it was – a “bootleg.” I spoke to Flip in his home shortly before his passing in 2010, and this tape was one of the topics I broached. According to Flip, he had taken the recorder in to capture some of the magic so that he could review it to see if he had an album in the making in order to offer a deal to the participants in the band at Honey’s. If the deal had come to fruition, Flip would have returned with a professional remote recording crew and made an “album.” No such deal ever came to fruition. Don held out for a national deal – which came after his show moved to Duke Kahanamoku’s at the International Marketplace in Waikiki just a year or two later. However, according to others familiar with the situation, there was no such deal in the making; the recording was a bootleg – and pure and simple – and when Don released his first two live albums nationwide for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records label in 1965, Hula Records released the bootleg from Honey’s in 1966 to capitalize on Don’s burgeoning success. Making the accusation even worse, some involved with the performance captured that evening claim that they were never paid when “Waikiki Swings!” was released. I am not an investigative journalist. So I chalk up these conflicting tales to there always being “two sides to every story.” And if time has the capacity to heal many (surely not all) wounds, it may merely be because memory invariably fades and, with it, the scars.

Regardless of McDiarmid’s motivations, nobody can deny that he captured an important moment in Hawaiian music history – a pre-fame Don Ho and possibly the only extant live recordings of Kui and Nani Lee. The selections offered here are those portions of the evening which featured Kui or Nani. (I could have posted the entire album since nearly every song sung that evening – including those performed by Don and Alvin – were Kui’s compositions.) But here I wanted you to have a taste of Kui and Nani the entertainers. Occasionally, Don would allow Kui to emcee the evenings at Honey’s, but he did so with great trepidation. Despite being first and foremost a musician, Kui was sharply funny – often turning his rapier wit on the audience, earning him the nickname “Hawai`i’s Lenny Bruce.” (In the Jerry Hopkins book on Ho’s life, comedian Eddie Sherman recounted that one evening at Honey’s in Kane`ohe, Kui spotted a haole couple at the front of the audience and quipped over the microphone that in Kane`ohe “the haoles sit at the back of the room.”) You will hear some of Kui’s political incorrectness on the first tune in this set – his own rewrite of the folk tune “Cotton Fields” which he recast for local audiences as “Taro Patch” – as well as near the end of the set, a duet with his wife, Nani, on Bina Mossman’s “He `Ono” during which Kui takes time out to provide some revisionist history of the "discovery" of Hawai`i and explain some of the ethnic make-up of Hawai`i (perhaps for the haoles at the back of the room). 

But there are tender moments here too. Many of Kui’s fans believe that many of his compositions take on their poignancy because he composed them after he was already diagnosed with cancer. He knew that his life was to be cut short, and this resulted in such lyrics as “If I Had It To Do All Over Again,” made popular by Don. But more poignant than this is hearing him sing his own “When It’s Time To Go.”

When it’s time to go

Will I be a bore

And react, my friend

Like a fool once more

I listen to this song and can't help but highly suspect that this is one of those songs that Don would not have liked when Kui brought it to him - with its meandering jazz chord structure and an unexpected shift from major to minor and back again. Don told Kui, "Just play five simple chords and you'll be surprised how beautiful the song can be." And yet I cannot imagine a more beautiful song in any genre from any land.

And Nani sings her husband’s “Where Is My Love Tonight?’ like the seasoned pro she was – a vocal performance that would have stood comparison to such jazz chanteuses of the era as Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone, and Morgana King.

I hope you enjoy these sounds of a forgotten era – a simpler time when fun was cleaner and the consequences less dire – as well as this rare glimpse of the equally magnetic personalities that were Mr. and Mrs. Kui Lee.

~ Bill Wynne

Direct download: Kui_Lee_2.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 11:27am EST

Andy Cummings

It is ironic (in a way) to disrupt our discussion of Kui Lee with a discussion of another Hawai`i composer, Andy Cummings. Both have written unforgettable songs which continue to be sung by Hawaiians wherever they may be, but their approach to songwriting couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. Kui rejected almost everything Andy (and others like him) stood for. There were few palm trees or pikake blossoms ever mentioned in a Kui Lee composition. But it was just this imagery that made Andy Cummings’ compositions epitomical examples of the music of the hapa-haole era – the music that beckoned mainlanders to visit the distant island paradise and know its people. Kui’s music was universal; Andy’s music was distinctly Hawaiian.

A gifted athlete (first baseball – ascending from team mascot to its star pitcher – and later football and basketball) and a member of his church's choir and orchestra (switching off between violin and trumpet), Cummings professional music career began in 1929 playing dances and parties for a whopping $3 / night. When his family moved to Hilo in 1933, Andy formed the Huapala troupe. By 1936 he signed with KHBC radio and – billed as the 'Wandering Troubador' – launched a 15-minute radio program every Sunday. Impresario E.K. Fernandez (you know, of the carnivals!) discovered Andy’s group and booked them on a nine-month North American tour – an excursion which took the troupe to Toronto, Kalamazoo, Detroit and Lansing.

Anecdotally, it was during winter time in Lansing, Michigan when Andy wrote the song which many cite as the greatest hapa-haole song of all time, “Waikiki.” While many would say the song is typically Hawaiian, I would contend that Andy actually took Hawaiian music subtly in a new direction with this (and his other) compositions. In terms of poetry, the lyric – with its clever dual rhyme scheme – is as good as anything Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, or Johnny Mercer ever wrote:

There’s a feeling deep in my heart

Stabbing at me just like a dart

It’s a feeling heavenly

I see memories out of the past

Memories that always will last

Of a place beside the sea

But more than this, Andy employed a harmonic structure that would have challenged many Hawaiian musicians of this period. It is clear from the chords to “Waikiki” – and “Only Ashes Remain,” “Pikake,” and “Kanani Mine” – as well as from his penchance for writing a swing tune that Cummings was also a frustrated jazzer. To this day fine musicians still play the chords to the bridge of “Waikiki” dead wrong. With this song, Cummings set a new standard in writing a Hawaiian song with a complexity of composition that had not been achieved since David Nape before him.

After the war, Andy formed a variety of groups which played at the night spots of the era – Chock See's By the Sea, the Outrigger Canoe Club, Kilohana Gardens, Felix Florentine Gardens and Queen's Surf. He also began laying down sides for the short-lived Bell Records label – most (if not all) of which have been remastered for CD by Michael Cord for his Hana Ola Records. But it should not be mistaken that this is Cummings’ entire recorded output. He recorded for several labels throughout his career including mainland label Decca (taking his music around the globe through its worldwide distribution), Terna Records (later licensed to the GNP label and also distributed around the world), Waikiki Records, and a few independent or privately-funded releases.

Today’s selections focus on an Andy Cummings LP that only had one pressing and which has been out of print for nearly 40 years. I feel that it is his master work because by this point in his career Cummings was a seasoned music veteran who knew the sound and style he sought and how to attain it. But perhaps because of the circumstances under which it was recorded, it is possible that nobody knows where the master tapes for this LP reside after so long. The recording – “Songs of Hawaii” – featured both Andy Cummings and Sol K. Bright – two friends who also happened to be doing promotional work for Hawaiian Airlines during this period (the early 1970s). Hawaiian Airlines funded the recording project which perhaps was never even commercially available. (It is possible that Hawaiian Airlines gave away copies to promote tourism.) But it should be considered a classic for fans of both Bright and Cummings as well as a special rarity on which both composers perform some of their compositions that had never been recorded by any other artist before or since.

The set opens with Andy singing one of Sol’s compositions, “Sophisticated Hula.” You’ll hear Sol chime in with a chant on the two bars between each verse. And the incredible steel guitar solo – in my humble opinion, one of the finest ever laid down on record, rivaling only Jules Ah See’s and Jake Keli`ikoa’s jazzy style – is Andy’s longtime musical associate, pedal steel guitarist Peter Dillingham. (The liner notes do not list the personnel, so I am making this assessment of the mystery steel player based on other recordings I have on which Dillingham is accurately identified and after consultation with a number of active steel players in Hawai`i and abroad such as Jeff Au Hoy and Basil Henriques.)

“Mauna Kea Paradise” is an Andy Cummings original and – like “Waikiki” – is another love song for a place. The vibes gives this song its dream-like state, and Peter Dillingham turns out another amazing steel guitar solo. And even at this advanced age, Cummings turns out an absolutely stellar vocal performance to boot. This is the only ever recording of this song by any artist.

Finally, a song co-written by Andy with friend Jake Holck, “Kanani Mine.” This is likely one of the rarest of Cummings’ compositions as this was its one and only appearance on record – a record long out of print. And it is clear that Cummings wrote the bridge – a chord structure he robbed from himself as it is largely the same as the bridge for both “Waikiki” and “Only Ashes Remain.”

There are many such forgotten Cummings compositions. I hope to use this space to give these beautiful recordings back to the world. But some I am not currently at liberty to share. There are the songs Cummings published, of course, but I am in possession of a number of home recordings of Andy singing songs that he never published. I will continue to explore how I can make these recordings available.

I hope you enjoy this forgotten music of one of my heroes, Andy Cummings.

~ Bill Wynne

Direct download: Andy_Cummings_1.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 11:30pm EST