Fri, 15 August 2014
Singer, dancer, choreographer, and composer Ihilani Miller was born August 15, 1932. With looks not unlike the Pacific version of Imogene Coca, Miller’s resume reads as impressively as any superstar of the pop or jazz world on the mainland in the 1950s. Miller performed all over the mainland – Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia – and was featured on the numerous TV talk and variety programs of the day hosted by Arthur Godfrey, Steve Allen, Mike Douglas, Alvino Rey, Ed Sullivan (of course!), Donald O’Connor, and even the Colgate Comedy Hour. But after living the life of a superstar for a while, Ihilani eventually settled down to a quieter life in Hawai`i – remaining active in the entertainment field later in life by continuing to perform many Friday afternoons as featured vocalist with the Royal Hawaiian Band in their performances at the bandstand at `Iolani Palace.
While not a prolific composer, Auntie Ihilani wrote a few gems that have become oft performed classics. You no doubt know at least one. Who hasn’t heard “Kuhio Beach?”
Where the moon shines on the sand
And the beach boys are surfing in with the tide
To the shore with girls side by side
Regretably, Ihilani Miller only cut one LP in her lifetime – Ihilani. Voice of the South Pacific in the 1950s. There are very few copies floating around – even among collectors. But as I forged a friendship with Auntie Ihilani in her later life, I feel very fortunate to have received my copy of this gem straight from her hands and her heart. In this segment we hear two selections from that LP – one so haunting I dare you not to cry when you hear it.
“Nohelani” is an original Miller composition written – in the Hawaiian tradition – to honor the birth of a child. Auntie Ihilani miller once performed in an “all girl” band led by singer/guitarist Lei Cypriano (later of the Halekulani Girls). “Nohelani” honors Lei’s daughter Nohelani Cypriano who went on to become a superstar of Hawaiian entertainment in the 1970s and 80s. If you are hearing Ihilani sing for the first time, you hear that her vocal style bridges a gap between opera, Broadway, and the pop stylings of, say, Eydie Gorme. She also has an incredible vocal range – allowing her to ring every last bit of emotion out of her composition. But it is the dynamics on the last note – the volume swell and subsequent decrescendo – that rip my heart out every time.
“The Breeze and I” has origins in both Cuba and Spain. Originally an instrumental entitled “Andalucia” by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, a Spanish lyric was added later by Emilio de Torre, and finally later the English language lyric Auntie Ihilani sings here composed by Al Stillman. The orchestra of Jimmy Dorsey struck gold with the instrumental in the 1940s, and singer Caterina Valente took her vocal version all the way to #13 on the Billboard charts in 1955. This is approximately the same time period to which Auntie Ihilani’s LP dates, but as Ihilani, Voice of the South Seas was produced by a small local label – not one of the big corporate production houses that could have gained national distribution traction – despite that Ihilani’s version of the tune is far more compelling, it never had a chance.
Ihilani Miller passed away on May 17, 2011. I still haven’t come to terms with this because we continued to grow closer near the end of her life. We met on September 11, 2004 when I was a contestant in the Aloha Festivals Falsetto Contest and she was a judge. This was the beginning of a beautiful, but too brief friendship. She gave me the most valuable singing advice anyone had given me before or since: “Just sing the song. Tell the story. If the song is well written, then you don’t need all of the vocal gymnastics these young people attempt today.” Despite that Auntie Ihilani made her home in Ewa Beach later in life, she was born and raised in Kapahulu and kept close ties to that side of the island. When last we spoke, she was planning a vacation – to spend two weeks in Waimanalo at the home of Auntie Nickie Hines.