Revisiting the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders

When last we discussed the music of Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, we examined the revolutionary sounds of his then new group, the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders – a serendipitous combination… Benny Kalama’s beautiful falsetto voice, `ukulele and upright bass work, and exciting arrangements… George Kainapau’s unparalleled falsetto… Tommy Castro’s jazzy steel guitar playing… And “Papa” Alvin’s driving rhythm guitar, voice, and songwriting talent. Together, they created a sound that – although abandoning the approach of the “big bands” with whom each had played – was still imminently danceable. In 1947 – and for many years to come – this group would take Hawai`i and the world by storm. Last time around we began a look at the group’s recordings for Bell Records. But the focus was on those few singles that had been remastered and re-released as CDs or MP3s. There are many, many more recordings by Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs and the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders that deserve a listen but which – surprisingly, given the importance of this band in the history and evolution of Hawaiian music – remain a well-kept secret in the digital era. Here are a few from the vaults at Ho`olohe Hou 

R. Alex Anderson – one of the premier composers in the hapa-haole genre (or songs in the English language which speak of Hawai`i or uniquely Hawaiian subjects) – wrote the novelty number “The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai” in 1934 at the request of Paul Fagan, owner of Pu`uhoku Ranch on Moloka`i, as a gift for a very special guest of the ranch – movie star Warner Baxter (the “Cisco Kid”). According to the archives of the Moloka`i Dispatch, the Molokai`i locals were excited about the impending arrival of Baxter because he was instantly recognized as that “film star that rides wild horses.” They dubbed their honored guest an “Honorary Mayor” and threw him a huge celebration lu`au. Regrettably, Baxter overindulged at the party in his honor and became exceedingly inebriated. This is the tale Anderson captured in this song – a gift Baxter did not appreciate because he felt it reflected poorly (or, perhaps, too accurately) on the extravagant Hollywood lifestyle. Although the song (it goes without saying) would never be featured in a Baxter film, the song was used a decade later in the musical comedy Tahiti Nights. “Papa” must have had a penchant for this tune since he recorded it twice: once for Bell Records in the 1940s and again for Waikiki Records in the early 1960s. Everybody joins in on the vocals here. 

Alvin takes the vocal lead himself on another hapa-haole favorite, “Evening In The Islands” – a sad love song. The foursome is heard in a vocal quartet in the out chorus. The song was composed by Don McDiarmid, Sr. who is better known for such comic hapa-haole tunes as “My Wahine and Me” and “When Hilo Hattie Does The Hilo Hop” (as well as for founding the Hula Records label). This song always reminds me of evenings at the Waikiki Beach Marriott when Aunty Genoa Keawe used to perform there with her family and friends. She opened every Thursday evening performance with this song. Genoa Keawe’s granddaughter, Pomaika`i Keawe Lyman, her niece, Momi Kahawaiola`a, her son, Gary Aiko, and good friend, steel guitarist Alan Akaka, carry on Aunty Genoa’s Thursday evening tradition – and they still open with this song without fail. It is Hawaiian music as you do not often hear it played anymore, and so the Keawe `Ohana (as they are known) should be a “must see” (or “must hear”) on any visitor’s list. 

On the old Hawaiian standard, “Nani Wale No `Oe,” falsetto great George Kainapau trades choruses with the entire vocal quartet and an occasion solo steel guitar chorus from Tommy Castro. 

The silly hapa-haole ditty “Hula Lolo” is taken at the expected danceable Royal Hawaiian Serenaders tempo and features a fabulous – albeit much too short – steel guitar solo from Castro. Many have likely forgotten (if they ever knew) that this hapa-haole ­number was composed by hula dancer Aggie Auld who found fame in Hollywood – appearing in films with Bette Davis, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour. (She even choreographed a hula-on-ice for a film starring figure skater Sonja Heine.) 

Another song long associated with Genoa Keawe, “Alika,” is sung here by “Papa” Alvin and features still more sterling Castro steel work. This typically Hawaiian song employs the poetic technique known as kaona (or metaphoric language leading to multiple layers of meaning). The song speaks of a sailing ship and the many ports it visits. But in Hawaiian music, a ship is rarely a ship but, rather, is more often a lover that strays, and each port represents another of its paramours. Through the use of kaona, the Hawaiian composer can handle such matters far more tactfully and gracefully than one might encounter in pop or country music.  

I mentioned previously that the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders made recordings for Bell Records both under their own name as well as serving as a sort of label “house band” – providing accompaniment for other singers. Here, Alvin and the gentlemen assist Mel Peterson on his own composition, “E Naughty Naughty Mai Nei.” Peterson recorded the tune at least three times throughout his career, but this was the song’s debut on record. (You heard Mel Peterson join the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders for another of his own compositions, “You’re At A Luau Now.”) 

There are still more treasured recordings by Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs and the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders in the vaults. Not in any way intended maliciously, but I choose to save these for another time – perhaps when we discuss the individual contributions of George Kainapau, Benny Kalama, or Tommy Castro to this amazing whole that was clearly more than the sum of its parts. But, worry not. There is a whole lot more Alvin Isaacs music to discuss. 

Next time: Alvin Isaacs’ compositions and life after the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders…

Direct download: Alvin_Isaacs_-_Royal_Hawaiian_Serenaders_Rare_78_rpms_1.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 4:57am EST