Alvin Isaacs - "Nalani"

In 1948 Alvin Isaacs won First Prize in the Aloha Festivals Song Contest with his composition “A World of Happy Days.” This is but one of the many reasons why “Papa” Alvin was often referred to as “The Ambassador of Good Cheer.” 

That same year tobacco heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke absolutely fell in love with Alvin Isaacs’ composition “Nalani.” She threw a party At Shangri La, her mansion on five acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Diamond Head, and among the dignitaries on that guest list was a vacationing Nat “King” Cole. Doris took him aside and said, “Nat, you just have to hear this song!” And she handed him the sheet music. Nat looked at it and fell in love with it just as hard as Doris did – so much so that he immediately proceeded to sit down at the piano and take the new tune for a spin for the guests of the party. The rest – as they say – is history. Although as I usually hear that history, it says that “Nalani” was the very next song Nat recorded when he returned to the mainland and the Capitol Records studio at in Hollywood. This is not entirely true. It was not until more than a year later – on September 9, 1949 – that Nat took the new English-language lyric (and new title) by Girdie Bielenson into the famed Capitol Records studios at 5515 Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. (The famed Capitol Record tower – the one that looks like a stack of 45 rpm records on a spindle – was not built until 1956.) Nat waxed “Nalani (Here Is My Heart)” with his regular trio including guitarist Irving Ashby, bassist Joe Comfort, and Nat on piano (with an unidentified vocal group). The English-language lyric (which is not a translation of the original Hawaiian) was no doubt aimed at helping the record appeal to mainland record buyers, but it was a doubly good idea given Nat’s struggle (as you can hear) with the little bit of Hawaiian he had to sing. The record was buzz-worthy enough for a syndicated columnist (in a piece appearing in both the October 31, 1949 Toledo Blade and the November 3, 1949 Times Herald of Olean, NY) to mention the tune in an announcement of a concert featuring bandleader Woody Herman with special guest Nat “King” Cole: 

This well known music world figure and clarinetist will bring his orchestra to the Sports Arena on Friday evening, Nov. 11, for a popular concert program. Starring with him will be Nat “King” Cole and his celebrated trio. Doris Duke will be one of the regular ringsiders at Bop City during Nat “King” Cole’s next engagement there. And one of his numbers will be a song she discovered for him in Hawaii – a ditty called “Nalani” which was written by one of her friends. 

Another version of this story has the record being pulled from circulation for reasons unknown. But as nobody can cite the reasons why it would be pulled, and as this story is not documented in writing seemingly anywhere, the veracity of the tale remains in doubt. 

Because turnabout is fair play, if Alfred Apaka recorded an early (if not the earliest) version of the original Hawaiian-language lyric for “Nalani” in 1947, as his popularity grew, Apaka (or the record label to which he was then signed, Decca) capitalized on the popularity of the Nat “King” Cole version by recording the English-language version more suitable for consumption by mainland audiences himself. And, in an attempt at trumping the Cole version, Decca Records paired their biggest star in Hawai`i with their biggest stars practically everywhere else: the Andrews Sisters. On May 20, 1952 at the Decca Records studio in Los Angeles with a group led by Hollywood-based steel guitarist Danny Stewart (who arranged and led most of the early Apaka sessions for the label), Patty, Maxine, LaVerne, and Alfred laid down the Girdie Bielenson English-language lyric for “Nalani (Here’s To My Heart)”. The review in the September 27, 1952 issue of Billboard exclaimed: 

The gals are on a Hawaiian kick in this platter. They have the strong assistance of Alfred Apaka as the male chanter, and together they turn in a fresh reading of the Island opus. Good program wax. 

Make no mistake: On every version of the 78 and 45 rpms that I have ever encountered of this side, the Andrews Sisters get top billing on the label – helping to ensure the record’s success. This would lead one to believe that recording “Nalani” a second time was Decca’s – not Apaka’s – idea. The two sessions between May 20 and 22, 1952 produced eight sides which were released as an album of four 78 rpm discs entitled My Isle of Golden Dreams. All of these sides remain officially out of print today. Not that any singles you might find from these sessions released as MP3s are bootlegs copied from the records in somebody’s collection (not unlike this blog.) 

Elsewhere at Ho`olohe Hou we have been discussing the mainland adventures – and successes – of Hawai`i’s operatic tenor Charles K.L. Davis. Under contract to Long Island, New York’s Everest Records in the late 1950s, Davis also turned in a version of the English-language lyric to “Nalani (Here Is My Heart)” for his LP Songs of Hawaii. The steel guitarist – as identified by his tone, seemingly uncontrollable vibrato, and rocket-like glissandos – is none other than Hal Aloma who was firmly rooted in NYC after his stint at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room. An audiophile label using the then most advanced recording technologies available, Everest Records release was a feast for the ears. These masters would lend themselves to stunning releases in the digital era, but sadly only one Charles K.L. Davis title on Everest has received this treatment. As with the sides by Alfred Apaka with the Andrews Sisters, caveat emptor. Any MP3 reissues you might find of the Charles K.L. Davis catalog on Everest Records are “needle drops” – offered for sale by nefarious entities – and in many cases sound worse than a copy of the original record located at a flea market. 

Three versions of an Alvin Isaacs classic – all recorded on the mainland. Highly unusual for any song that isn’t “Hawaiian War Chant,” “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” or anything that appeared in a Bing Crosby or Elvis Presley movie. We have spent considerable time talking about Alvin Isaacs’ lyrics. But “Nalani” proves “Papa” could write a really memorable and addictive melody too – one with a much broader appeal than local Hawai`i audiences alone. 

Next time: An Isaacs family affair and another OOPs (out of print) classic…


Direct download: Alvin_Isaacs_-_Nalani_Three_Versions.mp3
Category:Mele: About The Songs -- posted at: 7:19am EST

More from the Helen Desha Beamer Songbook

Let’s continue to explore the innumerable compositions from the pen of the prolific Helen Desha Beamer… 

The set opens with the unmistakable voice of Marlene Sai singing “Pu`uwa`awa`a,” a song Helen wrote for Mrs. Hannah Hind and her home at Pihanakalani. Like the Brown family of which Auntie Helen also wrote, the Hind Family was known for their love of entertaining family and friends. You might find numerous other Hawaiian songs written in their honor. “Pihanakalani” was the name of the Hind homestead – not to be confused with the Pihanakalani of Kaua`i, the mountainous region above Wailua River near the Wailua Fall which was home to that island’s ruling class in the days of the monarchies. This is from Marlene’s Hana Hou LP which – although once out of print for a very long time – is now available again as an MP3 download from iTunes, Rhapsody, and eMusic. (Fans of steel guitarist Barney Isaacs will be interested in this album since – despite being uncredited in the liner notes – Barney handled the steel guitar chores. Ironically, the vibes take the lead on this song, and the steel guitar is nowhere to be heard.) 

Of the many voices Hawai`i lost too soon, perhaps my favorite – the one who has had the most influence on me as a falsetto singer in the modern era – is Sam Bernard. Here he performs Auntie Helen’s composition “Paniau” which she composed in honor of the seaside home of Al and Annabelle Ruddell who dwelled on the Kona Coast of the island of Hawai`i. This is from Sam’s 1986 Kahanu Records LP Mahie which – despite its influence on today’s falsetto singers – remains out of print. (Kahanu Records imploded shortly after this record was released – many of its artists losing access to their master tapes, most seized – so the rumor goes – by the IRS. We will no doubt get to the Kahanu Records story on this blog at some point. Until then, I hope y auditors are having a grand time enjoying Tony Conjugacion, Ho`aikanes, and Ka`eo.) 

For the second day in a row I offer you a healthy dose of Nina Keali`iwahamana – this time with her family, singing sisters Lani and Lahela and even brother-in-law Joe Custino (Lani’s husband) on steel guitar. They sing a song that Auntie Helen wrote as a wedding gift for Charles Dahlberg – her soon to be son-in-law – and because Charles was a stranger to Hawai`i, Auntie Helen refers to him in the mele as “Pua Malihini,” or “stranger child,” which is also the title of the song. (Although “pua” is literally translated as “flower,” the term is most often used in Hawaiian poetry to refer to a person – especially a special someone. Now, go count the number of Hawaiian songs with “pua” in their titles.) Charles came to Hawai`i, met a lovely Hawaiian lady named Helen Elizabeth (Auntie Helen’s youngest child), fell in love with her – by most accounts, it was love at first sight for both of them – courted her, and ultimately took her as his bride. And from the moment he asked Helen Elizabeth to be his wife, she referred to him as “my darling.” Knowing this, Auntie Helen immortalized their love in song when she wrote, “Ku`u pua malihini, my darling.” But Auntie Helen wrote a song as a wedding gift for her daughter too: the Hawaiian standard “Kawohikukapulani,” a mele inoa (or name song) which refers to Helen Elizabeth by her Hawaiian name, Kawohi, a song which became a staple of Alfred Apaka’s repertoire. This recording is from the Hula Records LP – now CD and download – Na Mele `Ohana by the musical Rodrigues Family led by their matriarch, Auntie Vicki I`i. We will talk about this album at length at some point as the cover graces my wall because I consider it one of the twelve Hawaiian music recordings that changed my life and led me down my lifelong path of the pursuit of understanding Hawaiian music. 

And, finally, Nalani Olds Reinhardt sings the lovely “Moani Ke Ala.” This composition represents a rare instance in which Auntie Helen only wrote the music; the lyric is by Mrs. E.A. Nawahi and honors Leimakalani Henderson and the home she shared with her husband Jim “Kimo” Henderson (mentioned yesterday and for whom Auntie Helen wrote “Kimo Hilo”) at Pi`ihonua in Hilo, Hawai`i. The song is from Nalani’s 1978 Pumehana Records LP simply entitled Nalani on which she is backed by some then youngsters who went on to become Hawaiian music stalwarts themselves – Haunani Apoliona, Eldon Akamine, Haunani Bernardino, and Aaron Mahi (who for some time held the esteemed position of leader of the Royal Hawaiian Band), or the group otherwise known then as Kaimana. The group is scarcely heard here on this selection as they are accompanied also by a string quartet. I last saw Auntie Nalani in September 2007, and she remarked at the time that she had not seen nor heard this LP since its release 30 years earlier. Hearing it again reminds me that I am overdue in keeping a promise to remaster this (and her second Pumehana Records release, `Elua, as well). In fact, this should bring me double joy as I happen to know this voice is a favorite of my good friend, Jason Poole, who has one song from Nalani in regular rotation on his iPod, the only song re-released on CD which appears on the compilation CD Hawaiian Classics.  

Next time: The Brothers Cazimero honor Helen Desha Beamer. And if Helen was such an amazing singer herself, why haven’t we heard her voice?...

Direct download: 06_Hoolohe_Hou_-_September_2014_Part_1.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 5:56am EST

Alvin Isaacs (We’re Just Getting Started!)

We have been discussing Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs the composer whose songwriting output is seemingly innumerable. I have never seen a list of his compositions. I just keep throwing platters on the turntable, and with each spin, I hear a song and say, “He wrote that too!” It is harder to find a Hawaiian music album that doesn’t offer an Alvin Isaacs song than to find one that does. So here are still a few more from the pen of Alvin Isaacs as recorded by some of the shining stars in the Hawaiian entertainment constellation of the 1960s. 

I recently introduced the segment here at Ho`olohe Hou entitled “OOPs” – classic Hawaiian music recordings which inexplicably remain out of print (or “OOP”). The first song in this set comes from just such an out of print recording – one for which, if I could obtain the master tapes, I would fund the remaster and rerelease myself. (It is that important.) Known largely only by collectors of Hawaiian music recordings, Hula La – a 1959 Liberty Records release – was an all-star affair which married superstars of the Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts (Sonny Nicholas, Sonny Kamahele, Danny Stewart, Barney Isaacs, and Pua Almeida) with members of the Martin Denny band (Julius Wechter on vibes, Willard Brady on woodwinds, and Augie Colon’s variety of percussion) all under the direction of Chick Floyd (a former mainland big band leader and arranger who relocated to Hawai`i where he arranged for recordings by Ed Kenney and Lani Kai as well as the Lucky Luck TV Show) for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Liberty Records clearly aimed to capitalize on the current music craze known as “exotica” – a hybrid of Hawaiian songs and exotic percussion (and occasional bird calls) that as such would not be native to Hawai`i but perhaps some fictitious jungle elsewhere in Oceania. (While the craze likely began with Les Baxter’s 1952 LP Ritual of the Savage, the subgenre was eventually named for the 1957 Martin Denny LP Exotica and its many follow-ups Exotica II, Exotica III, etc., etc.) As Denny was under contract to Liberty at the time both as an artist and as A&R (artist and repertoire) man on the ground in Hawai`i, the soil was fertile for such a musical experiment. What resulted was not so much “exotica” as it was really very forward-thinking Hawaiian music. The album is an essential addition to every Hawaiian music collection, but alas it is out of print. It contains the one and only ever recording of Alvin Isaacs’ pseudo-chant composition “Hula La.” Given that this Isaacs composition was published by the same publishing house as every other song on the LP (Exotica Publishing Co.), it is highly likely then that Isaacs was commissioned to write the tune to fit the title of the LP (and not that the LP was titled for an existing Isaacs tune). The lead vocal is by none other than Pua Almeida – making this a rare entry in the Pua Almeida discography as well. Ho`olohe Hou will return to Hula La for more of these exciting sounds soon, no doubt.

One of Alvin’s most enduring compositions, “Aloha Nui Ku`uipo” (still often performed today), is offered up here by my friend and hero, the late Sonny Kamahele (recently celebrated here at Ho`olohe Hou). From his 1960s Sounds of Hawaii label release ironically titled Sounds of Hawaii, Sonny is joined here (likely, as there are no session personnel listed in the liner notes) by his regular working group of the period which included such fellow Hawaiian music legends as Cy Ludington, Mel Peterson, and steel guitarist Eddie Pang. It seems like only yesterday that I was sitting at the Halekulani Hotel’s House Without A Key at sunset listening to Sonny sing the very same song right in front of me. It was a staple of his repertoire – as were countless other Alvin Isaacs songs. 

The unmistakable voice of Aunty Genoa Keawe sings “He Nani Helena,” the song Alvin wrote for Helene Owens, the wife of his great friend and once musical associate, Harry Owens. This is from Aunty Genoa’s 1960s release “By Request” which she produced for the then brand new record label which she owned and operated. She is joined here by her band of that period – and for many years to come – her good friends Vicki I`i Rodrigues and Pauline Kekahuna on the dual rhythm guitars, Violet Pahu Liliko`i on upright bass, and steel guitarist Benny Rogers. 

Finally, from the 1970 Lehua Records LP eponymously titled Bunny Brown’s Hilo Hawaiians, Bunny Brown and company deliver another Isaacs classic, “Analani E.” The group – which hailed from Hilo on the island of Hawai`i and which originated in the famed Ha`ili Choir there – changed personnel over the years. But this incarnation was comprised of Bunny Brown, his two sons, and steel guitarist Arthur Kaua. This is one of the few recordings featured at Ho`olohe Hou that is still available as a CD or MP3 download courtesy of the care and diligence of Lehua Records. 

So by now we have heard all of Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs’ compositions, right? Join us next time to find out... 

Next time: The Alvin Isaacs composition most recorded outside of Hawai`i – a story that involves both Nat King Cole and the Andrews Sisters?...


Direct download: 10_Alvin_Kaleolani_Isaacs_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Composers -- posted at: 4:48am EST