Two Hawaiian Music Greats Take On NYC

You have already read that Lexington Hotel managing director Charles E. Rochester conceived of an idea to capitalize on mainlanders’ growing fascination with the paradise known as Hawai`i by turning the hotel’s largely unused basement into the “Hawaiian Room.” Designed for dining and dancing and an evening hula floor show, in order to become everything Rochester envisioned he would need to enlist entertainers who could “do it all” from traditional Hawaiian to swing jazz. But where would he find such versatile musicians? He would have to lure them away from Waikiki’s finest showrooms. 

This is where the Hawaiian Room story gets murky. I have scoured more than a half dozen (rather thick-ish) books on Hawaiian music history and every website which discusses the many names who eventually appeared in (what became) the famous Hawaiian Room. All of these sources disagree by virtue of saying very little at all. Many sources indicate that Andy Iona opened the room on June 23, 1937. Other sources cite that Ray Kinney did. Who’s right? Or, perhaps, they worked together. 

But according to one seemingly credible source – the well-researched Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire by Adria L. Imada – Kinney, in fact, was Rochester’s first choice. Imada writes: 

The talent scout of Hotel Lexington president Charles Rochester signed the Hawaiian and Irish tenor Ray Kinney of Honolulu as the Hawaiian Room’s orchestra leader in 1937. Hotel management also contracted steel guitarist Andy Iona and composer-singer Lani McIntire. 

If the order of these sentences is any indication, then Kinney was hired first and was intended to be the room’s star. But it does not clarify the question about whether Kinney and Iona appeared together in one aggregation or in separate groups perhaps featured on different evenings in the Hawaiian Room. Imada goes on to provide (I think) this clarification: 

Yet most Hawaiian entertainers claimed racially mixed backgrounds with their names or by personal admission. Throughout his career, Ray Kinney referred to himself as the “Irish Hawaiian,” but because “McIntire and Kinney” sounded too Irish, the opening billing of the Hawaiian Room originally read “Andy Iona and His Twelve Hawaiians.” 

This would imply that all of these fine musicians appeared as one aggregation under the billing of the most Hawaiian sounding name, Iona. (And this is ironic given that Iona’s birth name was, in fact, Long.) It should not be surprising that these musicians would work happily together as there is a long history of incestuous relationships among Hawaiian musicians. In short, anybody would perform or record with anybody else. What should be considered surprising is that – despite that Iona and Kinney were already superstars in Hawai`i at this point – there does not appear to be any evidence (using the same sources I mentioned above) that the two ever performed or recorded together until just shortly before their tenure at the Hawaiian Room. 

This one meeting of Andy Iona and Ray Kinney in the recording studio – on November 30, 1936 at Decca Records’ Los Angeles studios – produced a scant few four sides. “The Palm Trees Sing Aloha,” “Tropic Love”, and “When The April Showers Reach Hawaii” were all Iona originals. (The composer of the fourth tune – “Tropic Madness” – is unverifiable given my sources but was likely also Iona.) With Andy on steel guitar and lead vocals by Ray, these recordings are our only glimpse into how the pairing might have sounded together in the Hawaiian Room days (although the band heard on these recordings is much smaller than the bands assembled for the Hawaiian Room). Regrettably, I only have two of these sides in my collection. But I hope you enjoy hearing “The Palm Trees Sing Aloha” and “Tropic Love.” Notice the unusual addition of the harp on these sides – an instrument rarely heard in Hawaiian music but which adds an ethereal quality to these sides.

Next time: I have only told you that Ray Kinney arrived. I have failed to tell you how he got there…


Direct download: Hawaiian_Room_-_Ray_Kinney_with_Andy_Iona.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 7:59pm EST

Andy Iona Dreams Big

Born in 1902 in Honolulu, Andy Aiona Long was a musician’s musician who wanted nothing more in life – from the very earliest age – than to compose and perform music. Believing this life a very real possibility for him since he was born into a family of musical virtuosos, Andy quit Kamehameha School and tried his hand at a career as a full-time musician. 

Things seem to have worked out for the talented young man since Iona went on to become one of Hawai`i’s most well known, well respected, and influential musicians – breaking new ground along the way. Educated at Henri Berger's Private School of Music in Honolulu and specializing in woodwinds, clarinetist and saxophonist Iona was accepted as a solo saxophonist in the Royal Hawaiian Band (under the direction of Mekia Kealakai) and later led Johnny Noble's orchestra as first saxophone at the Moana Hotel. Although known now for his virtuosity on the steel guitar, Andy did not take up the instrument until he was in his mid-twenties. The multi-stringed instrument should have proven challenging given his unique affliction: Andy lost the thumb on his right hand to a machine shop accident at school (the same manner in which fellow steel player Billy Hew Len would lose his hand many years later). This is, of course, the picking hand (for a right-handed player). He compensated by turning one fingerpick backwards to be used for strumming. Those who witnessed Andy play the steel guitar called it “display of magical coordination.” Andy was dealing with such a physical infirmity long before Billy Hew Len or even gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. 

Andy moved to the mainland in 1921 – appearing on the radio on KFI in Los Angeles and then joining the staff of KHJ. His group - Andy Iona and his Islanders – was one of the first to combine traditional Hawaiian song forms with American swing. Soon Iona was touring the country – back and forth between New York City and Los Angeles, in demand not only for his way with a saxophone or a steel guitar or the new sound he was creating by melding Hawaiian music with danceable rhythms, but also for his abilities as a composer and arranger. His musical ear was so well trained and finely tuned that – like the great arrangers Nelson Riddle and Billy May who would come long after – Andy could write an arrangement for full orchestra in his head without ever touching an instrument. Andy even toured Japan between the 1920s and 1930s – one of the first Hawaiian musicians to do so. 

By the 1940s Iona had joined ASCAP and was composing for others besides himself and his band. (His compositions are still popular today and include "South Sea Island Magic," "Maui Moon," "A Million Moons Over Hawaii," "Naughty Hula Eyes," and – of course – the favorites among steel guitarists, the instrumentals "Sand," “Carefree,” and the jaunty “How D’Ya Do.”) He scored the film Honolulu (which starred Eleanor Powell), and he even had roles in the films Bird of Paradise, Waikiki Wedding, and Song Of The Islands (with fellow musicians Lani McIntire and Sol Ho`opi`i). You may recall from an earlier edition of Ho`olohe Hou a mention that hula dancer Aggie Auld choreographed a hula-on-ice for a Sonja Henie film. Andy toured off and on with Henie for nearly 12 years, and from 1950 through 1952, he and falsetto legend George Kainapau toured as part of the Hollywood Ice Review. 

There is much to be said about Andy Iona, but as there are many musicians to honor over the next few days, a full tribute to this man of many talents will have to wait until New Year’s Day when we celebrate his birthday. For now, we are concerned with the period around 1937 when Andy got “the call” from the Lexington Hotel’s talent agent to come and open at their new Hawaiian Room – a successful run he enjoyed for many years to come. I put together a set of music which focuses primarily on Andy’s recordings during the period just before he joined the Hawaiian Room. (And, in an interesting side note, there is a huge gap in Iona’s discography from 1937 until 1939 – demonstrating how busy he really was with his Hawaiian Room duties.) 

But, first, a true rarity: The first recording Andy Iona ever made. Billed as “Andy Aiona’s Novelty Four,” the group laid down the song simply listed as “Hula Girl” on the record’s center label for Columbia Records in Los Angeles on January 14, 1929. (The song is, in fact, one of the earliest hapa-haole tunes, “Hapa-Haole Hula Girl,” by one of the earliest creators of the genre, Sonny Cunha.) Notice that there is nary a steel guitar to be heard here. Instead, we have Andy’s tenor saxophone – which you hear prominently in an improvised solo. You also hear the big dance band sound that was the rage back home at the Moana and the Royal Hawaiian and which Andy would soon bring to the Hawaiian Room. 

Fast forward to May 10, 1935… Back in Columbia Records studios but this time in New York City, Andy returns to a more traditional Hawaiian small group format – just the quartet of steel guitar, rhythm guitar, `ukulele, and bass – for “My Sweet Hawaiian Maid.” But you are still not hearing Andy on the steel guitar. This popular version of Iona’s group featured Danny Stewart (later of Hollywood studio work and the Hawaii Calls radio programs) on the steel guitar as well as future Hawaiian music legends Sam Koki and Freckles Lyons. Which member is playing which other instrument here remains a mystery – as it does with most of this group’s recordings – since all of the members could play every instrument and so they often traded off instruments – perhaps to confuse ardent listeners, perhaps to beat the boredom. 

A few months later on September 16, 1935, Andy returns to Los Angeles to cut a few sides with a large dance band again under the direction of old partner Harry Owens. And while I don’t mean to hold out on you, this is still not Andy at the steel guitar. It is again Danny Stewart. Andy is handling the tenor saxophone chores since he remained very much in demand for his sax playing even after he took up the steel. You hear them perform the Ray Kinney composition “Hawaiian Hospitality” sung by a vocal trio led by Iona. 

The same group as on “My Sweet Hawaiian Maid” – with Buddy Silva substituting for Sam Koki – went back into the Columbia studios in L.A. on April 25, 1936 to cut their energetic double-time take on “Hola Epae.” And this is Andy on the steel guitar – finally. The lead vocalist here (who is likely Freckles Lyons) makes a most unorthodox musical choice: He does not sing the melody of the song. You hear what is supposed to be the melody sung by the vocal trio on the repeats, but the soloist improvises a different melody on his choruses. This is typically anathema in Hawaiian music – the lyric and melody considered somehow sacrosanct, to be sung exactly as the composer wrote them, especially when performed in the service of the hula. But as you can tell by the tempo, this version was never intended for the hula. Such is the carefree innovation of Iona and his collaborators. 

Andy only cut a dozen or so more sides between this session and a session on December 15, 1936 – an indication that Andy had made the move back to NYC and devoted his time and energy to the Hawaiian Room. He would not record again for nearly two years on August 12, 1938. 

And, not merely as an aside to the Hawaiian Room story, Andy married Leimomi Woodd – a Hawaiian Room dancer – and had three children. Leimomi’s sister, fellow Hawaiian Room dancer Jennie Napua Woood, married a local NYC musician named Lloyd Gilliom. Their granddaughter is Hawaiian songbird Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom – making Andy Iona her great-uncle. 

I laugh when I read accounts that Andy Iona made “dozens of recordings.” There are early 200 sides in my archives alone (and I do not purport to possess every side Andy ever cut). So we will no doubt hear more of the amazing Andy Iona when we celebrate his birthday on January 1.  

Next time: The Hawaiian Room needs an emcee and a boy singer…


Direct download: Hawaiian_Room_-_Andy_Iona.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 6:42pm EST

From The Big Blue Pacific To The Big Apple

The Hawaiian Room – a supper club where one could dine, watch the floor show, and dance – was opened on 23 June 1937 … Located in the basement of the hotel, it was a large, circular, tiered room decorated with murals of Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach, lifelike tropical palms and flowers, even raindrops. To add to the Hawaiian setting, exotic foods and drinks were served in hollowed coconuts by waitresses adorned with leis… 

George S. Kanahele, Hawaiian Music and Musicians 



Anyone who has ever seen a photograph or postcard of the Hawaiian Room knows that Kanahele’s vivid description comes close to realizing what is otherwise indescribable with mere words. The Hawaiian Room was a Polynesian oasis in the middle of a burgeoning concrete jungle. But those who were there know that the real magic was in the people – the musicians and dancers who took a chance, left home and family, and struck out from their Pacific paradise for the strange and mysterious East Coast, their only collateral their unique culture. 

The Hawaiian Room was the brainchild of Charles E. Rochester, the managing director of the Lexington Hotel at 48th and Lexington – a few blocks from Central Park in midtown Manhattan. While it seems like an audacious concept – Hawaiian music and hula served up with drinks with tiny umbrellas – it was not, in fact, the first of its kind. Bear in mind that in the 1930s Hawaiian music recordings outsold all other genres, and Hawaiian music accounted for three out of every five songs played on mainland U.S. radio – making Hawaiian music the popular music of the day. Similar “Hawaiian Rooms” popped up in the finest hotels in Chicago, San Francisco, Buffalo, Baltimore, New Orleans, even elsewhere in New York City. But the Hawaiian Room of the Lexington Hotel is the venue that prospered (earning a million dollars in its first two years of operation, a lot of money in 1937, $16.5 million in 2014 dollars). More importantly, it is the one that is still talked about – fondly – to this day. 

The Hawaiian Room of the Lexington Hotel capitalized on a formula that was already a huge success in Honolulu at such swanky establishments as the Moana Surfrider and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel: The popular musicians of the day combined traditional Hawaiian song with the swing and sass of the Big Band era to create a new style of music and a venue that could host both a traditional Hawaiian hula floor show and then dinner and dancing for the patrons until the wee small hours. But, better than the Moana or Royal Hawaiian, having a Hawaiian Room in midtown Manhattan saved patrons the whopping $278 airfare to Honolulu (or $4,723 in 2014 dollars). It was affordable enough to take your wife every Saturday night! In his fervent desire to recreate the Moana and Royal Hawaiian experience, Rochester did the unthinkable: He lured Waikiki’s finest talent away from these venerable showrooms to NYC with the promise of better pay and long-term contracts. By most accounts, Rochester fulfilled his promise, and these musicians and dancers repaid him by packing the house every night. It would not have been the Hawaiian Room if not for these legends of Hawaiian music and dance, but it is fair to say that this was a symbiotic relationship since these world-class entertainers could never have gained such exposure from their island home. 

The Hawaiian Room endured from that fateful day in 1937 until 1966 – once Hawaiian music had given way to rock-and-roll, Hawai`i had become the 50th State, and jet travel took away some of the mystique of the island paradise that was now more easily and affordably accessible. 

I could spend hours recounting the story of the Hawaiian Room. Growing up in New Jersey – a train ride from New York City – in a family that performed Hawaiian music professionally, I was no stranger to the names that made the Hawaiian Room famous (and vice-versa). My father, a steel guitarist who eventually led his own revue, cut his teeth working with Tutasi Wilson, a Hawaiian Room choreographer, and Sam Makia, a steel guitarist with several groups that played the room. Our home was filled with the records made by the Hawaiian Room musicians – most recorded in and around New York City, most as easy to find as a walk to your nearest Woolworth’s. I want to tell the story, but it’s not my story to tell. While many – perhaps most, maybe all – of the musicians of the Hawaiian Room are now gone, many of the hula dancers who worked the room – a generation (or more) younger than the bandleaders – thankfully remain with us. On January 11, 2014, the Hula Preservation Society – bolstered by a number of these ladies of hula, or “Ex-Lexes” as they joyously refer to themselves – launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the making of the documentary film about their life at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room. There clearly remains interest in the story since, by February 20, the project was fully funded – more than 150 individuals and organizations contributing more than $20,000 to ensure this story is told. And the beautiful film that resulted premieres Friday evening, October 10, in New York City. 

I am pleased and honored to take part in this celebration. With my frequent musical partner, fellow New Jersey-born Hawaiian music enthusiast, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Andy Wang – we will perform traditional Hawaiian music before the film and – much better still – accompany the “Ex-Lexes” in a medley of their favorite hula numbers after the film showing. Joining us will be venerable Hawaiian diva Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom whose grandmother, Jennie “Napua” Woodd, was a dancer and choreographer in the Hawaiian Room too. I am proud to be the second generation of my family’s musicians to associate with the legends that made the Hawaiian Room what it was. 

And while the Hawaiian Room story may not be my story to tell, sometimes the music speaks for itself. So in the days leading up to the film debut, I will be featuring the musicians of the Hawaiian Room here at Ho`olohe Hou. You will be surprised and amazed who abandoned their beautiful Hawaiian life to share their unique culture beyond the boundaries of their island home. And you might be amazed at what wonderful Hawaiian music was born of the collaborations forged in The City That Never Sleeps. 

Join me here every day through Friday, October 10 for the music of the gentlemen and ladies of the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room. And congratulations to the Hula Preservation Society on your tremendous achievement and a huge mahalo for letting me take part in your monumentous occasion.

~ Bill Wynne


Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 4:56am EST