A West Coast Steeler’s New York Days

Ho`olohe Hou continues to honor the musicians of the Hawaiian Room – the New York City venue which for nearly 30 years delivered authentic Hawaiian song and dance to exceedingly appreciative mainland audiences.  

So now we believe that Lani McIntire was the sole bandleader at the Hawaiian Room from 1941 (when Kinney departed) until 1951 (when McIntire passed away) – making him the bandleader with the longest tenure here. But we also conjecture that since he was hired for the 1937 opening of the room, the McIntire band may have rotated with the other bands (led by Andy Iona and Ray Kinney) or that members of these bands worked together like “interchangeable parts.” In any case, regardless of whenever McIntire took over as the sole leader, surely the same steel guitarist did not stick around for the entire decade. Because Ho`olohe Hou loves a good mystery, can we determine which steeler came first?

If we again turn to the discographies for a little data, the answer is likely Bob Nichols. You have already read here that Lani McIntire made his first recordings in New York City in August 1935 – two years before the Hawaiian Room’s opening. This means that some of McIntire’s musicians had to have been rooted in NYC since – regardless of the popularity of Hawaiian music in this period – not even the major record labels would pay to transport (by ship – not jet plane – in this era) musicians for one-off recording sessions. Bobby Nichols played on that August 2, 1935 McIntire session and on all subsequent McIntire sessions through March 21, 1940 (when steel guitarist Bob True, made his one and only performance on record with McIntire). The pre-Hawaiian Room sessions were all small combos typical of the kind assembled to record and perform hula music back home in Hawai`i – a group comprised of Nichols on the steel, McIntire on rhythm guitar, his brother, Al, on bass, and a rotating cast of `ukulele players-cum-falsetto-singers in either George Kainapau or Danny Kua`ana. But the sessions that occurred after the Hawaiian Room’s debut featured the larger big band sound complete with brass, woodwinds, piano, and percussion – a group with personnel rarely listed but which were likely comprised of local musicians who were working evenings at the Hawaiian Room. So despite that there is no pictorial evidence of Bob Nichols on the bandstand at the Hawaiian Room with McIntire, it is possible – even highly likely – that he was one  of the first steel guitarists (along with Andy Iona) in residence at this new hot spot. 

Regular readers of Ho`olohe Hou know by now that one of my favorite past times is bemoaning the reality that while little is written about the history of Hawaiian music, there is almost nothing written about the history of its steel guitarists. This is equally true in the case of Bobby Nichols. The two prevailing volumes on the Hawaiian steel guitar do not grant Nichols more than two sentences each. So as I have written previously, most of the lore about a steel player like Nichols is perpetuated by other avid steel players such as on the Steel Guitar Forum. But even then such forums do not speak to the history of these players but more often delve into the “inside baseball” of the steel guitar such as whether or not Nichols was playing an early Rickenbacker fry pan model steel guitar and through which brand of amplifier. (Which is not to say that Ho`olohe Hou doesn’t deal with its share of “inside baseball” since it is written by a musician and because many of its readers are musicians.) But this time around there is simply so little information about Nichols that we are going to have let his playing speak for itself. 

A November 17, 1937 Decca Records session with the big band as it might have been heard each night at the Hawaiian Room gives us McIntire’s spin on “Hame Pila.” The brass and woodwinds trade instrumental breaks with Nichols’ steel guitars. Pay particular attention to Nichols’ trademark wide, rapid vibrato and the huge full chord glissandos (or slides) he plays behind the brass and winds. Nichols also jazzes us up the proceedings with generous helpings of blue notes in his solos. The vocal trio is Lani, Bob, and falsetto wunderkind George Kainapau. The upright bass is wielded by Lani’s brother, Al McIntire. 

Check out Nichols’ trademark vibrato again on “Kane`ohe” recorded September 3, 1937 at the Decca Records studios in Los Angeles. This is the small group that McIntire had already formed before the Hawaiian Room even opened. This recording gives us a glimpse at the groups more traditionally Hawaiian sound they would have utilized before they added the winds, horns, piano, and drums that characterized the big band Hawaiian sound of New York City and the Hawaiian Room. 

From the same band and same November 1937 session above which yielded “Hame Pila” comes the Sonny Cunha hapa-haole standard “Hula Blues.” Long a favorite of steel guitarists because of its jazzy rhythm and melody that is deliberately around non-scale tones (or the “blue” notes that give the “blues” its names), Nichols take on this tune with the McIntire orchestra and its stellar arrangement has long been one of my favorites. 

One of the few lines written about Nichols in the aforementioned volumes reads, “After many years with Lani McIntire’s band, he ended his career playing music on the cruise ships in the Pacific…” Record collectors know this is inaccurate. Nichols – based on the West Coast for most of his career – went on to record with the mainland’s premier Hawaiian music aggregation of the 1950s, The Polynesians, who worked in and around Los Angeles and who were the first call session musicians for much of the Hawaiian-themed film fare that came out of Hollywood during this period. So we will hear more of Nichols when Ho`olohe Hou explores the mainland Hawaiian music scene in the 1950s.

Next time: Nichols is out. Next?!...


Direct download: Hawaiian_Room_-_Lani_Mcintire_with_Bobby_Nichols_Edited.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 6:12am EST

The (Questionably) Lengthy Reign of Lani McIntire

Ho`olohe Hou continues to honor the musicians of the Hawaiian Room – the New York City venue which for nearly 30 years delivered authentic Hawaiian song and dance to exceedingly appreciative mainland audiences.  

Researching the history of the Lexington Hotel’s famed Hawaiian Room generates any number of mysteries – or, as I referred to them previously, “lore” – which might never be resolved except by first-hand accounts of those who were there (and, regrettably, there are so few of those still with us). My hope is that the eagerly anticipated documentary film debuting in NYC on October 10 – simply entitled The Hawaiian Room – will evince some answers. More interestingly, a significant delegation of former Hawaiian Room dancers will be in attendance for the debut, and I assure you that I am going to pick their brains. 

As to the current mysteries at hand (and there are two)… It is unclear who took over as bandleader at the Hawaiian Room after the departure of (first) Andy Iona and (second) Lani McIntire. One seemingly credible source – the well-researched Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire by Adria L. Imada – implies that a troika of Ray Kinney, Andy Iona, and Lani McIntire were hired simultaneously by the Hawaiian Room. 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. 

Other sources corroborate this by independently stating that each of the artists named above opened at the Hawaiian Room on June 23, 1937, but none states that they opened together or with each other. Imada further states: 

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. 

But returning to the discographies of these artists for corroboration – as we did to determine the comings and goings of Alfred Apaka, George Kainapau, and Tommy Castro – we discover that the three artists never recorded together as a single aggregation and very rarely in any combination. (The one rare meeting of Andy Iona and Ray Kinney in a recording studio – on November 30, 1936 at Decca Records’ Los Angeles studios – occurred in the wrong city and predates the opening of the Hawaiian Room by seven months. The one meeting of Kinney and McIntire in a New York City recording studio took place on December 10, 1937 – proving, at least, that the two co-existed in the same space and time but not necessarily proving that they were members of the same group.) If we believe the discographical information from this period, then Andy Iona had his own performing group that made records, Ray Kinney had his own performing group that made records, and Lani McIntire had his own performing group that made records. According to this data, rarely did the three artists or their groups meet outside of the Hawaiian Room. 

There is one more interesting piece of data – or, rather, the complete absence of data. There is scant little pictorial evidence of the groups performing at the Hawaiian Room during its earliest days. Most – if not all – of the pictures of the Hawaiian Room aggregation – typically in the form of postcards – show a group led by Lani McIntire and clearly pictures his group members George Kainapau, Alfred Apaka, Tommy Castro, and Sam Makia. No pictures of a Lani McIntire-led group show either Andy Iona or Lani McIntire on his bandstand, and there is no publicly-circulating photographic evidence of either an Andy Iona-led band or a Lani McIntire-led band in the Hawaiian Room. 

If we bring this data together, we can make two educated guesses about how these groups co-existed at the Hawaiian Room: 

  • The discographic evidence and the pictorial evidence would indicate that there were three separate groups all hired at the same time to open the Hawaiian Room which may have performed on different days of the week or even at different times on the same days of the week (as is often the case at hotels in Hawai`i – and practically everywhere – today.) Perhaps an evening performance schedule looked thusly:

    • Andy Iona and His Hawaiians – 5:00pm-8:00pm (for your dining and dancing pleasure)

    • Ray Kinney and His Royal Hawaiian Ambassadors – 8:00pm-11:00pm (with a hula floor show at 9:30pm)

    • Lani McIntire and His Hawaiians – 11:00pm-2:00am (for dancing into the wee small hours) 


  • The anecdotal evidence from Imada’s book suggests that it is possible that all three groups appeared together – or pieces of them in various combinations – under one group name (“Andy Iona and His Twelve Hawaiians”) under the management’s guise that “one Hawaiian is as good as another” and/or “all Hawaiians look alike.” 

The discographical evidence is more powerful (from this writer’s point of view) since the many entries in the Kinney and McIntire discographies indicate that both brought full cadres of musicians to NYC with them. I am referring here to the core quartets/quintets of musicians from Hawai`i specializing in Hawaiian music. The groups may have shared in common the larger orchestra (brass, woodwinds, etc.) – musicians who may have known nothing about Hawaiian music previously and were likely reading from charts provided by Iona, McIntire, or Castro (for Kinney’s band). 

So let’s accept this as a solution – until disproven by someone who wants to spend as much time and effort on the issue as this writer – to the first mystery: Iona, Kinney, McIntire, and their respective core musicians arrived at the Hawaiian Room simultaneously for its opening in June 1937 and co-habitated peacefully there as separate-but-equal aggregations. 

On to the second mystery… These artists left the Hawaiian Room and New York City for home (or elsewhere) at different points. We determined previously that Iona was gone by 1938 and Kinney by 1941. So who took over as the “leader” of the Hawaiian Room orchestra in 1941 and beyond? I, for one, want to say Lani McIntire and only Lani McIntire based again on the best available evidence – McIntire’s discography. The first recording sessions by a Lani McIntire-led group took place on November 17, 1937 (not long after the troup’s arrival in NYC for the opening of the Hawaiian Room). These earliest recordings included only the core quartet that Lani brought with him from Hawai`i (or his last stops on the West Coast). McIntire’s recording sessions over the next few years – through February 1945 – took place exclusively in Decca Records’ New York City studios, and the discography indicates that the group was later expanded to include a larger orchestra (the brass, woodwinds, etc.) not unlike would have been appearing with McIntire in the Hawaiian Room (and which may even have been Hawaiian Room personnel). And while the sessions slowed in the years to follow, McIntire led a few final sessions – all exclusively in NYC – culminating in a final session with the large Hawaiian Room-type orchestra in May 1950. So it would appear that McIntire remained in NYC from the time he arrived in 1937 until the end of his career. And one more fairly reliable source indicates that Lani McIntire was the bandleader at the Hawaiian Room “until his death in New York City on June 17, 1951.” That’s good enough for me: Lani McIntire was the bandleader at that Hawaiian Room from 1941 (when Kinney departed) until his passing in 1951 – making him the bandleader with the longest tenure at this venerable venue. 

While we cannot be certain that Lani McIntire took over immediately upon Kinney’s departure, we have little reason to believe he didn’t except for one account – based solely on the memory of one who claims to have been there – that “the Lani McIntire Hawaiians were the resident band at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room in New York from 1947 until his death in 1951.” This would leave a gap of six years (from 1941 until 1947) without a permanent band installed in the Hawaiian Room. I dispelled this myth almost immediately, however. The single image that accompanies this article – an advertisement for Lani McIntire and His Orchestra and the Honolulu Maids at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room (“Now In Its Record-Breaking Year”) – was taken from the copy of the New York Herald Tribune issued July 11, 1943. So even if McIntire didn’t start in 1941 (despite that all evidence indicates he was there from opening night), he certainly didn’t arrive as late as 1947. 

On to more important matters – such as the man and his music. 

Like the other Hawaiian Room personnel, Lani McIntire had an impressive musical pedigree long before he arrived in NYC. Born December 15, 1904 in Honolulu, Hawai`i, by his early twenties McIntire was under the employ of Sol Ho`opi`i. After a string of recordings with Sol Ho`opi`i’s Novelty Trio through the late 1920s, Lani’s first recording session as a leader – issued as Lani McIntyre’s Hawaiians (notice the alternate spelling of McIntire’s name which often cropped up) – on August 2, 1935 produced about ten sides – on only one of which Lani himself takes the vocal lead. Although not dating from the Hawaiian Room years, I open this set with Lani’s first vocal under his own name – a tune entitled “Night Wind.” It is questionable whether or not this is as much Hawaiian music as it is country/western music. So this might be a good juncture to point out – because I do not assume it is widely known – that McIntire’s work with Jimmie Rodgers is to many ethnomusicologists the nexus of Hawaiian and country music. It has always been understood that the country/western musicians on the mainland co-opted the Hawaiian steel guitar for their own purposes, but it is rarely spoken about that recordings of Jimmie Rodgers with Lani McIntire on the steel are among the first – if not the first – such recordings. The steel guitar player here is Bob Nichols of McIntire’s regular working group long before arriving in NYC, and the `ukulele player is none other than George Kainapau who would join Ray Kinney’s band and himself become a Hawaiian Room regular in a few short years. The bassist is Lani’s brother, Al McIntire, who throughout his career would vacillate between performing, touring, and recording with either (or both) of his musical brothers, Al and Dick. 

The same session as “Night Wind” yielded the more traditional Hawaiian song “Maika`i Wale No Kaua`i” with a falsetto vocal by Kainapau and more steel work by Nichols. 

McIntire and crew’s first recording session in NYC – for Decca Records on November 17, 1937 – gives us “In A Little Hula Heaven” and “Hawaiian Vamp.” The core group of Kainapau, Nichols, and the brothers McIntire is joined by a larger orchestra (consisting of brass and woodwinds) not unlike that they would have worked with every night at the Hawaiian Room (and who may even be Hawaiian Room personnel). The vocal harmonies are a trio comprised of Lani, George, and Tommy. (There is little evidence that brother Al sang on record.) 

And while I have mentioned previously that it was a rarity, the disparate Hawaiian Room bandleaders joined forces for a recording session on December 10, 1937 – with Ray Kinney taking the lead vocals on “My Wahine and Me” and “Lullaby of the Palms” with a small group led by Lani McIntire almost as listed above (but substituting one falsetto for another – Danny Kua`ana relieving Mr. Kainapau). 

So now we believe that Lani McIntire was the sole bandleader at the Hawaiian Room from 1941 (when Kinney departed) until 1951 (when McIntire passed away) – making him the bandleader with the longest tenure here. Surely the same steel guitarist did not stick around for the entire decade. 

Next time: Unraveling the mysteries of McIntire’s steel guitarists’ arrivals and departures…


Direct download: Hawaiian_Room_-_Lani_McIntire.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 4:13am EST