Wed, 19 November 2014
Hawai`i is at the crossroads of the Pacific. So it is quite the ethnic “melting pot” – perhaps unlike any place else on earth. These many races and nationalities co-exist – generally speaking – peacefully and harmoniously and even joyously. So while it may be considered less than politically correct elsewhere, ethnic humor was once the order of the day in the islands and was a symbol of the racial accord that may uniquely exist there. This is (almost) as true now as it was 50 years ago. Referring to your friend by their ethnic heritage (“Eh, howzit, Pake?”) is not considered a slur but, rather, a term of endearment.
The inspiration for this Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs composition arose from a show he was producing for his church. They were rehearsing a one-act skit which featured a Chinese-dialect comedian, and as Alvin watched, he dreamed up this humorous scenario and set it to music – all in less than two hours. (This might not immediately be considered a feat considering the length – and repetitiveness – of most pop songs. But when one considers how many unique verses there are to this song – and the fact that Alvin was writing in a dialect – the feat becomes somewhat more amazing.) “No Huhu” (which is Hawaiian for “don’t get angry” or “no problem”) became – quite unintentionally – an instant classic and a popular sensation – especially in the hands of the right performer.
Arguably, to this day, nobody* performed this number with as much flair and comedic timing as Alvin’s son, steel guitarist Barney Isaacs. Not merely because it is an Alvin Isaacs composition and not merely because it was popularized by his son Barney’s performance of it (perfected over time), but because it is an important cultural artifact demonstrating how Hawai`i was (and perhaps still is) different in its racial accord than almost anywhere else imaginable, we owe it to ourselves to hear Barney Isaacs version of “No Huhu” at least once. But here at Ho`olohe Hou, this marks the second time we have featured this song performed by Barney. Previously, when we celebrated the birthday of Barney’s father, Alvin Isaacs, I offered up a version of the song as Barney performed it live with the group led by cop-by-day-entertainer-by-night Sterling Mossman at the Barefoot Bar at the Queen’s Surf on the Diamond Head end of Waikiki in 1961 where Sterling held court every evening for many years making music and merry in his inimitable comic fashion. This time around we see the version Barney performed on a 1965 episode of the Hawaii Calls TV show. If you watch this version and then flip back to the earlier version with Sterling Mossman, you will hear that – just like his steel guitar playing – the versatile Isaacs changed it up a little bit every time he performed the song. The version Barney performed at a Waikiki night club in the wee small hours is clearly the unexpurgated version compared to his performance on such a family-oriented program as Hawaii Calls.
As you listen, you will hear the origins of the local Hawai`i language referred to as “pidgin” – a combination of English, Hawaiian, Chinese, and other languages that came to Hawai`i with its many “settlers.” Note that while locals call the language “pidgin,” that is not, in fact, the name of any language. It is the technical linguistic term for any new language anywhere that was created locally by its people and which likely would not be spoken outside of that region. And, more accurately still, a new language should rightfully only be referred to as a “pidgin” for the first 25 years of existence. As Hawai`i pidgin is nearly 100 years old, it should more appropriately be called a “creole.”
And as you watch, remember to keep this recording in the unique context of place and time that may be required to listen with open, loving, and accepting hearts and minds. Such a recording will no doubt be considered politically incorrect in New York City in 2014. But as I watch for the hundredth time, I find myself wishing that it could be 1965 again and that everywhere could be Hawai`i…
*I wrote that nobody performed this song as wonderfully as the composer’s son, Barney Isaacs. But many who were alive during this period say that there was perhaps only one other performer whose performance of the song rivaled that of Barney’s – his friend and Hawaii Calls steel guitar partner, Jules Ah See. And true to Ho`olohe Hou’s vaults, we will hear Jules’ version of the song when we celebrate his birthday next June.
Next time: A rarity that will solve a long-held misconception about Barney Isaacs… (Hang on as we about to pedal faster…)
Wed, 19 November 2014
One of the issues which Hawaii Calls struggled to overcome throughout its 40-year history was a somewhat limited repertoire. A song sung by one artist one week might be sung by a different artist on the very next week’s program. If you have sifted through dozens of hours of Hawaii Calls program in a very short period of time as I have for this tribute, then you will hear the same songs over and over and over again. If you are a musician and you undergo this exercise, then you will likely make some very interesting discoveries by hearing two different versions of the same song.
In our profile on Hawaii Calls bassist and vocalist Jimmy Kaopuiki, you heard him sing a version of “Palolo.” In fact, Jimmy performed that song on the program twice within a few months of each other in similar – but not entirely exact – arrangements. As I have put the two performances side-by-side in this set for the sake of comparison, the first thing you will notice is that one version is taken at a considerably faster tempo than the other. The next thing you might notice is that Jimmy gets a bass solo on only one of the versions. (This may, in fact, be his only bass solo on record and one of the few solos ever afforded a bass player in a Hawaiian band.)
But most importantly, since we are looking today at steel guitarists, in these two different versions of the song we hear Hawaii Calls steel player Barney Isaacs twice. And while he takes the intros, endings, and vamps (the two bars between each verse) largely the same on each version of the tune, he takes his all-too-brief solos on each version entirely differently. And this speaks to the steel guitar as a highly improvisational art form akin to jazz. While the songs on Hawaii Calls were heavily arranged (host Webley Edwards’ credo was that the cast “rehearse and rehearse the songs over and over again until they sound like they weren’t rehearsed”), hearing a song performed on the show multiple times over several months – or even several years – by different artists elucidates the reality that Hawaii Calls tended to recycle arrangements regardless of who was singing the song. They merely changed the key depending on the singer. But the steel guitarist is the lead instrument in this aggregation, and as such he has some degrees of freedom. Barney could have chosen to memorize a solo and recycle it every time the song was performed just like the rest of the arrangement. But the improvisational aspect of the steel guitar is what keeps performing fresh and new every time the steel player steps on stage.
It almost makes one pity the rhythm guitarist, the `ukulele player, and the bassist.
The improvisational aspect of steel-guitarist-as-lead-instrument is true regardless of the steel player. This could just as easily have been David Keli`i, Jake Keli`ikoa, Jules Ah See, or any of the future Hawaii Calls steel players we haven’t even gotten around to mentioning yet. But it was merely ironic that I popped two tapes on to the player practically back-to-back and heard the same song. For a moment I wondered if I had two copies of the same week’s broadcast. It was Barney’s solo that snapped me back into reality – that the show was (as it often did) recycling the songs and arrangements…
…Making me ever more thankful for Hawai`i’s long and colorful history of inventive and often comical steel guitarists.
Next time: Barney Isaacs’ comic side – captured on video…
Wed, 19 November 2014
We are one week and 15 articles into our tribute to Hawaii Calls in honor of its host and creator Webley Edwards. As the tribute transitions from the 1950s to the 1960s, I think now is the time to unveil Hawaii Calls on video.
Few remember that for a brief period around 1965-66, Hawaii Calls made a brief entré into the world of television. Edwards felt that radio was a dying medium and that audiences deserved to see the real Hawai`i. Television was the perfect medium to portray paradise in technicolor, but as the radio program was already too costly to produce, a weekly live television show would by no means better the enterprise’s financial situation. The next best thing: Performances by the stars of Hawaii Calls shot at various locations around Hawai`i including junkets to film on Maui and Kaua`i. But this wouldn’t be easy or inexpensive either – lugging all of the instruments, hula costumes, and audio and video equipment around. So the decision was made to record the music tracks in a local Honolulu recording studio and only fly the show’s singing stars – and a few hula dancers – to various locations to film them performing to the prerecorded audio tracks. Today we call this lip synching.
In other words, Webley Edwards invented the music video before music videos were hip and cool. (OK, arguably The Beatles beat him to it by a year with A Hard Day’s Night. And the French beat them by a few years with the Scopitone, the first video jukebox. But I digress. If not purely inventive, Edwards was at least truly cutting edge.)
And because the videos were shot at various picturesque locations, the combination of setting, hula, singer, and steel guitars painted an irresistibly attractive portrait of the islands for potential visitors. For this reason, among collectors and aficionados, the short-lived Hawaii Calls TV shows are often referred to as the Travelogues.
As was to be expected, even with the prerecorded audio and the lip synching the show was extremely expensive to create and yielded little or no revenue. So after only 26 episodes, the TV version of Hawaii Calls was cancelled. The footage remains – in bits in pieces – in private collections and university libraries. I freely admit that I purchased half of the episodes from a private collector in Los Angeles more than 20 years ago at such an outrageous price that I cannot even type it again lest I start to cry. Two decades later, Edwards’ biographer Allen Roy shared the missing episodes with me – an act of kindness for which I am eternally grateful.
The rights to the TV show – or, at least, the Hawaii Calls name – are owned by somebody. So I remain appalled that to this day private collectors will post a snippet of one of these programs on YouTube and offer the rest for private sale at prices equally ridiculous as I paid 20 years ago (plus inflation). My intention over the next few days is to share a few choice snippets from the show with readers of Ho`olohe Hou since I think that seeing some of these artists in motion again is a historically and culturally important act. That does make it an entirely legal act. So if I am asked to remove these clips by their rightful owner, I will do so with contrition. In other words, enjoy them while you can.
One of the curiosities of the TV version of Hawaii Calls was that it often featured performers who were not part of the regular cast and who would not have been heard on the weekly radio shows (which continued uninterrupted even while experimenting with the TV version). Having seen and documented the action on all 26 episodes of the program, I tend to think that Edwards enlisted Hawai`i celebrities who had nationwide exposure and appeal. This was not true to the radio show and might be considered “pandering.” Worse still, the TV show’s focus on entertainers who were not Hawaii Calls cast members meant that the world never saw some of the shining lights in local Hawai`i entertainment – the very names and voices that fans of the radio show tuned in to hear every week. At worst this might be considered a huge mistake, and at best it should truly be considered a pity.
As this tribute begins to focus on the radio program in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we can at least augment our enjoyment of these voices with a little video. To be fair, these clips have seen the ravages of time. You may have difficulty believing they were filmed in color as they are now verging on black-and-white. But I believe they are worth seeing again, and I hope you do too. In the clip here you see Webley Edwards in the intro sequence that was seen at the beginning of every episode of the TV show. This sequence was not filmed anew for every episode, so if you’ve seen it once… But it is a rare opportunity to see the man we have been honoring in action once again.
Next time: A rare listen at another side of one of Hawaii Calls’ steel guitarists – one we never heard on the radio show…
Wed, 19 November 2014
Since the 1970s, Hawaiian music has diversified and its sound evolved to allow such instruments as the slack key guitar and even the diminutive `ukulele to lead a large group. But in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the signature sound of Hawaiian music was the steel guitar. To this day, many who remember tuning into Hawaii Calls each week can barely remember the name of even one of its singing stars, but almost anyone can remember the two sounds that made the radio show iconic around the world: waves crashing on Waikiki Beach and steel guitars.
As you have already read here, for a period of 15 years from 1937 through 1952, the sole steel guitarist for Hawaii Calls was the incredible David Keli`i. His departure marked the beginning of the reign of another steel guitar wunderkind, Jake Keli`ikoa. Regrettably, there is a gap in the Ho`olohe Hou archives, and so I have no programs from 1952 until 1957 – when Keli`ikoa was featured on the show. (As I am also a steel guitarist, that conspicuous gap is as conspiratorial as the Bermuda Triangle.) Then one day, a tragedy that changed Hawaii Calls – and Hawaiian music – forever. Keli`ikoa had an accident on the way to the taping of that week’s Hawaii Calls broadcast, and there was no steel guitarist available on such short notice to take his place. Host Webley Edwards had the brainstorm to allow the three female vocalists in the cast to sing the steel guitar parts that week. This forever changed the arrangements one heard on the Hawaii Calls show for now the wahine singers would often coo and sigh in three part harmony instead of (or even in addition to) the steel guitars. But it changed another practice of the show: Edwards vowed never to go live with fewer than two steel guitarists at the same time. For a short while, the pair was Keli`ikoa and Jules Ah See, the latter at the time known for his work with Alfred Apaka. But after Keli`ikoa’s departure from the show later in the decade, he was replaced by Barney Isaacs who was already one of the most widely respected steel guitarists in the islands. And, at least for my money, the duo of Keli`ikuihonua and Kalanikau (as host Edwards usually referred to Jules and Barney respectively by their Hawaiian names) are the iconic pairing that signified the sound of Hawaii Calls, Hawaiian music, and – dare I say – Hawai`i as mysterious island paradise in the 1950s and early 1960s until Jules untimely death.
In Hawaiian music, the steel guitarist often has very little “space” in which to demonstrate his virtuosity – usually nothing more than a two-bar intro or ending or the ubiquitous two-bar “vamp” that connects one verse to the next in most Hawaiian song forms. But while the arrangements for the Hawaii Calls show offered am occasional solo for its steel guitarists – fully understanding that it was the sound its audiences relied upon, even demanded – there was always that interlude during the approximate middle of the program in which host Edwards read the air and water temperature at Waikiki and allowed the steel guitarists to weave their magic solo for a minute or so as they lead seamlessly into the next vocal number. This is always the highlight of the program for me. I have already spun a few of these as “connecting issue” previously when featuring Hawaii Calls vocalists. But here are a few moments from the show when Jules and Barney were not merely background or atmosphere, but the main course.
In a clip from a 1959 broadcast, Webley introduces Jules in a number “by request” from the audience through their many cards and letters. Having just released their ninth LP as part of the cast’s contract with Capitol Records, the album entitled Hawaiian Strings which featured Jules and Barney, Web invites Jules to perform a song from that album, “Red Sails In The Sunset.” But those who have heard the album will understand immediately that Jules plays it completely differently here – in the more jazzy vein that characterized his sound when he recorded with such other artists as Alfred Apaka and Sterling Mossman.
Then, in a clip from approximately the same era, Barney is permitted the solo on the hula standard “`Alika” which then segues into a vocal number for the cast. You will no doubt hear the difference in Jules’ and Barney’s styles.
As we enter the period of the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s for the Hawaii Calls broadcasts, I thought I should introduce you to the steel guitarists of that period. Because, as they say, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. As we soon return to the show’s vocalists of this period, you will hear more and more of Jules and Barney. See if you can tell which one is playing when…
Next time: Another look at Barney Isaacs who plays the same song twice – completely differently…
Tue, 18 November 2014
I began a tribute to one of the most distinctive voices in the history of Hawaii Calls, Sonny Halemano Nicholas, when it occurred to me that two tunes just weren’t enough. How about two more?…
As Web introduces the first number, we again hear the magic that he could weave with words – as he says himself, painting the picture “in color.” We can practically see the fictitious “Lani” before Sonny launches into the song written to honor her. The lovely song was written by Jack Pitman who is most well known for his “Beyond The Reef” (which was made famous by Bing Crosby in 1949) but who also composed such Hawaiian hapa-haole standards as “Goodnight Leilani E,” “Fish and Poi,” “Lovely Hula Girl,” and “The Sands of Waikiki.” Despite that he wrote songs with such a typically Hawaiian feel that continue to be beloved and performed by Hawaiian singers to this day, ironically Pitman was born in Regina, Saskatchewan. “Lani” is one of those novelty numbers perfectly suited to Sonny Nicholas’ mischievous and ever optimistic voice.
Every Hawaiian musician and hula dancer knows well the comic hula “Holoholo Ka`a.” While its intent is comedic, the poetry is deadly serious in its use of the songwriting technique known as kaona (layers of veiled meaning). While on its surface the song is about a joyride that may have gone awry, a closer inspection of the lyrics evinces the purpose for Jack and Jill climbing the hill. But the most revealing verse is rarely sung:
He mana`o ko`u i ke kani ko`ele / I worry about the clanking sound
Ua haki ka pilina a`o luna iho / Springs broken top to bottom
He la`i pono ke kaunu `ana / Passion calmed
He nanea mai ho`i kau / So delightful
Like most other performers, Sonny and the gang skip this verse which would require further explanation for most audiences. (Hawaii Calls was a family show, after all.) The song is often inaccurately credited to composed John Kamealoha Almeida but was, in fact, composed by Clarence Kinney. As the legend goes, Kinney composed the song but gave it to Almeida to settle a debt.
There are many, many more performances – credited and uncredited – by Sonny Halemano Nicholas. I hope these few tide you over until Ho`olohe Hou celebrates the 80th anniversary of Hawaii Calls in June 2015.
Next time: A look at the men behind the signature sound of Hawaii Calls – the steel guitar…
Sonny is pictured here with fellow Hawaii Calls cast member John Squeeze Kamana.
Tue, 18 November 2014
I only recently finished paying tribute to the unheralded bassist and vocalist of Hawaii Calls for many decades, Jimmy Kaopuiki. But much of what I wrote about Kaopuiki would apply to other cast members as well. Take, for example, Sonny Nicholas.
Because Joseph Papapa Halemano Nicholas, Jr. shared a name with his father, as often happens in such cases at some point family and friends simply began referring to him as “Sonny.” But as an entertainer, the name suited him because he could not help but spread sunshine wherever he went. Even when singing the saddest of songs, the joviality in Sonny’s voice shined through. Perhaps it is for this reason that they rarely handed him a sad song to sing. Like bandmate Kaopuiki, Nicholas often opened Hawaii Calls programs with an up-tempo ditty – the kind of song perfectly suited for him. And, like Kaopuiki, he often opened the program uncredited, and like Kaopuiki, this is likely because Nicholas was not one of the stars of Hawaii Calls, but a member of its rhythm section. And when he was credited, it was most often – as host Webley Edwards was wont to do – by his Hawaiian name “Halemano.” (Edwards did this with numerous members of the cast – as you will read eventually – but who among the show’s listeners could know if these were the musicians’ first names, last names, or middle names?)
Edwards took great pains to combat the criticism that “All Hawaiian music sounds alike,” but more often than not, the critics were right. The show had such natural constraints as a limited repertoire and an expected instrumentation. (An accordion would have been novel, but also inappropriate.) That does not mean the music and presentation were any less beautiful. Sonny Nicholas already had a long and storied history in Hawaiian music – leading his own groups at times, and playing the supporting role for other Hawaiian music legends other times. Some of his old bandleaders – like Alfred Apaka and Pua Almeida – would eventually play more prominent roles on Hawaii Calls than Sonny would. But like Kaopuiki, Nicholas was a utility player, content to do whatever he needed to do to make the stars shine brighter. Known mostly as a bassist, Sonny played rhythm guitar with the Hawaii Calls group. But it was his vocals that added character to what at times might have been considered by some critics as an awfully repetitive show.
If you have Googled “Sonny Nicholas” as I invited you to Google “Jimmy Kaopuiki” previously, you will find… next to nothing. Not a single profile or article referencing him. Not a single photo except, perhaps, as part of an ensemble like the cast of Hawaii Calls (and even then likely obscured by one of its stars). So while local Hawai`i musicians through the ages understand the myriad reasons why Nicholas should be considered Hawaii Calls’ MVP, for the rest of the Hawaiian music-loving world, while they might recognize his voice from having heard it every week on radio for years as well as on nearly every Hawaii Calls LP record from the second one (Webley Edwards Presents Hawaii Calls At Twilight on which he sings the lead on “I Wish They Didn’t Mean Goodbye”) through the twentieth, Sonny Nicholas remains a voice without a name.
Ho`olohe Hou aims to right this wrong with selections Sonny led on a few late 1950s and early 1960s Hawaii Calls broadcasts – most of which have likely not been heard since they first went to air more than 50 years ago. There were many to choose from, but these are just a few of my favorites.
The brilliant engineers Hawaii Calls employed – in this era, likely Bob Lang – attempted to capture every last nuance of a largely visual show somehow with an audio representation of it. Here you can clearly hear the flourish of the pu`ili – wands of bamboo split multiple times part of the way down their length so that when they are beaten against each other (or even against the hula dancer’s body) they make a percussive crash – as (an uncredited) Sonny Nicholas leads the orchestra and chorus on Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs’ composition “Analani E.”
Webley does give Sonny the courtesy of an introduction before he launches into one of the comic hula songs for which he is best known – in this case, “Keep Your Eyes On The Hands,” a song which reminds the gentlemen (or, perhaps, their wives) where they should focus when watching the hula. Composed by Mary Johnson (often credited as “Liko Johnston”) and Tony Todaro (the pair also composed such hapa-haole favorites as “Somewhere In Hawaii” and “There’s No Place Like Hawaii), “Keep Your Eyes On The Hands” would have been very new at the time that Sonny performed it on this 1957 episode of Hawaii Calls. It made its debut in the 20th Century Fox film The Revolt of Mamie Stove just a year earlier in which it was sung by Jane Russell. You’ll notice that Web introduces Sonny as “Halemano” on this number.
Hearing Sonny again only makes me want to hear more. One good tribute deserves another…
Next time: A second look at Sonny Nicholas…