Wed, 10 September 2014
“`Ohana” is the Hawaiian word for “family.” We have discussed Alvin Isaacs the musician and Alvin Isaacs the composer. But despite that we call him “Papa,” we have failed to discuss Alvin Isaacs the dad – patriarch of a next generation musical legacy. Although they rarely all appeared on record together – often in pairs or threes, but rarely all four musical Isaacs – each of Alvin’s sons became a superstar of Hawaiian music in his own right. Thinking about Alvin and his sons prompted me to think about Hawai`i’s many musical families throughout history – the impetus for introducing our second new recurring theme segment which we will simply call “`Ohana” in which Ho`olohe Hou will celebrate Hawai`i’s musical fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, sisters, even aunties and uncles.
Alvin, Jr. – affectionately known as “Barney” – as you have already read was one of the most sought after and most widely recorded steel guitarists in the history of Hawaiian music. For a period of time, Barney’s steel was the signature sound of Hawaiian music most instantly recognizable around the world for it was Barney who held the longest tenure as a steel guitarist for the famed Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts. And he has appeared on countless LPs, lending his signature steel sounds to recordings by such artists as Marlene Sai, Haunani Kahalewai, Ed Kenney, Herb Ohta, Charles Kaipo Miller, Danny Kaleikini, Charles K.L. Davis, and – of course – the countless recordings of the Hawaii Calls orchestra and chorus.
Leland “Atta” Isaacs was an innovative slack key guitarist who experimented with sounds and tunings – arriving at a once proprietary tuning which has since been uncovered and learned by a new generation of slack key players, a tuning now affectionately referred to as “Atta’s C.” He recorded with such slack key contemporaries as Gabby Pahinui (that pairing leading to the seminal recording of slack key duets entitled Two Slack Key Guitars). Despite that Atta’s style and sound are immediately identifiable by slack key players and aficionados, much of Atta’s session work was done anonymously. One of the more interesting artifacts of the Isaacs family’s intersecting musical careers is the pairing of Barney’s steel and Atta’s slack key guitar on the 1960s Sounds of Hawaii LP Hau`oli – some of the earliest steel guitar and slack key guitar duets on record, a record which served as a template for the slack key and steel guitar duets Atta and Barney would do later with The New Hawaiian Band or Atta’s duets with steel guitarist Jerry Byrd on the LP Steel Guitar Hawaiian Style.
Norman Isaacs was a bass player and – in his heyday – the best singer among the three Isaacs siblings, possessing a big, bold tenor voice that extended on his command to a fine falsetto. But unlike his brothers who often headlined an engagement, Norman was content to be the supporting artist – the guy that makes the other guys sound good. There are few recordings on which Norman gets top billing, but he appears on countless Hawaiian recordings – both credited and uncredited – as bassist and backing vocalist for such artists as Eddie Kekaula, Sam Kahalewai, and Gabby Pahinui. Norman was also a comic presence who fit well among the antics of his regular working group of the 1960s led by Sterling Mossman.
Each of Alvin’s sons is a seminal figure in Hawaiian music history, and each merits his own feature tribute at Ho`olohe Hou. But until time permits an adequately thoroughly investigation of each of their lives and careers, we should at least focus on the family and the rare moments that found them on stage or in the studio together.
At least three-quarters of the musical Isaacs `ohana appeared together on stage in a rarity eagerly sought by the steel guitar playing community – a 1973 all-star steel guitar concert in Honolulu in which steeler Barney is joined by his father, Alvin, and brother, Norman. But while this is a truly rare and special moment, it is made even more rare and special once you hear Alvin (the father) begin to play steel guitar in duets with his son – the one and only time this was ever captured on tape. They open with Alvin’s own “Auhea `Oe” with a solo by Barney. Alvin, Sr. then takes the steel guitar lead on a number that is very familiar but the title of which I do not recall (if I ever knew it). (Alvin yells out what sounds like “Puanani” before he launches into the number.) Then Barney’s steel takes over while dad Alvin, Sr. comps his son on the second steel before he takes the vocal lead on the first chorus of his own “Aloha Nui Ku`uipo,” with son Norman taking over the vocal lead with his falsetto after the key change. Father and son trade steel licks again on the next number (the title of which again escapes me) before a duet on dual (or duel?) steel guitars again on “Wai O Minehaha” on which Alvin (the father) takes a jazzy chord melody solo. And Barney closes the set with some outrageous steel soloing on “Tomi Tomi” with dad Alvin out front singing.
I hope you appreciate this glimpse into a precious moment in which one of Hawai`i’s most musical families combine forces to become a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Next time: Another Isaacs family affair – complete with the missing son – and another OOPs (out of print) classic…