Lena and the West Coast All-Stars

The 1950s recording sessions to which Lena’s hānai daughter, Pi`olani Motta, makes reference in Songbird of Hawai`i: My Memories of Aunty Lena likely actually took place on the brink of the turn of the decade between April and May 1949. Still under contract to Columbia Records, Machado turned out eight sides not with her touring band but, rather, with the finest Hawaiian musicians in Los Angeles at the time – Hawai`i expats who came to the mainland throughout the 1930s and 40s to take advantage of Hollywood’s craze with all things Hawaiian during this period. 

The group with which Lena recorded this time around was billed as Andy Cummings’ Hawaiian Serenaders. Based on both discographical information and our astute ears, we know that session personnel included falsetto singer and `ukulele player Danny Kua`ana (formerly with Lani McIntire at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room in New York City just a few years earlier) and steel guitarist Bernie Ka`ai Lewis (who remained on the West Coast for most of his career, working on the soundtrack for Blue Hawaii and finishing his career as the staff arranger for The Flip Wilson Show). Kua`ana’s falsetto can be heard in the vocal backing group as well as trading verses with Lena on certain numbers at these sessions, and Ka`ai had a distinctive, jazzy approach to the steel guitar which time and certain steel aficionados have treated unkindly and potentially unfairly – the criticisms ranging from the mundane (“sounds too West Coast” or “doesn’t sound Hawaiian enough”) to the downright nasty (“schmaltz”). Regardless, because of his distinctive sound on the instrument, we can definitely finger Ka`ai as having played on these sessions. Kua`ana and Ka`ai had a musical association that began years earlier and which was consummated in the recording studio the first time in 1945 in Los Angeles for Capital Records (which yielded about a dozen classic sides released as the 78 rpm album booklet Holiday In Hawaii) and again in 1947 in New York City (the results of which were less essential since they were waxed for a budget record label in the wake of an American Federation of Musicians strike against record companies and which yielded noisy recordings pressed on cheap vinyl in order to maximize the label’s profits). What remains unclear is Cummings’ role – if any – in the proceedings since he does not appear to have a prior recording or performing relationship with Kua`ana or Ka`ai. Many believe that Andy’s is one of the recognizable voices in the backing vocal trio. (Listen to the bridge of “E Ku`u Lei, My Darling,” and tell me that is not Cummings singing lead in the trio.) But was he also the leader or arranger? And why was Cummings – who was not an expat – in Los Angeles for these sessions? Such are the mysteries surrounding these recordings. But the sessions did yield more Machado magic including the first ever recordings of three Machado originals and covers of a pair of Danny Kua`ana songs which have also become staples of the Hawaiian repertoire. Let’s begin with a few of the covers… 

An unidentified vibraphonist opens the proceedings with an arpeggio leading into the Danny Kua`ana composition “E Ku`u Lei, My Darling,” a song the composer first recorded a few years earlier with his partner, Bernie Ka`ai (and which appears on their aforementioned set Holiday In Hawaii). We not yet really get to assess Ka`ai’s steel playing since the vibes take the solo instrumental chorus. But we do hear Cummings and Kua`ana in the backing vocal trio on the bridge. Interestingly, there appear to be women’s voices in the backing vocal groups, but no other ladies besides Machado are identified as participating in this April 22, 1949 session at Columbia Records’ studios in Hollywood. 

A session a few weeks later on May 4, 1949 with the same personnel gives us a reading of David Nape’s “Old Plantation.” The male vocal trio opens the number followed again by a chorus of ladies voices. (Again, it is easily possible to distinguish a female voice from a male voice singing falsetto. So we again seem to have an unidentified trio of ladies providing backing vocals.) Mary Jane Montano wrote the lyrics for this song about the elegant estate of Curtis and Victoria Ward at the corner of King and Ward Streets (the site of what is now the Neal Blaisdell Center). David Nape contributed the music which should be considered – like Nape’s other compositions (“Pua Mohala,” “Ku`u Ipo,” “Ku`u I`ini”) – advanced for the period in which it was written. (According to one copy of the sheet music, “Old Plantation” was copyrighted in 1906.). The primary song form of that period was hula ku`i – in which a single chord structure and melody are repeated over and over again (without a bridge or chorus) strictly in the service of supporting the lyric content. (This song form was – and continues to be – the primary song form for accompanying the hula, and the name of the form is simply translated as “to string together a hula.”) But Nape was writing a more complicated song form which deviated from the I-IV-V chord structure and repetitive melody to more meandering melodies and unexpected harmonic shifts. “Old Plantation” has at least three distinct sections – each having its own melody and unique chord structure which does not play upon or borrow from the other two. The middle section, in particular, demonstrates that Nape was thinking about other song forms that were not native to Hawai`i – one of the earliest Hawaiian songs to venture into a related key center in the bridge (in this case meandering from the tonic – here, the key of G – to its relative minor – Em – and then to the dominant – D.) And, in an interesting twist to the arrangement, the male vocal trio – led by Cummings – takes the lead on the chorus while the single female voice of Auntie Lena harmonizes with the men. 

Although many sources cite “My De-De” as traditional (publishing speak meaning that the song is so old that the rightful composer cannot possibly be known), it did not require too much effort on my part to correct this fallacy. The song should properly be credited to Bert Carlson and Johnny Noble who copyrighted the song. (My 1935 copy of Johnny Noble’s Collection of Ancient & Modern Hulas lists on its inside front cover additional song folios available from Miller Music Corporation of New York, NY – one of these being “My De-De” which is credited to “Carlson-Noble.”) Danny Kua`ana takes a solo vocal on the bridge, and Ka`ai takes a steel guitar solo – a single-string chorus followed by some lovely chord melody – which nobody can accuse of being “schmaltz.” This entire affair is simply lovely – right down to the vocal harmonies that close the number. 

Kua`ana and Ka`ai are jointly credited for composing the beautiful “My Sweet Gardenia Lei” – a number in the typical hapa-haole style (or songs which extol the unique beauty of Hawai`i and its people but sung in the English language). Here Mr. Ka`ai uses his steel to create a sort of counterpoint for Lena’s vocal lead, and later his half-chorus solo is much too short for him to stretch out. (Listen for Ka`ai to play a nifty arpeggiated diminished run in the closing seconds of the tune that is so quick and so precise that he gives no hint that he is playing a steel guitar.) And Kua`ana takes the liberty of a lead vocal on the bridge of the song he wrote. 

These sides – originally issued as 78 rpm single discs – were reissued a decade later in the LP era on the Harmony label, the Columbia Records budget line. And this is the impetus for another new theme at Ho`olohe Hou which I will simply title “Cover Judging.” You may recall in our discussion of the lost Mona Joy LP that the album was filled with beautiful – and exceedingly authentic – Hawaiian music but that most fans of Hawaiian music who “know better” would likely pass it over based on the cover which featured not a picture of the artist but, rather, a dancer in traditional Tahitian dress. The same is true of the reissue of these Lena Machado sides on LP – the cover of which you see here and which again features Tahitian dancers – not Hawaiian. In this era it is widely acknowledge that “cheesecake” covers – featuring scantily-clad women – sold all kinds of records from jazz to classical, but such covers in many cases belied the serious music inside. Those who passed up this record because of its cover may never know the treasures that lay beneath the cardboard and which continue to live on in the grooves. I will continue to bring you many more such treasured recordings potentially passed over because of the human tendency to judge a book – or record – by its cover. 

Next time: More from the 1949 sessions on Columbia – and introducing three new original Lena Machado compositions…


Direct download: 07_Lena_Machado_-_2014_Tribute.mp3
Category:Cover Judging -- posted at: 6:32am EDT