Billy Hew Len in the 1970s

Billy Hew Len continued to be the preeminent force in steel guitar in the Honolulu music scene in the 1970s. In addition to a regular engagement at the Dolphin Room at the Outrigger Hotel in Waikiki with singer Myra English and slack key guitarist Sonny Chillingworth, he was also performing at Chuck Machado’s luau show and doing occasionals with good friends Genoa Keawe and Violet Pahu Liliko’i. And he made at least one iconic recording that has represented Hawai’i well for nearly 40 years.

I wanted you to get an idea for the unique sound that Billy and Sonny Chillingworth created to support Myra English’s vocals. They did a few recordings together, and the first selection here comes from Myra’s classic Hula Records LP “Drinking Champagne.” This is generally the sound you would have heard at one of Myra’s performances in the Dolphin Room but with a twist. Myra did not have the benefit of a bass player at the club as she did in the recording studio. When performing live, the low bass notes were provided by Sonny Chillingworth’s unique guitar style which was much like the stride piano style of Fats Waller or Teddy Wilson – alternating a running bass line with chords and occasional single note fills. Although known as a slack key guitarist, Sonny played this “stride guitar” style in standard guitar tuning. Myra did three LPs for Hula Records – none of which have been reissued in their totality on CD or MP3. But you can hear some selections from all three original LPs on the Hula Records reissue “The Best of the Champagne Lady.”

Next up is one of the most iconic – and also most controversial – recordings ever to come out of Hawai’i. “Steel Guitar Magic Hawaiian Style” was an album of steel guitar duets by Billy and Barney Isaacs. Recorded for the then still new Music of Polynesia label under the direction of orchestrator Jack de Mello, the album was not in as traditional a vein as the albums offered by the popular labels of the last decade – Hula, Lehua, Makaha, and Sounds of Hawaii. Even as the latter two labels began moving Hawaiian music into a new era by incorporating elements of rock, jazz, and Latin music (see the last post on Billy’s collaborating with arranger Benny Saks), “Steel Guitar Magic Hawaiian Style” had wound back the clock on Hawaiian music. Jack de Mello felt that he knew what appealed to the tourists, and so he incorporated many of the pre-statehood elements of Hawaiian music into this recording. And perhaps he was right for this is the only Hawaiian music recording of which I am aware that has been continuously in print for 40 years and which continues to sell, I have seen versions on long playing vinyl record, 8-track tape, cassette, CD, and now MP3, and yet I never find a copy in the music collections of Hawaiians. So who bought them all? The recording brings to mind an on-going issue which will be explored and re-explored in this blog over time – specifically the question of “What is Hawaiian music?” Because once an attempt is made to define Hawaiian music, then attempts can be made to judge some music as being more Hawaiian than other music. A controversial topic indeed. This recording appeals more to mainlanders’ sensibilities of what “Hawaiian music” should sound like and the images that it should conjure and sounds far more like the brand of “Hawaiian music” that was being recorded on the mainland and which was criticized – if not reviled – by traditionalists in Hawai’i - leaving Hawaiians to ponder whether or not it is indeed “Hawaiian music.” Of importance today, however , is simply the interplay between two greats of the steel guitar, Barney and Billy.

Finally, a glimpse of Billy in his evening performances at Chuck Machado’s luau. You hear the voice of emcee Doug Mossman (also known for his role as “Moki” on the original “Hawaii Five-O” television series) who goads Billy into a medley of the beautiful waltz-time steel guitar standard “Whispering Lullaby” followed by his rendition of a country/western classic, “Steel Guitar Rag,” popularized by country steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe. Hawaiian steel guitarists are too often judged by their approach to tunes written specifically steel guitar – among these “Sand,” “How D’Ya Do,” and “Whispering Lullaby.” In case you have never heard this version before, it is Billy’s only recording of “Lullaby” from an album that was likely only given away to visitors to the lu’au. “Chuck Machado’s Luau Recorded Live On The Beach At Waikiki” remains out of print.

Tomorrow: We wrap up our week-long tribute to Billy Hew Len’s career with a look at his too few commercial recordings in the 1980s before his untimely passing in 1987…

Direct download: Billy_Hew_Len_-_1970s.mp3
Category:Steel Guitar -- posted at: 6:25pm EDT

Billy Hew Len in the 1960s

After the loss of his left hand in a tragic accident, Billy Hew Len miraculously regained the ability to play the steel guitar through a one-of-a-kind invention: a leather glove with the steel bar attached to it. But this was still a less than perfect compromise that still required that Billy work exponentially harder to conquer what was already one of the most difficult of musical instruments.

Ultimately Billy turned to another device that would help him overcome his deficits and create his own sound, but he took an even bigger risk in doing so. For while the steel guitar is a uniquely Hawaiian invention, the pedal steel guitar was a product of the mainland U.S. Billy began playing the pedal steel guitar which was primarily associated with the country/western music of Nashville and which was much maligned by steel guitarists in Hawai’i - still today even as it was back then. But he discovered - for he was nothing if not practical - that he could do with his feet what the Hawaiian steel players did with their hands - such as the aforementioned bar slants. Most agree that Billy developed a sound on the pedal steel guitar that was uniquely Hawaiian - not country/western - and time and again throughout his career Billy went back and forth between the pedal and non-pedal steel guitars - depending on what the market demanded and the performers he accompanied desired.

And in creating a whole new kind of Hawaiian music for a new generation, arranger Benny Saks required the pedal steel as only Billy could play it.

Benny Saks (professional name of Ben Sakamoto) was a pianist and vibraphonist, but his magic was in arranging for the great vocalists of Hawaiian music. He was the “house arranger” for Mahaka Records through the 1960s as well as an occasional arranger for recordings on the Sounds of Hawaii label - two companies aimed at endearing Hawaiian music to younger, hipper audiences. As such his memorable arranging work is heard behind such amazing voices as Myrtle K. Hilo, Marlene Sai, Kai Davis, Frank and Cathy Kawelo, Bill Kaiwa, Iwalani Kahalewai, Billy Gonsalves, and Leinaala Haili. And wherever Benny was, Billy was there too on these iconic recordings.

Courtesy of Lehua Records which inherited the libraries of both of these iconic record labels over time, some of the recordings featuring Billy and Benny - such as those from Bill Kaiwa and Iwalani Kahalewai - have been reissued on CD. Others - such as those by Billy Gonsalves and the Paradise Serenaders - have been licensed by Michael Cord for his Hana Old Records label. This post will therefore take a look - as it usually does - at those recordings which remain unavailable after so many years.

You would be hard pressed - no pun intended - to find a copy of the first recording as it was not released on any of the major record labels in Hawai‘i. As the label is not identified anywhere on the recording, we should consider it “private issue” and, therefore, of very limited distribution. The singer is Ilima Baker (wife of Pua Almeida sidekick and Moana Serenaders’ guitarist and singer Kalakaua Aylett) who headlined in such venerable venues as the Moana Hotel and the Niumalu Hotel (on the site of what is now the Hilton Hawaiian Village) since before she graduated from high school. Even if you have never heard the name or even the voice, fans of Hawaiian music have felt her legacy as she brought the popular Hawaiian standard “In A Church In An Old Hawaiian Town” to prominence. To my knowledge, there is no other commercial recording of Ilima Baker except for this one LP simply entitled “Ilima” which featured the arranging of Benny Saks and the steel guitar of Billy Hew Len. This most unusual album features hymns and Christian songs on one side and Hawaiian standards on the other. But the most unusual thing about the album is the song you hear - Ilima’s voice accompanied only by Billy’s steel guitar and Ambrose Hutchinson’s kaekeeke, or bamboo organ which consists of bamboo pipes of varying lengths in order to tune them to various pitches which - when tapped on the ground - create a percussive tone much like a giant xylophone. I can find no recordings that feature the steel guitar and kaekeeke before or since this rarity.

Inexplicably, as diligent as Lehua Records has been about its reissues, only one of three sessions from Myrtle K. Hilo - the “Singing Cab Driver” has been re-released. Pity…for Auntie Myrtle has a kolohe (or rascal) way with a Hawaiian song and we are depriving Hawaiian music lovers of more of the joy of the collaboration of Billy Hew Len and Benny Saks. “Piukeone” comes from Myrtle’s Makaha Records LP “Will You Love Me When My Carburetor Is Busted.” And on it you can hear the sound that Benny was cultivating for the new generation - including a full drum kit used to infuse traditional Hawaiian songs with the modern rhythms of rock-and-roll and the Latin Americas. Until this point in the history of Hawaiian music had the rhythmic focus ever been on the snap of the high hat cymbals? Not so much.

On Bill Kaiwa’s second Sounds of Hawaii release “More From Bill Kaiwa - The Boy From Laupahoehoe,” Benny returns to the swinging jazz idioms that go back to his earlier time with Pua Almeida and the Moana Serenaders. His ear ever to the ground to pick up the rumblings of the musical happenings on the mainland and beyond, Saks incorporates the Hammond B-3 organ that was being popularized on the Blue Note jazz recordings of Jimmy Smith (among others). Never before had the jazz organ made its way into the Hawaiian music idiom. In fact, not even in jazz had this combination of instruments ever really been used for anything beyond instrumental music. So in using the Hammond B-3 to back Bill Kaiwa‘s vocals, Saks’ invention anticipates the changes in American popular music that would be heard only a few years later in such legendary recordings as Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night” album on which arranger Ernie Freeman plays the Hammond B-3 himself. The xylophone - played by none other than Saks - adds a playfulness to the proceedings. And Billy Hew Len’s pedal steel guitar is here again as well.

Marlene Sai - known affectionately by friends and family as “Auntie Goofy,” a nickname given to her by Don Ho - is one of the most recognizable voices in Hawaiian music. From Marlene’s Makaha Records LP entitled “Not Pau,“ in this version of Alvin Isaacs’ composition “Lei Momi,” Saks returns to the lounge sounds of the Shearing jazz unit with Billy’s steel guitar and Benny’s piano playing complimentary block chords in rhythm. This recording also offers proof that the arrangements were quite organic - often being worked out during the recording session - and that the new multitrack recording technology allowed them to change things on the fly and splice together a best take from several pieces of less perfect takes. Listen carefully around 5:57 in the sound clip and you will notice that Billy played a glissando - in which the bar is used to slide from one fret to another - that gets abruptly cut off. This is a really bad edit on the part of the engineer. It must have been decided that Billy would instead start playing the counterpoint theme with the piano in that first verse, and so they simply did a second take with Billy playing that theme and not-so-seamlessly spliced the takes together.

Finally, on a slightly more relaxed arrangement of Leinaala Haili’s version of Lena Machado‘s composition “Holo Wa’apa” from the Makaha Records LP “Hiki No,” Benny gives himself and Billy the freedom to noodle to their heart’s delight. The steel guitar takes the traditional role of playing “fills” or “accents” in the spaces between the vocals as well as in the vamps that connect the verses in this more traditional hula ku’i, while the piano takes on the more rhythmic role of aiding the drummer in propelling the Latin beat. Again, Saks does his homework as this is the same sound of the piano as heard in the famous Latin dance bands led by Xavier Cugat and Perez Prado and their more avant garde disciple Juan Garcia Esquivel.

Tomorrow: Billy Hew Len still going strong in the 1970s…

Direct download: Billy_Hew_Len_-_1960s.mp3
Category:Steel Guitar -- posted at: 7:21am EDT

Billy Hew Len in the 1950s

We’re spending the week looking at Billy Hew Len’s life and music not only in honor of his January 18th birthday, but because he was one of the most recorded and most sought after sidemen in the history of Hawaiian music. But his story is also an inspirational one - a tale of triumph over adversity. As a student of the steel guitar myself, I listen to Billy Hew Len for endless hours, and I aspire to attain his level of not only technical proficiency, but also creativity and inventiveness. But, alas, apparently I have a handicap. I have two hands.

Billy Hew Len only had one.

Like Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt before him who reinvented his playing style after a caravan fire which left two fingers of his fretting hand paralyzed, Hew Len’s accident was also the genesis of his distinctive style. Billy became fascinated with the guitar around the age of 10. When his cousin would leave for work, Billy would sneak into his room and “borrow” his cousin‘s guitar and play all day.  (Some days he didn’t sneak the guitar back and time, and his cousin would scold him.) At the age of 15, Billy quit school and went to work in a garage. And then, one day, a tragic accident… A planing machine took Billy’s entire left hand - clear at the wrist. Thinking that any potential career in guitar was now over, Billy fell into a depression.

Billy’s mother encouraged him not to give up and turned to anyone she thought might be able to help. Enter Edwin T. Morrell, an elder in the Mormon church who also worked with the disabled. He spoke to Billy and asked him what he liked to do, and the dejected lad said, “Ah, nothing.” But his mother interjected, “Billy plays the guitar!” And Mr. Morrell promised that he would find a way to help Billy play the guitar again - even in his new, differently-abled condition.

Mr. Morrell took Billy to a leather shop - you know, the kind that made saddles in those days. He explained Billy’s situation and gave him a drawing of a device he thought would ultimately help Billy. And the leather worker made it: A glove that would fit snugly over Billy’s wrist and to which they could attach the steel bar for which the steel guitar takes its name. Billy saw the glove but was only mildly encouraged. He expressed the practical concerns of a musician far more seasoned than his years should imply: How will I attain the vibrato that is the signature sound of the steel guitar and which begins and ends with the wrist? Will I have to shake my entire arm back and forth? And what about slants? Steel players slant the bar forward to create one kind of chord and slant it backward to create another kind of chord. How am I going to do that without a wrist?

But, somehow, miraculously, and through no small effort, Billy did. And if you have ever seen the much too little video that exists of Billy playing (such as the “Hawaiian Rainbow” documentary discussed in my last post), you can easily see how Billy overcame the very real limitations he predicted. But more than that, you can see how he turned such limitations into the assets that became his unique playing style.

In order to better understand the evolution of Billy’s unique approach to steel guitar, it is probably best to look at his career in chronological order - starting with the late 1940s through 1959. Even if you have heard these recordings before, you may not have known that it was Billy doing the steel guitar work on these sides since it was not customary to list the names of the sidemen on recordings - only the name of the leader. But aficionados of steel guitar know a certain player when we hear them by certain characteristics of their playing. And those aficionados will tell you that there was no other like Billy Hew Len who is instantly recognizable from the downbeat.

The first partial selection - the master is inexplicably incomplete - is the audio track from a movie short - the kind you would have seen before or between the feature films at the old Sunday matinees. You hear Billy playing a song long associated with steel guitarists, “Moana Chimes,” accompanied by a band led by his longtime musical associate, Pua Almeida. This is the earliest work I could locate in my archives by either Almeida or Hew Len. And, ironically, “Moana Chimes” is the song Billy played on his last commercial recording - the Robert Mugge documentary “Hawaiian Rainbow.”

We then hear Billy leading the Moana Serenaders, the group primarily known for its association with Pua Almeida. But on this Decca side - “Hula O Makee,” found both as a 45rpm single and on the compilation LP “Stars of Hawaii” - the leader of the group is George Keoki. This record - although rare - comes up in conversation among Billy Hew Len “completists” often for it is indeed a curiosity. First, nobody with whom you will speak - in Hawai’i or beyond - recalls an entertainer by the name of George Keoki. But as often happened in those days, an artist under contract to one record label was forbidden to record for other record labels lest those releases compete with each other for sales or radio play. So many - not only in Hawai’i, but also in the worlds of pop and jazz - recorded for other labels under pseudonyms. If there is no such real person as “George Keoki,” could it be Pua Almeida incognito? Somebody else? Perhaps we will never know since the other curiosity about this recording is that both the 45rpm and LP versions list the vocalist as Billy Hew Len as well. Billy Hen Len…the singer? Yes, those who knew him claim that he could sing and sing quite well, but we have had rare opportunity to hear him take the vocal lead on record. The 45rpm and LP date to the 1950s and remain out of print more than 50 years later. 

The next selection is not merely one of my favorite things Billy ever did or even one of my favorite pieces of Hawaiian music. I think it is one of the greatest things ever laid down in a recording studio! There is so much going on here that I don’t even know where to begin… First, this is not a regular recording group. It is a once-in-a-lifetime all-star band under the direction of arranger Chick Floyd (whose work you have heard previously on Ho’olohe Hou with both Lani Kai and Lucky Luck). But he is leading the best of the best in the 1950s Hawaiian music scene - including members of the Hawaii Calls orchestra and chorus featured on that weekly radio broadcast (the voices and instruments of Sonny Kamahele, his sister, Iwalani Kamahele, Pua Almeida, and Sonny Nicholas), the Tahitian drummers that performed nightly in the Polynesian show at Don the Beachcomber’s (where Chick Floyd was the musical director), members of the Martin Denny group (such as Willard Brady, Augie Colon, Harvey Ragsdale, and Julius Wechter) that was experimenting with combining traditional Hawaiian music with the instruments and rhythms of other world music, and not one… not two… but three steel guitar legends - Barney Isaacs, Danny Stewart, and Billy Hew Len. Now, there is a precedent for steel guitar duos in Hawaiian music which came about by necessity (which we will discuss in a future Ho’olohe Hou post). But a steel guitar trio is rare. More rare still is that all three gentlemen are playing the much maligned pedal steel guitar (which we will talk about in tomorrow’s Ho’olohe Hou post). “Nani Waimea” is from the 1959 classic Liberty LP “Hula La,” and I can safely write that nothing like it was done before or since. This beautiful recording also remains out of print.

And, finally, more from the on-going collaboration of Pua Almeida and Billy Hew Len from one of Pua’s most rare recordings - the 1960 LP “Pua Almeida Sings with Billy Hew Len and the Moana Surfriders.” Throughout this album, the inventive arrangements - no doubt the collaboration of Pua, Billy, and Benny Saks who went on to be known as the foremost arranger of Hawaiian music recordings in the 1960s - are indicative of the melding of traditional Hawaiian sounds and the jazz arrangements of such combos as led by Nat King Cole, Joe Bushkin, or George Shearing. Like Shearing’s group, the combo is a quintet anchored by upright bass, rhythm guitar, percussion, piano and vibes (handled most ably by vibraphonist Saks). In that formation, the group might be considered staunchly jazz. But the addition of Hew Len’s steel - such as on the swinging “E Liliu E” - brings it all back to Hawaiian style. And like the earlier “Hula O Makee” by this same group, you will also hear the introduction of a drummer/percussionist. Here the group outright swings, but often the percussionist dabbled in Latin rhythms as few did before this group (with the notable exceptions of Lena Machado and Jesse Kalima).

Tomorrow: Billy Hew Len swings into the 1960s in grand style at the side of friend Benny Saks…

Direct download: Billy_Hew_Len_-_1950s.mp3
Category:Steel Guitar -- posted at: 10:27am EDT

Hal Aloma

Hal Aloma was born Harold David Alama on January 8, 1908.  He attended Kalihi-Waena School and McKinley High School before dashing off to the mainland and New York City where he became extremely popular for his modernized hybrid of Hawaiian music.

A composer, singer, and eventually band leader, Hal Aloma was first and foremost a steel guitar player with a style like no other.  Upon his arrival in NYC, he started out as the steel guitarist with Lani McIntire at New York’s famed Lexington Hotel “Hawaiian Room,” and then later led his own band in this same location as well as the Luau 400 and various night spots up and down the east coast.  He appeared on television shows hosted by Arthur Godfrey, Ed Sullivan, and Perry Como, and was even a mystery guest on the game show To Tell The Truth.  Aloma also appeared in the MGM film Ship Ahoy with Tommy Dorsey.  He capped off his amazing career as the first band leader at the Polynesian Village for the grand opening of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Although born Alama, Hal changed his name to Aloma - presumably to capitalize on the popularity of a Polynesian-themed film of that era, Aloma of the South Seas.  He was the brother of another Hawaiian entertainer, Sam Alama, a singer and composer who left a lasting legacy with a song still sung today, "Kanakanui Hotel."

As a songwriter, while not as prolific as, say, Harry Owens or R. Alex Anderson, Hal’s paeans to his homeland are often just as beautiful - a few even catching on with local Hawai’i artists.  I have heard his “Echoes of the South Pacific” covered by such Hawaiian music traditionalists as Violet Pahu Liliko’i, and his “Wikiwiki Mai” has been recorded over and over including a memorable rendition by Charles K.L. Davis.

Hal was an extremely popular recording artist - landing a coveted record contract with Dot Records in the late 1950s.  His recordings sold extremely well on the mainland, but you will rarely find one in the used record shops throughout Hawai’i.  This may be because the local music trade was focused on its local artists, or it may indicate that Hal Aloma’s brand of modernized, mainland-influenced Hawaiian music was not the appetite of local Hawai‘i listeners.  I have chosen two songs - both Aloma originals - from his Dot Records period - tracks that are about as different as they can be.  The first is a rollicking hapa-haole swing number, the aforementioned “Wikiwiki Mai,” in which you will hear the influences of the mainland dance hall jazz combos, including - again - the drum kit with its persistent ride cymbal and occasional gentle “crash.”  You will also immediately notice that there are two steel guitars - a sound typically identified with the Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts.  The two steelers here are Hal and his great friend, NYC local Sam Makia who also left an enduring legacy.  I have as many Sam Makia sides in this collection as I do Hal Aloma, and as my father was an occasional musical partner of Makia in later years, I can safely identify the lead steel on “Wikiwiki Mai” - a solo played with what I can only call “wreckless abandon” - as Sam.  The other number is far more traditional - a modern take on chant which Hal called his “Hawaiian Love Chant.”  The chant is in the expected rhythm and minor key and sung in Hawaiian, but it is then followed by a fox trot-style hula tempo sung in English.  In both cases, despite the changing times and changing sounds, I hope you can also still hear all that is innately Hawaiian in Hal Aloma’s music.

Direct download: Hal_Aloma_-_Wikiwiki_Mai-Echoes_of_the_South_Pacific.mp3
Category:Steel Guitar -- posted at: 7:35am EDT

Gabby Plays Steel

Gabby Pahinui is a Hawai’i folk hero known primarily as the progenitor of all slack key guitarists who followed.  This is because Gabby’s slack key guitar recording of “Hi’ilawe” is one of the earliest commercially available recordings of the art form and also largely because he was damned good at his craft.  But among steel guitarists, Gabby is known for his fine steel guitar playing which was too seldom heard on record.

From time to time, Ho’olohe Hou will pull out some examples of Gabby’s steel playing.  But this example is about as rare as they come.  It is difficult to say what makes it more rare: that it is the only long playing record by a fine vocalist, Sam Kahalewai; that it features compositions by the great songwriter Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, many never recorded before or since; that it is a rare example of Gabby’s steel playing at his uninhibited finest; or that it was published by Four Winds Recording of Hutchinson, Kansas.  The album - A Lei of Songs from Sam - dates to the early 1960s and features Sam Kahalewai, Alvin Isaacs, Norman Isaacs, and - of course - Gabby.

Those who knew Gabby speak of his influences - from big band jazz to the Beatles.  But you don’t need to speak of them to be able to hear them.  In this cut - an Alvin Isaacs composition entitled "Sing Your Cares Away" - Gabby’s all too brief solo begins at about 0:58.  And almost immediately you will hear that Gabby punctuates the single note solo line in much the same way as a solo trumpet or saxophone player might in a small jazz combo.  This is Hawaiian music, and at the same time it is bebop. There are non-chord tones (often referred to as “blue notes,” from which “the blues” get their name).  And then a series of 9th and 6th chords which, too, are more typically associated with jazz than Hawaiian music.  This is a rare example of “let loose” kine Gabby steel playing, and I hope to find more examples to share in time.

Direct download: Sings_Your_Cares_Away.mp3
Category:Steel Guitar -- posted at: 8:52am EDT