More Pua Almeida on Waikiki Records

While we cannot cover the entire recorded history of Pua Almeida on the Waikiki Records label in a blog - with or without the constraints of time and word count - I needed to hear more than I offered up in my last post. I hope you agree. So here is still more of Pua Almeida from his most fruitful recording period of the early 1960s on Waikiki Records.

As noted in the last post, during this period Pua did not always record with his regular working group. But the group heard on this first selection is not merely “all-star,” but also “multi-generational.” From the Waikiki LP “My Son Pua,“ Pua plays the steel while his hanai father Johnny Almeida tinkles the mandolin and Bill Ali’iloa Lincoln sings the Prince Leleiohoku composition “Moani Ke ‘Ala.” Uncle Johnny then joins the vocal chorus before Pua takes over singing “The Girl In The Yellow Holoku.”

Credited to Pua Almeida and His Sunset Trio, the John Keawehawai’i composition “My Yellow Ginger Lei” could be found both on a Waikiki 45 r.p.m. and on the compilation LP “Do The Hula.” You hear the steel guitar of Billy Hew Len and the alternating piano and glockenspiel of Benny Saks, but we are left to wonder who is playing the ‘ukulele counterpart to Pua’s vocal. As mentioned previously, the “trio” in the group’s name is somewhat of a misnomer as there are at least six musicians here - steel guitar, rhythm guitar, ‘ukulele, bass, drums, and glockenspiel. Trio, indeed!

From the Waikiki compilation LP “Ku’uipo My Sweetheart,“ Pua Almeida and the Moana Serenaders give us “Lihue” featuring Billy Hew Len on steel and Pua and Kalakaua Aylett trading vocals. And from another Waikiki compilation entitled “Quiet Lagoon,” Pua and the Sunset Serenaders give us another rendition of “Sweet Someone” (a different version than we heard in a post a few days ago by Pua with Chick Floyd from the “Little Grass Shack” LP). This simple version features Billy Hew Len on a pedal steel guitar this time around. Both “Lihue” and “Sweet Someone” were released as 45 r.p.m. singles as well.

From my favorite Pua LP, “Surfrider,” Pua Almeida and His Polynesians offer a rollicking Latin-themed version of “Nani Ko’olau.” The steel guitar sits this one out, and instead we have the piano take the lead as with the group led by Pua’s friend and contemporary, Jesse Kalima.

And then a true curiosity. Some will contend that Pua made four LPs for the Waikiki label. But there were, in fact, only three. One was released twice with two different titles and two different covers! The album originally released as “Poolside Music Hawaiiana” was later re-released as “Dancing Under The Stars With Pua.” More curious still is that one song from the original LP was swapped out for a different tune on the reissue. The bizarre little tune has been forgotten by many, but here again at long last I give you Pua’s version of “Some Hawaiian Is Lying.” The swingin’ number features a great steel guitar solo by Joe Custino. One can only wonder why Waikiki Records chose to replace this song  with another for the reissue. (Political correctness?)

And, finally, why not close the set with the song with which “Some Hawaiian Is Lying” had been replaced? From the Waikiki LP “Dancing Under The Stars With Pua” we hear the lovely medley of “Kai Hawanawana” and “Honolulu Tomboy” in fox trot tempo. In addition to Pua and the gang, we predominantly hear the fancy mandolin work once again of Pua’s hanai father, John Kameaaloha Almeida.

Next time: A tune by Pua that I would place a bet you have never heard before - only from the vaults of Ho’olohe Hou

Direct download: Pua_Almeida_Week_-_Part_8.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:34pm EST

Pua Almeida on Waikiki Records

Engineer Young O. Kang had been cobbling together equipment to bring Hawaiian music recordings to the world since the early 1940s. But by 1958 Kang was finally in business for himself - with state of the art equipment - courtesy of local Hawai’i entrepreneur Tommy Kerns. Together Kerns and Kang founded Waikiki Records, and for an eight year period from 1958 to 1966, they produced some of the finest sounded recordings of Hawaiian music to date by some of the most popular artists of the era - including Pua Almeida who recorded three LPs for the label in addition to countless 45 r.p.m singles and songs that appeared on compilation albums. Piecing together a complete discography of Pua on Waikiki can be difficult since not all of the 45 r.p.m. singles (or their “B” sides) appeared on the LPs or compilation albums or vice-versa. So while I devote my life to finding all of it, let’s enjoy what we already have for a while…

Also notable during the Waikiki Records period is that Pua did not always record with the same musicians. This is why I previously wrote that the obscure LP “Pua Almeida Sings with Billy Hew Len and the Moana Surfriders” may be our last best chance at hearing Pua’s steady working group. Some of the Waikiki sides are cited as being by the Moana Serenaders, some by the Moana Hotel Orchestra, and others still by Pua Almeida and His Polynesians, Pua Almeida and the Sunset Serenaders, or even Pua Almeida and the Sunset Trio (even when there are conspicuously more than three musicians playing). This means that we get to hear Pua in combination with different musicians - most unidentified - while trying to maintain his unique “sound.” Some of the musicians are recognizable by their unmistakable styles, so I will try to cite a few along the way.

Don McDiarmid‘s hapa-haole “Do The Hula” is - according to different sources - either by Pua Almeida and His Sunset Serenaders (45) or Pua Almeida and His Sunset Trio (LP). So clearly these were groups assembled solely for the recording sessions but which had no name recognition as a live working ensemble. Otherwise somebody at the record company would have been more careful about the naming conventions. This is Pua on the steel guitar - what little we hear of him, anyway. Steel guitarists are quick to admit that the difficult instrument requires so much concentration - it is not an instrument that can be played by feel since it has no frets, so you must constantly watch where you’re putting your hands - that it is also difficult to play steel and sing at the same time. So you hear only the steel intro and a few accents here and there - one sure sign that this is Pua focusing on the singing and ignoring the steel. Another essential clue, however, is the intro which features large, growling chords as opposed to single string soloing - a signature of Pua’s steel playing. The 45 r.p.m. version is plagued by an annoying echo on the vocal - not a hallmark of Young O. Kang’s sound. A mastering error, perhaps? So the version you hear now comes from the Waikiki compilation album “Do The Hula.”

The vocals toward the end of “Pearly Shells” share this same “echo” affliction as the 45 r.p.m. version of “Do The Hula,” so this was clearly a deliberate engineering approach (which may or may not have been executed successfully). This song is credited to “Pua Almeida and His Sunset Serenaders” and features Billy Hew Len on steel guitar and the deep bass voice of Sonny Kamahele leading the call-and-response with Pua. So that is likely Sonny’s rhythm guitar you hear as well.

Danny Stewart’s lovely but seldom heard “Nohea” abandons the steel guitar altogether for something more like the Latin sounds Pua had been cultivating earlier and features - like recordings by his friend and contemporary Jesse Kalima - the piano. The lovely and sensitive jazzy guitar solo you hear is Pua! Aficianados of Pua’s music have long been aware of his sensibilities with an archtop guitar - playing his jazzy style on a Gibson L-5 with a DeArmond pick-up with which he is pictured on the cover of “Surfrider” from which this cut was taken. Pua was called upon frequently during this period for both his rhythm guitar playing and provided sultry improvised guitar intros and endings on recordings by the Hawaii Calls radio show orchestra, Mahi Beamer, Eddie Kekaula, the New Hawaiian Band, and even Tennessee Ernie Ford. In fact, the recordings on which Pua performs uncredited as a sideman might outnumber those on which he was cited as leader.

Available both as a 45 r.p.m. single and on the LPs  “Poolside Music Hawaiiana“ and “Dancing Under The Stars With Pua,” “Ahulili” is credited to Pua Almeida and His Polynesians and offers us two surprises - a lead vocal by Kalakaua Aylett and steel guitar by Joe Custino.

Next… Pua caresses a composition by his hanai father, Uncle Johnny Almeida, with both his voice and his steel guitar. The simply lovely “Lei Mokihana” is one of my favorite recordings by Pua. How do we know this is Pua on the steel guitar? Listen first to the intro in which Pua plays huge, beautiful chords with a shimmering vibrato. The vibrato is a signature part of Pua’s style. Another signature - listen at around 10:28 in the set - is Pua’s reverse strum (from the highest string to the lowest) very close to the bridge - providing an eerie, almost harp-like presence. That, too, is right from the Pua playbook, and he does it to end the vamp after nearly every verse. (Pua had developed that technique long before as you will hear it more than 20 years earlier on his recordings with Randy Oness and Alfred Apaka.) And again, note that the steel guitar playing ends when the singing begins - a sign that the steeler and the singer are one and the same.

The Latin rhythms return with “Papalina Lahilahi” taken from a Waikiki 45 r.p.m. and credited to Pua Almeida and the Moana Serenaders. This is probably closest to his working group at that time. Pua trades vocals with Kalakaua Aylett who is also likely the rhythm guitarist, and we hear the steel guitar of Billy Hew Len and the vibes of Benny Saks.

Closing the set we hear the Sam Koki composition “Hoe Hoe” (sometimes affectionately referred to as “Sam Koki’s Hukilau”). Also found on the Waikiki LPs “Poolside Music Hawaiiana“ and “Dancing Under The Stars With Pua,” this one is also credited to Pua Almeida and His Polynesians and again features vocals by Kalakaua Aylett and steel guitar by Joe Custino. While both Pua and Joe play a very jazzy chord melody style on the steel guitar, those familiar with the nuances of different steel players know that this is Joe’s tone (a little more harsh on the treble side than Pua’s tone), attack, and almost complete lack of vibrato - more like a string organ than a steel guitar. For comparison, listen to Joe’s earlier work with Honey Kalima or the Chick Floyd group which performed weekly for the Lucky Luck Show.

Next time: Can‘t get enough of Pua on Waikiki Records? Neither can I…

Direct download: Pua_Almeida_Week_-_Part_7.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:20pm EST

Exotic Meets Exotica

Despite being an island in the middle of the Pacific, Hawai’i has always been subject to the influences it has imported. From its food to its clothing styles, Hawai’i has long been a melting pot of cultures ranging from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to the other South Pacific peoples.

But nowhere is the melting pot theme more apparent than in Hawaiian music. Already on this blog we have discussed the influences of American big band jazz and small combo jazz and the incorporation of the rhythms of the Latin Americas. But what happens when you take everything you have ever heard and thought about music from around the world and throw it into a cosmic blender?

Between 1958 and 1960, two records of “Hawaiian music” were released on the popular Liberty Records label based in Hollywood. The covers bespoke something slightly less than traditional Hawaiian music but, rather, some cheesy mainland version of it. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? The covers featured scantily clad women, and the titles could not have been more ill conceived - one completely unmemorable (“Little Grass Shack”) and the other an odd play on Parisian men ogling dames on the Champs Elysées (“Hu La La”). Now add to this a name not yet immediately associated with Hawaiian music - Chick Floyd - and all elements considered lovers of Hawaiian music would have immediately passed this record over as another affair from the Longines Symphonette. Who was going to shell out for a recording of Hawaiian music by “Chick Floyd and His Orchestra” when pressed to make the choice between available Hawaiian music recordings by a guy named Floyd and other guys named Aloma and Pineapple?

But this is one of those cases where the whole is clearly more than the sum of its parts. So let’s look at the parts.

In the 1930’s Chick Floyd was the arranger with Orville Knapp’s orchestra. This was not a jazz band per se but, rather, a band that played “sweet music” - something slightly less than jazz, but heavily arranged and intended for the dance halls as opposed to pure listening pleasure. The band featured a sweet music singer - Edith Caldwell - whom Chick wasted no time wooing and marrying. As arranger for the band, Floyd relied on exaggerated brass and unison saxes  - a sound later perfected by such arrangers as Billy May. But success was fleeting. Chick and Edith gave other bands a go, but their success - and the marriage - were ultimately doomed.  Eventually Chick moved to Hawai’i and started a new orchestra which was the featured band for the Lucky Luck Show. Chick also went on to arrange albums for such talented Honolulu-based singers as Lani Kai and Ed Kenney.

In January 1954, Don the Beachcomber brought pianist Martin Denny to Honolulu for what was to be only a two-week engagement. But like Chick, he fell in love with the islands and stayed. More than this, the inspiration of the melting pot that was and is Hawai’i helped Denny forge a new sound all his own. By 1955, Denny and his group were performing at the Shell Bar of the Hawaiian Village Hotel. It was in this exotic setting that Denny’s new sound was born. To try to outdo the sounds of the frogs croaking in the nearby pool, Denny and crew began a unique approach to vocalizing with a series of bird calls. To make matters more exotic still, Denny used the burgeoning jet plane to import instruments from all over the world. The Martin Denny Group was reinventing the standards written by the Gershwins and Cole Porter by arranging them for entrancing rhythms on percussion instruments from around the world while issuing bird noises from deep within their lungs. Denny and crew were soon signed to Liberty Records, and label head Si Waronker branded this new sound “exotica.“ Martin soon after became the label’s A&R man in Honolulu - seeking out the best and brightest in talent from the islands.

By 1959, the “Hawaii Calls” radio broadcasts heard around the world were nearing their 25th anniversary. So the luminaries of the show’s cast were already becoming household names beyond Hawai’i’s borders. But there was still more local talent that were not “Hawaii Calls” regulars but who were becoming wildly popular with the tourists. In a stroke of genius, Martin Denny decided to bring together members of the “Hawaii Calls” orchestra and chorus, members of his own band, and to stir this soup, arranger Chick Floyd. And to round out the cast, Floyd brought some talent of his own - members of the cast of the evening Polynesian show at Don the Beachcombers, a show for which Floyd was now the arranger. This amazing all-star cast led to the two presumably “cheesy” albums mentioned earlier - “Little Grass Shack” and “Hu La La.” The albums were not cheesy at all, as it turns out, but two of the finest examples of the blending of Hawaiian music and other cultures on record. Some - but not all - of this talent was credited on the album covers, so for many years those who have had the rare pleasure of hearing these recordings may have wondered just what and who they were hearing. Pua Almeida was a key vocalist on both albums. So in this segment, we feature songs from both albums which highlight Pua’s voice while identifying the contribution of the other players along the way.

The set opens with an obscurity only recorded once. From the “Hu La La“ LP, “There’s Still A Lot Of Steam In Kilauea” was written by Sam Kaapuni who became famous for his work with the California-based Hawaiian music group known as The Polynesians. On this tune, Pua Almeida trades lead vocal duties with Hawaii Calls’ cast member Sonny Nicholas. You also hear Martin Denny’s piano (despite that he goes uncredited), Julius Wechter (then of Denny’s group but later of the Baja Marimba Band) on vibraphone, and the bass clarinet of Denny group collaborator Willard Brady.

From the “Little Grass Shack” LP we hear Pua take the vocal lead on the lovely “Sweet Someone” - a song adopted by Hawaiian musicians but which was actually made popular by Nat King Cole’s brother, Eddie Cole, and his musical partner, wife Betty, during their long engagement in Honolulu. Again, the “sweet music” style arrangement centers on Denny’s piano and an unidentified woodwind section.

Also from the “Little Grass Shack” LP, we then hear “Hukilau” again featuring Pua and Sonny Nicholas on lead vocals - getting their Bobby Darin on - and the backing vocals of the “Hawaii Calls” vocal chorus comprised of singing sisters Nina Keali’iwahamana, Lani Custino, and Lahela Rodrigues. None of these artists are identified in the liner notes.

And the last song has been one of my favorites since childhood. Pua takes the vocal lead on a Chick Floyd original, “Late At Night” and turns in what may be his most haunting performance ever. We again hear Denny’s piano, the flute and oboe of Willard Brady, the steel guitar of Danny Stewart, and a vocal chorus consisting of Pua, Sonny Nicholas, Sonny Kamahele, and Sonny’s sister, Iwalani Kamahele whose high soprano in octave unison with Pua give this number an even more haunting quality.

And these are just the selections from these two LPs which feature Pua! There are 18 more selections across these two albums which feature other greats of Hawaiian music of this period exotically interwoven with the members of the Martin Denny and Chick Floyd aggregations. We will get to these other tunes eventually. But if you ever passed up one or both of these LPs on your crate-diving adventures, don’t think twice should you ever see them again.

Next time: Pua transitions gracefully from the jazzy 50s to the groovy 60s…

Direct download: Pua_Almeida_Week_-_Part_5.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:43am EST

A Pua Curiosity

These three songs are from a 1959 G.N.P. Crescendo compilation LP released on the mainland entitled “Hawaii - A Musical Memento of the Islands” - which is a curiosity on many levels.

G.N.P. stood for “Gene Norman Presents.” Norman was a jazz impresario whose Crescendo label released recordings by such legends as Lionel Hampton and Charlie Shavers. What would such a jazz promoter want with Pua Almeida, Haunani Kahalewai, Andy Cummings, Benny Kalama, or Ray Kinney? What commercial value would they have to him? Apparently, Norman knew better as he released three records of Hawaiian music between 1957 and 1961. The label still banks on these recordings, too. Although they have not been continuously available, they have been available in almost every format from the LP to the cassette tape to the CD and now MP3 which can be found on such reputable download services as iTunes and Rhapsody.

But what of the origins of these recordings? How much credit does the jazz impresario deserve for assembling this talent into an all-star cast for a stellar recording from end to end? Perhaps none at all! As mentioned on this blog previously, during this period it was becoming more and more common for the small labels in Hawai’i to license their masters to larger record companies around the world - not merely for the additional revenue, but for the greater purpose of spreading Hawaiian music as far and wide as possible. Hula Records licensed recordings of Gabby Pahinui, Eddie Kamae, and Genoa Keawe to London International Records, Bell Records licensed Alfred Apaka and George Kainapau masters to Urania Records, and on and on and on. So it may have been with these G.N.P. releases most of which have their provenance in 10” LPs from years earlier released by Terna Hawaii Recording Co.

This might require further exploration. When the long playing record was introduced in the late 1940s, it was the same 10” in diameter as the previous 78 r.p.m. format. Playing at the 33 1/3 r.p.m speed, it could hold multiple songs as compared to the 78’s single song format - hence the term “long playing.” The LP employed the 10” size of its predecessor because turntables were being built to accommodate both formats. Had the LP increased in size - as it later did after some experimentation at Columbia Records - manufacturers of record players would have needed to redesign their turntables for the larger size record (and, ultimately, throw away a lot of parts inventory).

So the 10” LP had a short period of popularity from about 1948 to 1955 when the 12” LP as we know it overtook it in popularity. This means that songs by Haunani Kahalewai, Andy Cummings, and Ray Kinney released on Terna 10” records predate 1955 and, therefore, long predate their appearance on the 1959 G.N.P. label to which they were licensed.

But this only accounts for a few of the artists. What about Pua Almeida? The songs by Pua which appear on the G.N.P. Crescendo album do not appear on a previous Terna release or - for that matter - any release from Hawai’i. Were these recorded for Terna and locked up in a vault somewhere? Were they released as obscure Terna 78 r.p.m. singles? (I have seen a few of these from Haunani Kahalewai.) Or were they recorded fresh by Gene Norman for his 1959 release? This is an issue of tremendous interest since it would help us not only date the recordings, but also help us elucidate whether they were recorded on the mainland where Pua spent much of the mid-1950s or in Hawai’i where he had already returned by 1959 and was the featured entertainer at the Moana Surfrider Hotel.

Either way, the one element that binds these disparate recordings by Haunani, Andy, Ray, and Pua into a cohesive whole is the hula. The Terna Records titles from which most (but, now we know, not all) of these recordings came were labeled “Hawaiian classics for the hula.” This means that much of the experimentation we heard previously in Pua’s music would not be possible in music for the hula which relies heavily on repetition of such elements as the vamp (or transitions from one verse to another). So perhaps because this is music intended for the hula, we hear a much more traditional Pua Almeida here. To assert his uniqueness, Pua must rely on certain other signatures to achieve his “sound” -  the tight vocal harmonies and rhythmic arrangements which this time around rely not on elements fromt the Latin Americas, but rather on traditional Hawaiian percussion found in the ipu (or gourd), pu’ili (split bamboo sticks), and 'ili 'ili (lava rock stones). We hear two of the three selections from the G.N.P. release here - Maddy Lam’s “Ku’uipo Onaona” and Lilian Awa’s “Mahina O Hoku.”

In these recordings we also can begin to understand the key to Pua’s success on the entertainment scene in Waikiki during this period: He could do it all, from traditional music for the hula done in his own unique style to music for couples dancing under the moonlight. Such was the magic that was Pua Almeida…

Next time: When the new sounds of exotica met the traditional sounds of Hawai’i and some Pua Almeida you’ve likely never heard before…

Direct download: Pua_Almeida_Week_-_Part_4.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:07pm EST

Pua Heads East

After successful engagements throughout the 1940s at such popular night spots as the Queen’s Surf, Trader Vic’s, Lau Yee Chai, Club Pago Pago, Waikiki Tavern, Don the Beachcomber, and Pearl City Tavern, in 1947 Pua left Honolulu for the mainland where so many of his contemporaries of the Hawaiian music world were finding great success. He brought three musicians and a single hula dancer for a six-month engagement at the Pago Pago Club in Colton, CA. By 1950 he was entertaining in Okinawa for five months before returning to Honolulu briefly to join Annie Hall’s quartet as steel guitarist and featured vocalist. The quartet did not strictly perform Hawaiian music - not entirely a new experience for Pua.

But he soon returned to Hawaiian music and the mainland - opening at the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena with Eddie Bush, George Kainapau, and Alfred McIntyre. His next stop was the famed Seven Seas supper club at 6904 Hollywood Boulevard - directly across the street from the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Playing evenings here with a group led by none other than Sam Koki, Pua spent days doing television shows and recordings. In 1954, at the recording studios on the lot of M.G.M., Pua recorded the first ever long playing record of Hawaiian music. Entitled “South Sea Island Magic,” it was released both as a booklet set of 45 r.p.m. records as well as in the burgeoning 10” long playing format. The record featured Pua along with Sonny Kamahele (later of the Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts and recordings), Sam Kaapuni (later of the mainland group The Polynesians), and Sam Koki. The much sought out recording - a seldom found and much too expensive eBay item - has never been released on CD or MP3. You hear two sides - literally and figuratively - of that group here. On the more traditional side, we hear Pua lead the group in Ray Kinney’s hapa-haole classic “Hawaiian Hospitality.” On the slightly jazzier side, we hear the still seldom heard Jack Pitman and Eaton Magoon novelty number “Fish and Poi” in a swinging arrangement which mirrors the west coast jazz sounds of such combos as led by Nat King Cole, George Shearing, or Joe Bushkin - the piano essentially taking the lead with the guitar occasionally doubling the piano an octave higher. And while Pua and Sam Koki were both steel guitarists, it is Pua Almeida you hear doing the steel chores here as characterized by his major seventh chords.

Next time: A return to tradition in another out-of-print classic from Pua Almeida in the 1950s…

Direct download: Pua_Almeida_Week_-_Part_3.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:11am EST

Pua Almeida in the 1940s

Charleston Puaonaona Almeida was born February 17, 1922 in Honolulu. The too few historic documents which speak about Pua at all refer to his “father,” the legendary composer and musician John Kameaaloha Almeida - affectionately known as “Uncle Johnny.” But in fact, Pua was not John’s son. He was his nephew. Uncle Johnny took Pua into his home in the Hawaiian tradition known as hanai in which a child is informally adopted and raised as one’s own. Not only were they - by blood or by fate - father and son, they also had an amazing musical relationship which might only have been possible because of these family ties. One can only wonder if Pua’s musical talents would have flourished had it not been for the tutelage of Uncle Johnny.

Pua first performed professional with Uncle Johnny at the Club Pago Pago in 1941. He later perfomed at the Ramona Café until the tragedy at Pearl Harbor, and during the ensuring war, performed in U.S.O. shows as well as with an orchestra led by Randy Oness.

We begin this look at Pua Almeida’s career with the earliest recordings we can locate. Many believe the earliest recorded work from Pua are the 78 r.p.m. sides he recorded for the Bell Records label in the late 1940s with the group led by Randy Oness. But there are some commercially unreleased recordings which date back just a little earlier than that. Some of you may be old enough to remember movie shorts - so named because they featured short performances of music and dance which could be shown between the movies at the Sunday matinees in the 1940s. Pua did a few such shorts which are the first recordings heard here. First we hear Pua in a short featuring a composition from Uncle Johnny, “Ho’oluana” in which Billy Hew Len plays the steel guitar and we hear for the first time Pua’s unique rhythm guitar playing. His rhythm guitar playing is reminiscent of jazz guitar legends such as Freddie Green and is punctuated by syncopated passing chords such as you hear around 0:58 into the set. You then hear the same group perform another Uncle Johnny Almeida composition, “Ku’u Ipo Pua Rose.” Loosely arranged, you will hear Pua say “lawa” to indicate to the band and hula dancer that the song will end with that verse - which they end on a seventh chord and a guitar roll, a nod to the vaudeville era still in their rearview mirror.

We then hear two of those Bell Records 78s. For the sake of comparison, we hear the same two songs on the commercially released Bell sides as we heard on the movie shorts a moment before.

Notice the different approach to “Ho’oluana” - clearly arranged for the dance hall in the big band style so popular on the mainland at the same moment in time, a style which was ushered in by the bands of Sonny Cunha, Johnny Noble, and Harry Owens in the preceeding decades. Pua assembled an orchestra comprised of four saxophones, two trumpets, a trombone, drums, piano, bass, rhyhtm guitar, and steel guitar. These are the sounds one might have heard at the Club Pago Pago in this period - the unique melding of the Hawaiian and jazz idioms well represented by the slurping saxophones and muted trumpets combined with a more Hawaiian style rhythm section featuring the steel guitar and a vocal group right out of the playbook of Tex Beneke and the Modernaires who sang with Glenn Miller’s group at about this same time. Pua leads the first vocal chorus punctuated by the trumpets and saxes and then juxtaposed against a chorus of steel guitar and clarinet duet - the steel guitar played by Pua and the clarinet by Randy Oness. At 4:50 we hear Uncle Johnny sing a chorus of his composition, and then Pua and the vocal group pick up the tune in the out chorus. You may need to rewind to discover that this version is at a tempo intended for dancing while the earlier version from the movie short is taken a much more peppy clip.

And, finally, a second version of “Ku’u Ipo Pua Rose” recorded for Bell Records by Randy Oness’ Select Hawaiian Serenaders. This should be considered an all-star group which later spawned legends in their own right including Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs (who went on to lead the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders), Buddy Peterson, Steppy de Rego, Pua Almeida, and a then still up-and-coming singer named Alfred Apaka. Pua plays steel and sings every other verse, while Alfred Apaka leads the group on the alternating verses.

Next time: Pua enters his most prolific period - the 1950s…

Direct download: Pua_Almeida_Week_-_Part_2.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 5:36pm EST

Pua Almeida

Six years ago to the week, when Ho’olohe Hou was in the third week of its first incarnation as a podcast, the show quickly gained acclaimed among musicians in Hawai’i for a two-part episode on the legendary Pua Almeida. You see… Hawaiian musicians owe a debt to Pua for revolutionizing Hawaiian music, and yet few who don’t own an old-fashioned record player have ever heard his music because while he was one of the most prolific recording artists ever, only about a half-dozen of the sides he cut have yet seen the light of day on a CD or MP3.

Flash forward six years… I spent much of this week perusing the reboot of the seminal book on Hawaiian music. Originally published in 1979, Dr. George Kanahele’s “Hawaiian Music and Musicians” has been the bible for fans and students of Hawaiian music for over 30 years. Oddly this veritable encyclopedia of the history of Hawaiian music did not contain an entry on Pua Almeida except as a footnote to the entry on his hanai father, legendary composer and entertainer John Kameaaloha Almeida. It is criminal, then, that the 2012 version of the book - updated by music reviewer and local Honolulu entertainment columnist John Berger - still does not contain an entry on Pua Almeida.

Just as the podcast aimed to do six years ago, this blog will strive - this week, on the occasion of his birthday, and hereafter whenever the opportunity permits - to preserve the memory and the unique sound of Pua Almeida and his many rare talents.

This means I have a lot of work ahead of me. Pua was not the first Hawaiian music I heard as a child. I did not discover him until my impressionable teen years. But what an impression he left on me. Pua’s approach to Hawaiian music was like no other - a combination of traditional Hawaiian, jazz, Latin, dance hall, country, and - frankly - whatever the hell else fancied him or the amazing musician friends with whom he surrounded himself who assisted in crafting his unique sound. So Pua and his group became the template for my own approach to Hawaiian music. From the first moment I heard him, I have spent my lifetime since amassing as much Pua Almeida material as I could lay my hands on - including ridiculous bids some years ago now on an eBay auction of items from Pua’s estate. In fact, I have made discoveries of unreleased Pua Almeida music as recently as two weeks ago in a private collection that has been shared with me.

So with this wealth of material to draw upon, where does one begin? Eventually, I will attempt to cover Pua’s many accomplishments chronologically - indicating where Pua and his fellas wove together past and present to create an unpredictable future and why these inventions were historically important. For example, if you are a fan of Roland Cazimero’s guitar stylings, thank Pua Almeida whom Roland counts among his chief influences on the guitar. Do you enjoy the steel guitar of Jeff Au Hoy? Jeff found his lifelong passion for Hawaiian music listening to Pua Almeida records which often featured the steel guitar of Pua’s sidekick of many years, Billy Hew Len.

So until I sort out all of this music and history to present in some coherent manner, a quick overview of Pua’s music for the still indoctrinated…

The first amazing thing to note about Pua is how prolific his recording career was for having been cut short by heart problems shortly before his 52nd birthday. He recorded hundreds of sides across more than a dozen labels - not only as the featured artist, but also as a much in demand sideman for both his amazing rhythm guitar work and his unique steel guitar stylings. You hear Pua’s steel guitar playing on this first mid-career cut heard here, “Waikiki Is Good Enough For Me.” You also hear for the first time Pua’s penchance for changing up tempos and rhythms - switching abruptly from the opening fox trot to a Latin swing anchored by the bongos during which Pua takes a steel solo that is more bebop than Hawaiian, filled with blue notes and often playing behind or ahead of the beat. Take note also that this was clearly not music intended for the hula. The hula vamp - a chord sequence of a set number of beats and measures which indicates to the hula dancer when the song has begun, when it is about to end, and when the verses will change - has been abandoned for the more inventive, intricately arranged intros, endings, and transitions associated with such mainland jazz aggregations as the George Shearing Quintet. This is not music for the hula. This is music for the dance hall.

On “Waikapu,” Pua hands the steel guitar bar over to his longtime collaborator, Billy Hew Len, discussed on this blog at length previously. Billy went back and forth between pedal and non-pedal steels throughout his career, but the pedal steel is clearly at work here - which was one of the signatures of Pua’s sound as he had been employing Billy since the 1940s, long before Billy had become the much in demand steel player he became by his most prolific period, the 1960s. You also hear the violin - or, more appropriately, the fiddle - the combination of pedal steel guitar and fiddle giving the tune an almost western swing air. The violin was an unusual sound to hear in Hawaiian music during this period or even still today, but it was by no means new to Hawaiian music as there were violins all about the court of King David Kalakaua. You also hear for the first time Pua’s incredible voice. If Pua had been a contestant on “American Idol,” Simon Cowell might have referred to his style as “affected” - meaning somewhat unnatural or forced. You will often hear Pua elongate and contort the Hawaiian vowels. Sometimes the Hawaiian words become almost unrecognizable. He also had a tendency toward excessive vibrato. Some might call Pua’s voice an acquired taste, but it was nonetheless always recognizable - even in the large chorus of the “Hawaii Calls” radio broadcasts of which he was a member for many years. But more about that later…

Finally, what seemed to be a natural transition to me - from a song about Waikapu on the island of Maui to a hapa-haole (or English language) song about the “Maui Girl.” Anchored once again by the Latin American sound of the bongos, Pua’s version of the song would be as at home on an Xavier Cugat album as on this Tradewinds Records release. And now you hear Billy Hew Len on a non-pedal steel guitar.

One of the most charismatic figures in the history of Hawaiian music, Pua Almeida is too good for a place in an encyclopedia. He deserves a place in the hearts of all Hawaiian music lovers the world over. And my goal this week is to ensure that happens - once and for all.

More about Pua Almeida soon… This is Ho’olohe Hou. Keep listening…

Direct download: Pua_Almeida_Week_-_Part_1.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 11:40am EST

Haleloke Kahauolopua

There is woefully little information about a Hawaiian songstress once so popular on stage and TV across the country that like Madonna or Cher she was known by just her first name: Haleloke.

Perhaps you have already read that Haleloke Kahauolopua was born on February 2, 1923 in Hilo on the island of Hawai’i into a musical family. It was only natural that she would be discovered. And discovered she was – over and over again, first by the “Hawaii Calls” radio program which she joined in 1945 and soon after by Arthur Godfrey who whisked her away from the Big Island to the Big Apple to join his wildly popular radio TV programs in 1950. While Godfrey almost single-handedly repopularized the ‘ukulele on the mainland U.S., through her weekly appearances Haleloke became the symbol of Hawaiian song and hula for an entire nation. She eventually became so popular that a Haleloke doll was produced.

During this period of tremendous acclaim, Haleloke recorded some records with mainland musicians and produced by Godfrey who accompanied her on ‘ukulele and occasional vocals. I keep one of these sets close by as it is one of the most prized possessions in my vast collection. On this 1951 set of four 78 rpm discs entitled “Hawaiian Blossoms,” Haleloke delivers seven Hawaiian standards and one mainland take on hapa-haole song in her deep, husky alto. Her voice is most striking and unusual for that time since so many Hawaiian vocalists of that period – both the men and the ladies – were known primarily for how high they could sing (called “falsetto” or “ha’i”).

An issue we will revisit from time to time again is the question of what is Hawaiian music? “Hawaiian Blossoms” lacks certain essential Hawaiian qualities – possibly because the only Hawaiian involved in the recording was Haleloke herself. The musicians all hailed from the mainland as did Archie Bleyer who was the arranger for Arthur Godfrey’s TV show. Haleloke delivers each song in a distinctly Hawaiian way, but the musical settings may not seem as Hawaiian. This is not to say that those without Hawaiian lineage cannot deliver a song in the Hawaiian style. But we might argue that doing so requires a lifetime of study and practice – that “Hawaiian” cannot be summed up to notes on a page that just anybody musician should be expected to pick-up and be able to recreate Hawaiian feeling and emotion.

This should not imply that “Hawaiian Blossoms” is not worth a listen. To honor Haleloke on the anniversary of her birth, I have chosen two selections from this 78 rpm set which represent seldom heard compositions by any artist – “Ku’u Ipo” (often associated with George Kainapau and composed by steel guitarist Andy Iona and bandleader Johnny Noble) and “Lei Aloha” (an oft forgotten beachboy song written by an oft forgotten beachboy, Chick Daniels).

Perhaps because she did not enjoy the life of a superstar or the fast pace of New York city, by the mid-1950s Haleloke retired to Union City, IN.

Direct download: Haleloke_Kahauolopua_-_Hawaiian_Blossoms_Excerpts.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 5:06pm EST

Mel Abe

Mel Abe is one of the most underrated of the steel guitarists from Hawai’i. Unless you are a steel guitarist, you’ve likely never heard of him. He appeared uncredited on a number of classic recordings. In fact, his name only appeared on one album cover ever. And yet he must have been some hell of a musician to assume the steel guitar chair vacated by the untimely passing of the legendary Jules Ah See.

Masao Mel Abe was born on February 1, in Waimea, Kaua’i. Like so many amazing musicians, he learned to play the steel guitar by watching and listening to the greats and emulating – counting Dick McIntire and Eddie Bush among his heroes, but first and foremost admiring Jules. (It is no small irony that because of their names, “Abe” and “Ah See” are always one right after the other in such tomes on the subject as “The Golden Years of Hawaiian Entertainment” and “The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and its Great Hawaiian Musicians.”) He joined the Hawaiian Village Serenaders – led by arranger Benny Kalama and so named because they held court in the Tapa Room of the Hawaiian Village Hotel – after the passing of Jules Ah See in 1960. The group had been supporting legendary artists from Alfred Apaka to Hilo Hattie. So the steel player had to be really good.

On record, at least, Mel Abe demonstrates the technical prowess of Ah See – the tone and the technique – if not, perhaps, Jules’ jazz sensibilities. But that assessment is not entirely fair since artists tend to be much more careful in situations where they know they are being recorded – such as live recordings where there is no opportunity for a second take. Much of what we know about Jules’ jazzy side is from any number of bootlegs that have emerged over the years during which he would have had no idea he was being surreptitiously recorded and could simply “let loose.” Mel does not really “let loose” on record but instead provides a fine example of Hawaiian style playing when the steel guitar is not the solo instrument but critical support for the singer.

And you hear his able support on the first medley. Hilo Hattie (née Clara Haili) recorded two live LPs in the early 1960s featuring the same incarnation of the Hawaiian Village Serenaders. On this 1965 RCA Victor release - “Hilo Hattie with the Hawaiian Village Serenaders Recorded Live At The Tapa Room” - Auntie Clara sits out while bassist Jimmy Kaopuiki sings “Dance The Hula In The Moonlight” and Benny Kalama sings “Dancing Under The Stars.”

Mel Abe and Benny Kalama’s Hawaiian Village Serenaders backed many a fine singer during this period - both in live performance and in the studio. Another of these recordings on which Abe is not credited is the 1963 Ed Kenney classic “Somewhere in Hawaii - Ed Kenney Sings.” On the uptempo numbers on this amazing LP - such as “Hula Belle” and “Ukulele Island” - you can hear Abe incorporate his influences - here, a little Jules Ah See and a little Barney Isaacs - into his own amalgam of a style. In fact, a listener could be fooled into thinking that this is Jules Ah See, but sadly Jules passed away in 1960, and “Ed Kenney Sings” wasn’t recorded until 1963.

Next we hear Mel with Hawai’i’s Ambassador of Aloha, Danny Kaleikini. Before his more than 25 year stint at the Kahala Hilton Hotel, Danny was emcee of the evening lu’au at the Hilton Hawaiian Village - hence the LP “Luau At The Hilton Hawaiian Village.” But contrary to the title, this was not recorded live at the luau. This was a studio effort - hence the pristine recording quality. The recording likely features the support of musicians who comprised the Hawaiian Village Serenaders, but besides Abe - who identified himself as the steel guitarist in his own biographical information - the other players are unknown. In the vocal chorus we can hear the voices of what may be Sonny Kamahele and Jimmy Kaopuiki. Here we get a glimpse of Abe’s tender side on the ballad “Sands of Waikiki,” and on “Kona Hema O Ka Lani” we hear more of Mel’s influences such as the single string work reminiscent of Dick McIntire. This beautiful recording has been remastered and re-released on both CD and MP3. 

The last selection is one of my favorites because I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know the featured artist, Sonny Kamahele, graduate of both the Hawaiian Village Serenaders and the Hawaii Calls LPs and radio broadcasts. Mel and Sonny had a long friendship and musical relationship dating back to the Hawaiian Village Serenaders days. In fact, after the demise of that group, Mel went on to perform with Sonny for many years in the Surf Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. In the early 1970s, Sonny and Mel did an LP together for a record label based in Toronto, Canada and masterminded by steel guitar aficionado Tom Shilstra. The album - “Beautiful Hawaiian Steel Guitar” - is strictly instrumental featuring the dual steel guitars of Mel and Sonny (who was also a fine steel guitarist, more of whose steel playing you will hear on Ho’olohe Hou soon). To help you distinguish between Mel’s and Sonny’s playing styles on “Sophisticated Hula,” Sonny played primarily in an unorthodox D9th tuning. So his style is based on large, full chord strums and deep, growling glissandos that signal the chord changes. For the most part, one might think of Mel as the featured soloist in a band such as Count Basie’s and Sonny as the Basie saxophone section. And the tune opens with unison playing by Mel and Sonny that is so tight that they sound like one huge steel guitar.

Because of his facility with the instrument, his tasteful approach to backing a vocalist, and the diminishing number of steel guitarists through the 1960s and 70s before the resurgence in the popularity of the instrument, Mel can also be heard on numerous recordings of this period with Marlene Sai, Mel Peterson, Eddie Kekaula, and others. This means that we will hear more from Mel Abe in the future on Ho’olohe Hou

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this blog post contained a selection which may not have featured Mel Abe after all. A version of “Puka Shell Lei” from Sonny Kamahele’s album “Mine ‘Til The End of Time” offers a fine steel guitar solo which - according to the liner notes - was most likely Bernie Ka’ai Lewis. With my thanks to a great friend, fellow collector, and Hawaiian music enthusiast Norman Markowitz for the possible errata notice. However, that is not the end of the story. The steel player on “Puka Shell Lei” may or may not have been Bernie Ka’ai Lewis. In the Hawaiian music industry, there is a long history of erroneous or incomplete liner notes that don’t tell the whole story. Bernie Ka’ai Lewis would have celebrated a birthday in September. When Ho’olohe Hou honors him, we will return to the issue of the “mystery steeler” and do some A/B comparisons of Abe’s and Lewis’s styles. In any case, because of this possible gaff on the part of your friendly blogger, I have reposted this Mel Abe tribute with four additional tracks on which I can confirm that the steel guitarist is - beyond a shadow of a doubt - Mel Abe based biographical and discographical information offered by Abe himself.

Direct download: Mel20Abe202.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 8:06am EST