Hawai‘i Music Pupu Platter
While interviewing artists for the 50 Greatest Hawai'i Albums list, we heard many stories and tidbits that we didn't have room for in the main feature, but they were too fun to leave out. Here are some of them: The Booga Booga comedy team-Rap Reiplinger (photo 1), Ed Kaahea and James Grant Benton-started out as doormen for Keola and Kapono Beamer's show at the Territorial Tavern in downtown Honolulu. Says Kapono: "That was our first gig, and we'd sometimes get lines around the block. James, Ed and Rap asked us if they could try out some material on our off nights, and we said sure. After that, they just took off."
Palani Vaughan's career got a similar start while Don Ho was performing at Waikïkï's Kälia Gardens. "I was his 'singing doorman,'" Vaughan says. "When Don found out I could sing, he would just call me up on stage once in a while to do numbers."
Like father, like son. Augie Colon, who played percussion for Martin Denny, created and performed the birdcalls that became an integral part of the exotica sound. About 40 years later, Colon's son, Lopaka, joined Pure Heart. On the group's debut album, Lopaka is credited with-what else-percussion and bird calls.
Although Kahauanu Lake is right-handed, he strums his 'ukulele with his left hand. When he first started lessons at 4 years old, he learned how to play in mirror fashion, following the instructor in front of him. "Maybe I'm correct, and everybody else just plays their 'ukulele wrong," Lake jokes.
The love song "Kainoa" was written by Jimmy Taka when he found out he was dying of cancer. The song was for his wife, Margaret Kainoa Taka, a former cruise director for Matson liners. Taka then shared the song with his friend Andy Cummings. Cummings, one of Hawai'i's guitar greats, put the song down on paper and later taught it to his then-teenage niece, Marlene Sai. "Kainoa" went on to become Sai's first hit and title for her debut album.
Composer extraordinaire Ku'i Lee and Buddy Fo, founding member of The Invitations, were close friends who enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard together. Lee was an intellectual, says Fo, but definitely not a neat freak. "If we wanted to go on liberty, we'd have to wear clean, pressed uniforms for inspection," Fo says. "Ku'i would never be ready for inspection, and he would borrow my jumper and return it without washing 'em, every time." Fo had his way of getting back at Lee. "On the ship, haole guys used to hang around us to hear us sing and play guitar," Fo says. "Every time Ku'i did a new song, like 'One Paddle, Two Paddle,' I'd tell him, 'Junk, that song,' even though I knew it was pretty neat." Of course, some of those songs eventually became some of Don Ho's biggest hits. Fo, who now plays congas for Ho's thrice-weekly show, likes to joke: "Maybe if I were nicer to him, I would've become the millionaire, and Don Ho would be playing backup for me."
Ku'i Lee was a perfectionist when it came to songwriting. "When he wrote 'Lahaina,' he didn't like it, so he crumpled it up and threw it in the wastebasket," says friend and entertainer Don Ho. "His wife, Nani, just grabbed it out of there and brought it to me. I recorded it, and it was a hit."
None of the members of the group Kalapana were actually from Kalapana. Mackey Feary, Malani Bilyeu, D.J. Pratt and Kirk Thompson just wanted to name their band after a Hawai'i town, so they blindfolded Pratt, spun him around and had him point to a random spot on a map of the Islands. Lucky for them, one translation of the town name is "free beat of music."
Although Gabby Pahinui couldn't read music, he had an incredible ear for it. When his label, Panini Records, took him to record in California, he sat in on a rehearsal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "Gabby was wearing a T-shirt and horrible pants, and when all these trained musicians started to play, Gabby told the conductor to stop," says family friend and radio personality Honolulu Skylark. "The conductor was probably like, 'Who is this weird-looking man?' Gabby points over to one lady playing the violin in the middle of these twenty-something musicians, and he tells the conductor, 'She's flat.' And this man who couldn't read a note was right-unbelievable."
Long before Jack de Mello became one of Hawai'i's producing giants, he was a child music prodigy, a brilliant trumpet player by age 6 and touring the states with his brother. "When he was 11 years old, he got a call from [world-renowned composer] Igor Stravinsky," says son Jon de Mello. "Stravinsky wanted to learn how to write for a marching band. So my father actually started traded lessons with Stravinsky, because my father wanted to know how to write for a big orchestra."
Jack de Mello's body of work seems even more impressive today, considering the time and financial constraints under which he conducted his orchestra. "My father used to budget 23 minutes per song, because of the cost factor-$80,000 per day to have an orchestra, for a full 100-person chorus and 50 or 70 musicians," says son Jon de Mello. "We'd have three chances to record it, so the process was an absolute performance." Because overdubbing was not yet widely used, Music of Hawai'i, for instance, was essentially a live album.
When Honolulu City Lights came out, producer Tom Moffatt gave a copy to his friend, Karen Carpenter. He told her, "Listen to 'Honolulu City Lights'-you'll love it," Moffatt was right. Carpenter died not long after that exchange, says Moffatt. "But several years ago, I got a royalty check from A&M Records for the publishing on 'Honolulu City Lights,' and I was like, 'What the hell is this?' Come to find out, Karen had recorded the song and released it in Japan. It became quite popular there."