100 Years of Hawaiian Music


Published:

(page 5 of 8)


Alfred Apaka and his band wow the crowd at the Kaiser Hawaiian Village Hotel in Waikiki.

Photo: Courtesy Hilton Hawaiian Village

The Fifties: Hawaii's Heartthrob Hits the Big Time

The ’50s were a time of crooners in Hawaii, and the biggest of them all was Alfred Apaka. A dashing performer with a smooth and potent baritone, Apaka got his start singing with the Royal Hawaiian Hotel Orchestra while he was still in high school, and his fame continued to grow. After a celebrated stint at the Hotel Lexington in New York City, and another with the Hawaii Calls radio show, Apaka headlined the Tapa Room in the brand-new Kaiser Hawaiian Village Hotel—a gig that led to appearances on national television shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show. His career was sadly cut short however, when he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 40 while playing paddleball.

 

Exotic New Sounds

Martin Denny’s 1959 album Exotica inspired the birth of a veritable tiki nation. “It was just a phenomenon,” says Lloyd Kandell, from the band Don Tiki. “There were undercurrents of Puerto Rican and African and Latin rhythms, but the music was so evocative, and it painted a picture in people’s minds of what Hawaii must be like.”
 

Photo: Olivier Koning

The Sixties: Hawaii Starts Rocking and Rolling


This classic album was recorded live at Duke Kahanamoku's in 1965.

With the one-two punch of Statehood and the birth of the jet age in 1959, Hawaii was in for a wild ride. Waikiki was booming, and the music followed suit, with rock ’n’ roll and slick lounge acts taking over Kalakaua Avenue. It was here that Hawaii’s biggest superstar, Don Ho, was born. Holding court first at Honey’s Waikiki, and then at Duke Kahanamoku’s, the charismatic Ho developed an avid fan base, one that went national with the release of his live album The Don Ho Show! Soon everyone was singing along to “Tiny Bubbles” and “I’ll Remember You.”

Low Ebb

Of course, traditional Hawaiian music never completely disappeared. Genoa Keawe’s 1965 Party Hulas, for example, became a new favorite for hula hālau across the state, and the Kahauanu Lake Trio released its own classic, Hawaiian Style, in 1964. You could even find Hawaiian-language music being performed in Waikiki, among all the younger acts: Pua Almeida, Sonny Kamahele, Leinaala Haili.

 

But, by the end of the ’60s, there was the sense that the old ways were almost gone. Soria Jr. says, “We were down to almost the last falsetto singer, Joe Keawe. We were down to the last steel guitarist, Billy Hew Len. You could go down the line, and we were down to our last guys, and they were old men and women. Suddenly, there was the realization that young artists had to take the torch from the last generation. Because we had ignored them for a couple decades.”

 

Essential Cuts of the Fifties and Sixties

[1950]  Kahauanu Lake Trio’s “Pua Ahihi”, [1957]  Martin Denny’s Exotica, [ 1959 ]  The Invitation’s RSVP, [ 1959 ]  Mahi Beamer’s Hawai‘i’s Mahi Beamer, [ 1960 ]  Alfred Apaka’s The Best of Alfred Apaka, [ 1960 ]  Hilo Hawaiians’ Honeymoon in Hawaii, [ 1965 ]  Genoa Keawe’s Party Hulas

 

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