When Eddie Met Gabby
In a Waimanalo backyard, an ailing Gabby Pahinui asked Eddie Kamae to play a few tunes with him. It was the jam session that changed Kamae’s life—and set off the Hawaiian Renaissance.
Today Eddie Kamae is a folk hero, “A Living Treasure of Hawai’i,” widely recognized as a guiding voice in the revival of traditional Hawaiian music. But in the early days of his long career, the music of his homeland didn’t interest him much at all. In the 1940s he developed an innovative jazz picking style that forever changed the status of the ‘ukulele. He became its reigning virtuoso, playing American pop standards and the swing and Latin tunes he’d be drawn to as a young man coming of age in Honolulu. It was not until the late 1950s that a fateful encounter changed his way of thinking about music and about what it meant to be a Hawaiian musician. Eddie was 32 at the time, and playing nightly as a featured soloist at Waiki-ki- Biltmore Hotel. The Biltmore stood on Kaläkaua Avenue, tall and pink, right across from Kühiö Beach. From the uppermost floor, called “The Top of the Isle,” you could watch the sky turn to flame beyond the famous lines of breaking surf. Fans would come early and stay for the show. The dancers were shapely and well rehearsed. The band was smooth. Haunani Kahalewai, the emcee and lead singer, was a popular Decca recording artist, featured for years on Hawai’i Calls.
Most nights, after the show, Eddie would head down the avenue to catch the last set at another club, The Queen’s Surf, overlooking the beach in front of Kapi’olani Park. He liked to hang out with the other musicians who gathered for late-night drinks. The gifted young pianist Mahi Beamer led a trio in the lounge. Upstairs, in The Barefoot Bar, The Eddie Spencer Band included bassist Joe Marshall and singer Gabby Pahinui, known for his charismatic voice and madcap behavior. Gabby had been performing in the clubs and lounges of Waikïkï for 20 years, usually playing steel guitar. But among musicians he was known as the most talented practitioner of a style called “slack key,” which in the late 1950s, was still heard mostly at backyard parties and at family gatherings. Gabby was also known for nonstop weekend jam sessions at his house in Waimänalo, over on the Windward Side.
“One night at the Queen’s Surf,” Eddie recalls, “we were sitting there having a drink, and a friend of mine says, ‘Why don’t you come with us over to Gabby’s place? And I said, ‘What for, what’s going on?’ ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘you’ll see.’ When we got there it was around four in the morning, and I couldn’t believe how many people were there, musicians, neighbors, everybody coming, bringing food, beer, cooking. Anybody wanted to play something, they could play. Gabby was married, of course, with all his kids around too, so it was always a full house, even when there was no party.
“But that’s how Gabby was. Everybody welcome. And he was right in the center of it. He gets up there laughing and grabs his guitar and calls out to some other guys to come up, play, and it goes on like that for three days.
“If you had a job, you go do ’em, come back, go into Waikïkï, play the Biltmore, then come back to Gabby’s, and the same party is still going on. Two days. Three days. Then Sunday, everybody leaves-until the next weekend, and it starts again. It was the first time I heard Hawaiian music in that jam session way, with so many of the old songs, and singing in Hawaiian-everybody just get up, sing, play, dance, whatever. I liked what I heard, you know, but at the time I still wasn’t interested in it for myself, except for this one song. At the parties in Waimänalo, when they ask me to get up, I would play this one song I worked out, written by Queen Lili’uokalani. I liked that one. I guess it was the first Hawaiian song I really wanted to play.”
Eddie was on the verge of something. He wasn’t quite sure what. He was looking for a new direction, or some larger framework for his music. Afternoons he gave lessons at a Waikïkï studio, while getting ready to cut his first album, Heart of the ‘Ukulele, which would showcase his favorite pop and Latin tunes. From time to time he and his most talented former student, Herb Ohta, would get together for a beer and talk about ways to expand the ‘ukulele’s audience, as well as its instrumental range. They were talking about jazz, folk, the repertoire of American standards, the classics-anything and everything but Hawaiian music itself, which, for Eddie, still held only limited interest.
With the exception of this old tune, “Ku’u Pua I Paoakalani.”
One night at The Biltmore, before a show, Haunani Kahalewai had shown him the sheet music and told him it was a song he’d enjoy. Later on he picked it out, took a liking to the sweet and heartful melody line, and found himself playing it over and over again. “I wanted to know where such a song could come from,” he says.
You might call it the first crack in a doorway that was soon to open wide. Since Eddie was not yet a singer, he didn’t pay much attention to the song’s lyrics, though they carried a strange resonance for what was about to happen in his own life.
Lili’uokalani was a prolific composer. “Ku’u Pua I Paoakalani” (My Flower at Paoakalani) was written while she was under house arrest, after the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Paoakalani-which means “the royal perfume”-was the flower-surrounded home and garden she kept in Waikïkï. From her imprisonment, restricted to an upper room on the second floor of ‘Iolani Palace, she is finding solace remembering the scent of those flowers.
In Hawai’i’s long tradition of oral poetry, there is always a story within the story, or underneath the story. This one was a mele inoa, a name song, probably for the son of the queen’s close friend, Evelyn Wilson, who had chosen voluntary imprisonment, to share the captivity. According to rules laid down by the American and European businessmen who engineered the overthrow, the queen was not allowed to see newspapers or to receive any reports of activities in her former realm. But Mrs. Wilson’s son, John, devised a way to circumvent this edict. Gathering flowers from the gardens at Paoakalani, he would send them into the palace wrapped in pages from the daily Hawaiian language papers.
In the spring of 1959 you might say that Eddie Kamae was still under the spell of American and European influences. From boyhood the songs he had chosen all came from overseas. For the first time, the news of musical matters much closer to home were beginning to reach him, to touch him.
He lived in Maunawili then, a semi-rural, tree-filled neighborhood. On days when he gave lessons in Waikïkï he would drive around the island’s eastern corner, past Makapu’u Point and Koko Head. It would have been faster to take the Pali Highway, which had opened the previous year, with mountain tunnels to link the windward to the leeward side. But Eddie was used to the coast road, and he liked the shoreline view, on one hand the sparkling sea, on the other the dramatic face of the Ko’olau range, steep spires and verdant gulleys rising so close you could almost reach out and touch them.
The coast road ran through Waimänalo and past the house and yard of friends he sometimes visited, two sisters, Mabel McKeague and Nani Ho. On one such afternoon he decided to stop and say hello. Nani heard his car pull in and met him on the porch, her face creased with concern.
“Eddie, guess who’s here?”
“Oh yeah? How long?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. A week. Maybe more. His wife was going crazy with all those kids running in and out and Gabby laid up. So we keeping an eye on him.”
Eddie was shocked by what he saw. In the backyard Gabby Pahinui sat on a chair, taking the sun. He was 38 then, but looked 60, gaunt and unshaven. His shirt hung from thinning shoulders. Eddie hadn’t seen him or been to the jam sessions for several weeks, not since the nonstop drinking and sleepless nights had finally taken their toll. At first glance he thought the endless party had caught up with Gabby too. But it was more than that. Some constriction in his throat made it impossible to eat. He could barely swallow. He was living on thin soup, sipping liquids through a straw.
Gabby’s face was haggard with fatigue. But as Eddie sat down next to him and they began to talk, a brightness came into his eyes.
“Son,” he said, “you bring your ‘ukulele?”
“Sure. I got a couple with me.”
Gabby’s broad, charming smile lit up the yard. “Go get ’em. Play some music with me.”
Eddie wasn’t quite sure what would come of this. They’d never played together, just the two of them, and their tastes seemed very far apart. But the idea seemed to lift Gabby’s spirits, so he was happy to chord along for a while.
As it turned out, Eddie didn’t make it into Waikïkï that day. They played through the afternoon and into the evening. He stayed overnight, and they played through the next day, then the next. It was one of those magic times musicians live for, when the chemistry is right and unforeseen connections ignite the air. Gabby-accomplished on every stringed instrument-was impressed by Eddie’s versatility and technical expertise. Eddie began to hear something he had previously not been able to hear, to feel something that until this meeting he had not been able to feel, or perhaps had not been ready to feel. It was in Gabby’s strum, his sense of rhythm, with its echo of old hula drumming. It was also in his voice.
After a couple of days the music had somehow loosened Gabby’s throat. He could take light food, and he began to sing his favorite songs. Gabby knew thousands of songs, including many American pop standards and all the hapa-haole tunes and tropical ballads so often requested at the hotels.
But the songs he loved were written by Hawaiians and reached back to an older time-“He’eia,” “Haleakalä,” “Ka Ua Loku,” “Maika’i Kaua’i.” He sang them with that poignant breaking and bending of notes that is like the peak moment in flamenco singing or in blues, as it slides between exuberance and lament, the untranslatable, skin-prickling delivery that would soon make Gabby the most famous Hawaiian singer of modern times.
“I heard the soul speaking,” Eddie says, “and in almost an instant I understood what my father had tried to tell me. I understood about Hawaiian music. I wish now he was there so I could say, ‘Dad, you were right all along.’ But he had already passed away, so he never got to hear me play the music he always wanted me to play. He would have grinned real wide to hear me say it was not about all those things I used to think were so important, music theory and sophisticated chords.
“There in Waimänalo, just the two of us, Gabby is pouring out his heart, and the whole history of Hawai’i is in his voice. For me it was like a religious conversion.”
For both men these days of music were opening the way to new possibilities. As Gabby’s mood improved, he began to chew again and eat regular meals. A week later he was strong enough to walk to the house of someone Nani and Mabel wanted him to meet, an elder in this mostly Hawaiian community, a tutu-man who might be able to diagnose his condition.
Eddie went with him. The old man was seated in a straight-back chair, white-haired and dignified, watching them approach. As Gabby reached the topmost stair the old man stopped him with his eyes. His voice was frail and graveled, yet full of authority.
“You,” he said. “You make a lot of promises you don’t keep. That is why you have this pilikia. People get angry. They wish bad things on other people. Sit down.”
Gabby stepped across the porch and sat down next to the tutu-man, who took his hand and held it as he prayed a long prayer in Hawaiian. Then with unblinking eyes, looking straight at Gabby, he said, “From now on, don’t promise to do something you might not do. If you have to say something, say ‘Maybe.’ That way you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. And other people can’t get angry with you breaking your promise and then wish the worst on you.”
Gabby was contrite, nodding as if to say, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” He was like a young boy in church, talking to the minister.
“Mahalo,” Gabby said. Tears were in his eyes, tears of regret and gratitude. “Thank you, tutu.”
The old man released his hand. “Now you can go.”
In the days that followed, as they continued playing-working out arrangements, exploring more songs-Gabby continued to improve. Within another week he had moved back home, to his house on Bell Street. He had his appetite again. He was putting on weight. Eddie thought it was what the old man had said. But, as time would tell, the words of the tutu man contained a lesson Gabby would never quite learn.
What brought him back was the music itself. It was feeding them both, nourishing them both. “We’d wake up at five in the morning,” Eddie recalls, “go out in the yard or to the beach and just play all day. We’d have a few beers, sit back and play till it got dark. We’d have dinner and play for the rest of the night.”
They both knew something rare was going on. Each man’s skill released something in the other, opening new areas of expression. For Eddie it was partly what he heard in Gabby’s voice, partly what he heard coming from his guitar, the slack key styling Gabby had mastered as no one else.
Before joining Eddie Spencer at The Queen’s Surf, Gabby had spent 18 years with the Andy Cummings band, sometimes on rhythm guitar, sometimes on steel. By the late 1950s he was a walking library of Hawaiian melodies and lyrics. He had recently made local history with two recordings that gave new life to what many still regarded as a downhome rural sound-a 33-rpm single of the old love song, “Hi’ilawe,” released in 1955; and three years later, teaming up with Barney Isaacs, the first-ever album devoted entirely to this style, Hawaiian Slack Key. These discs were spinning in backrooms and garages from Kaua’i to Hilo, already shaping the next two generations of Hawai’i’s guitar stylists. But during those days in Waimänalo Gabby didn’t know this. He only knew he was listening for something-a note? a long forgotten song?-and since he’d started playing music every day with Eddie, he felt a lot better than he did before Eddie walked into Mabel’s yard.
Toward the end of this month of musical exploration, a visitor appeared. It was bassist Joe Marshall, who had missed seeing Gabby around Waikïkï.
“Hey, Pops. Hey, brother Eddie.”
“Marsh,” said Gabby, with his welcoming smile. “Come in, come in.”
“Where you been?” Joe asked. “How you doing?”
“Doing good. Sit down. Have a beer. Listen to something.”
They played a couple of songs, new arrangements, and Joe was smiling. He had a round face and an impish look, as if always on the verge of laughter. “Gee,” he said, “I should’ve brought my bass.”
“Well, go get it,” Gabby said. “We’ll be here. We got plenty more songs.”
“I’ll be right back.”
It was a 20-mile round trip over the mountain. An hour and a half later he was in the room again and tuning up. Joe had a rich voice and a perfect ear for harmony. Like Eddie he too grew up in Honolulu, in a big Hawaiian family (10 brothers and sisters), and had been encouraged by his father, who once played saxophone in the Royal Hawaiian Band. Now 30, Joe had been playing the Waikïkï clubs for years, before and after Army service in Korea. He and Gabby had worked many gigs together. So he fit right in with what they were doing, backing Gabby on the vocals, anchoring their chords with his easy, steady bass line.
Joe knew right away that this was more than a jam session. He too was ignited by the music, the superb instrumental work and the chance to pour his heart into Hawaiian language songs. He stayed the night, and the next night too, as they all started talking about what they felt emerging here, “a sound” none had heard before yet somehow had been waiting to hear.
But now that his acoustic bass had filled in the bottom of the chords, the need for some other note had opened at the top. Eddie thought they needed a steel. The right steel player, he said, could provide the finishing touch. Joe got excited. He knew a young musician named David Rogers, who had a rare and tasteful style. Eddie and Gabby recognized the name. The Rogers family was famous for its steel players. David’s uncle Benny had for many years played and recorded with the Genoa Keawe band.
“You know where he lives?” Gabby said.
“I been there.”
“Let’s go then! Let’s go find this guy!”
They piled into Joe’s car and once again he drove over the mountains, this time to Kalihi. As they parked in front of the Rogers’ family house, another car pulled up to the curb and out stepped a husky fellow with a big, shy grin. In those days David Rogers was still widely remembered as a high school athlete. His football skills, his running and kicking in the local Barefoot League, had earned him the nickname “Feet.”
He’d just come back from an afternoon rehearsal. But as soon as he heard what Gabby and Eddie and Joe had in mind, he sensed that here was a chance he too had been waiting for. As Joe Marshall would later observe, “Feet was playing a lot but he wasn’t happy with those other groups. He was already searching for the same thing we were searching for, everybody looking for that one thing we can own that is our identity.”
By reputation Feet knew these three. At the same time, he had a commitment to another band. Luckily his father was there, George Rogers, a musician known to Eddie and Gabby, an elder statesman of the Hawaiian steel guitar. Maybe George could help his son make up his mind. Eddie asked him if he thought it would be okay for Feet to sit in with them. Then Gabby played a couple of songs from their new repertoire. George approved of what he heard. He appreciated Eddie’s show of respect. “Okay,” he said at last, “I think my son should go with you folks. Just one thing.”
“What’s that?” said Eddie.
“Feet don’t have his own guitar yet. He’s always borrowing mine.”
George went out and bought one from a friend, a pancake-style Rickenbacher-a gift to his son, and a kind of blessing in advance for the band-to-be.
Back at Gabby’s place, Feet joined their ongoing session. He had learned from his father and uncle, yet he did not imitate them. At 24 he had already perfected his own singular guitar voice. It pulled them all together-the bass, ‘ukulele, the pulsing slack key guitar-completing the sound. As the days went by, as they brought Feet into the repertoire, he also helped to define that sound.
His music is a bit like his manner. “Feet was like my father,” Eddie recalls. “He never said much. But when he talked, you paid attention. He saw people for who they were, and he would get right to the point.”
There is a busy, flashy way of playing steel that tries to fill each measure with as many notes as possible. Feet’s music was the opposite of that. He had no desire to draw attention to himself or be the star. He played with reserve and understatement, with an exquisite purity of tone.
He brought with him a D major tuning, played only by members of the Rogers family. “How we tune the steel,” he once observed, “is kind of like a chant or a family song, you know. It belongs to us, and we have to take care of it, or else it will change like everything else. It’s just like my steel too. It belongs to my father, and I never played one that has the same sound.”
For his highest string Feet was using a duplicate of the second string. Slightly thicker, it meant he had to tune it tighter to bring it up to pitch. He found one brand, Black Diamond, that could take this kind of pressure. Even then the high string often broke. But the extra tension gave him what he was listening for: a purer ring. In performance Feet would sometimes pull away from a song so that it seemed he’d actually stopped playing. Then, after a few measures of near-silence, a single silver note would punctuate the phrasing so hauntingly it filled the room and pierced the heart.
The band didn’t have a name yet. When it landed its first gig, in the spring of 1960, it simply said it was “Gabby’s group.” It was a club called The Sandbox, out on Sand Island Road, across the lagoon from Honolulu International Airport. Feet knew the manager, Pat Dorian, and knew he was looking for something to replace a Tahitian revue moving on to another club. A transplanted Southern Californian who once worked as a stunt man, Dorian had been in the Islands for years and loved Hawaiian music. He decided to take a chance, figuring a new band playing traditional songs might have some appeal for his all-local clientele.
It wasn’t a fancy place-a big square room with a concrete floor, a bar, a low stage, at the edge of an industrial district and far beyond the tourist loop. No one foresaw the impact this band would have, once it took the stage and word began to spread.
It played Thursday, Friday and Saturday. By the second weekend the place was packed, with customers waiting outside. The club’s neighborhood regulars were soon surrounded by listeners from all layers of Island life-cab drivers and college students, beach boys and politicians, attorneys and fellow musicians, bank officers and corporate executives side by side with truckers and husky stevedores from the docks who came in straight from work and stayed till closing time. The boys in the band were playing for audiences unlike any they’d seen in their combined years in Waikïkï.
“At the Biltmore or The Queen’s Surf,” Eddie recalls, “you just never saw this many kinds of people in one place at the same time. They stood for hours in lines that went out the door. I had no idea there was such enthusiasm for pure Hawaiian music, which was all we were playing. Thirty or 40 haole kids from Punahou would come in, for instance, sit up in front and sing the words right along with us. If we skipped a verse or mispronounced a word they’d yell out and let us know. Oldtimers too started coming in. I mean, tutu-ladies from the Queen Emma Society, in their best mu’umu’u. I guess we were the only group around in those days playing that kind of music.”
Listeners were drawn to the joy in that room, the sheer exuberance of four Hawaiians mobbed by fans who shared their passion. And they were drawn to Gabby’s showmanship and the naked emotion of his singing. Twenty years in Waikïkï and he had never fronted his own group. Here he could choose what to sing, what to play and how to play it. With Joe Marshall backing him on vocals, Gabby found new ranges of expressiveness.
Each night they opened with “Ulili E,” an old hula song. “They couldn’t get enough of it,” Eddie remembers. “Sometimes we’d sing it once or twice every set, people banging on the tables till we played it again.”
Just as Gabby had touched Eddie, the band was touching the hearts of all who heard it. Familiar Island songs were given new life. Old drumming rhythms had somehow joined the improvisational feel of jazz. Yet this was not a jazz combo. There was no piano, no drum, no horns; nor was there anything like you would have heard in a hotel lounge downtown: no show band in the background. These were all stringed instruments, standard pieces of a small Hawaiian band, played at a superb level of musicianship, while the lead voice of Gabby Pahinui seemed to rise from the earth itself to link these Sandbox nights with the voices of long-gone chanters.
People who were there have claimed they were hearing much more than good music. It was an early signal, they say, an opening note for what would soon be called the Hawaiian Renaissance.
Such a claim might sound at first far-fetched, since we tend to associate the rebirth of a culture with buildings, schools of painting, literary works. Hawai’i, however, has another kind of history, in which music has always been central. In ancient times, the songs, the chants, the dances contained the legends, the genealogies, the stories of origin, migration, love and war and kinship. Hawaiians had no written language. Chanters and dancers were the poets, the historians, the keepers of communal memory. During these early years of reawakening, the voices heard and the songs performed at The Sandbox were among the first to express feelings yearning to be expressed throughout the Island chain.
Eddie and the others didn’t see it that way, of course. Not yet. They were high on the sound, but would never have seen themselves as leading any kind of revival. When asked, years later, how he had come by such a vision, as far back as 1959 and ’60, Eddie said, “Hell, if I thought I had to have some kind of vision, I probably would have quit.”
At the time, it was a chance to do what they loved to do and have a ball doing it. There was always a wild and raucous spirit in the room, with Gabby’s antics at the center, as if the all-night parties he once hosted had simply been moved over the mountain. He liked to laugh. When the music was going the way he wanted it to go he had a high-pitched laugh of pure delight. He liked to call singers and dancers out of the audience.
He liked to drink, and he liked to borrow drinks. “What did one tonsil say to the other tonsil?” he would ask the crowd once or twice a night. Reaching down to grab some customer’s scotch and soda he would tip the glass back for a long pull, then provide the answer: “Here comes another swallow from Capistrano!”
The customers never tired of this. He was such a charming storyteller and bon vivant, they vied for this attention, even offering drinks so he would sit with them a while. Gabby spent his intermissions table-hopping, usually for 15 minutes or so, until manager Pat Dorian rang a gong to signal the start of another set.
Something about that gong gave order to the room, like bells that chime the hour from a village steeple. But after the band had been there a couple of months, Dorian was transferred to Waikïkï. The manager who replaced him evidently didn’t know about the gong. Or maybe Dorian carried it with him. On the new manager’s first night the band took a break that went for half an hour. The boys were waiting for Gabby, but he was holding forth at a corner table, putting away the free drinks. The new manager said to Eddie, “It’s been half an hour.”
“Don’t talk to me,” Eddie said, knowing there’d be no music till Gabby was ready to play. “Talk to Gabby. He’s the leader.”
Forty-five minutes went by. An hour went by. No one had complained. But the chatter was deafening. The new manager was nervous. He called the club owner, who didn’t like to be called at home. The owner said he wasn’t paying the band to sit around and drink, so please inform them that this would be their final night.
When Gabby heard they were about to be fired, he leaped onto the stage calling, “Let’s play! Let’s play!” They finished with a long set and left the crowd cheering for more. But The Sandbox gig was over, ending as suddenly as it had begun, and they were outside in the parking lot, looking across the lagoon at a late flight from the Mainland on its final approach, glancing at one another, wondering, Now what?
Author’s Note: James D. Houston is the award-winning author of seven novels, most recently Snow Mountain Passage. Among his several nonfiction works is Farewell to Manzanar, co-authored with his wife, Jeanne, now a standard work in schools and colleges across the country. A frequent visitor to Hawai’i, he has also served as a writer for the seven cultural documentary films in Eddie Kamae’s Hawaiian Legacy Series. He lives in Santa Cruz, Calif.