Continuing our look at Ed Kenney and his frequent appearances on the too short-lived Hawaii Calls TV program…
“Sweet Leilani” may be the quintessential hapa-haole song. It bridges a gap in the history of Hawaiian song craft between the somewhat corny English-language songs of the godfathers of the genre (like Sonny Cunha and Johnny Noble) and the modern English-language songs from Hawai`i that vacillate between the elegant and elegiac (like Keola Beamer’s “Honolulu City Lights” or Jay Larrin’s “Snows of Mauna Kea”). It is also written with the Hawaiian poetic technique of kaona in mind. Despite that the song is not written in the Hawaiian, it proves that the technique transcends language for the listener may not know – even after repeat listens – that the song is not about a woman with its language of “paradise completed” and notions of jealousy. Not even a full understanding of what a “bower” is will urge the casual audience toward the reality that the song was, in fact, composed for a newborn.
According to his autobiography, Sweet Leilani: The Story Behind The Song, Harry Owens composed “Sweet Leilani” on October 20, 1934 – one day after his daughter, Leilani, was born. The classic simply flowed from his pen and was completed – just as we hear it today – in just under an hour. Soon the song would become the theme for the orchestra Owens led at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. And, the next year, Owens would become the first musical director for the inaugural episode of the Hawaii Calls radio show.
From the “Don’t Believe Everything You Read On The Internet” files, some websites claim that Bing Crosby was the first to record the song – that he actually recorded and released a version of it two years before he would sing it in the motion picture Waikiki Wedding. Nope. It was, in fact, steel guitar wizard Sol Ho`opi`i who waxed the first version of the song in a recording studio on October 6, 1935. And just as you should not believe everything you read on the Internet, sometimes books can be equally dangerous. According to Richard Gudens in Bing Crosby: Crooner of the Century, Owens was reluctant to allow “Sweet Leilani” to be used in Waikiki Wedding and Bing had to convince him. But it was just the opposite. According to his autobiography, Owens had such tremendous confidence in the song – ordering a thousand advance copies of the sheet music – that he hatched a grand plan for putting the song in his old friend Bing’s hands (and vocal cords) strictly for the purpose of the film.
The friendship between Bing Crosby and Harry Owens – and it really was, not merely one of those things one says in the entertainment business when they hope to call in a favor – dated back more than decade to 1926 when both performed at the same time at the Lafayette Cafe in Los Angeles. To help him prepare for the filming of Waikiki Wedding, the bosses at Paramount Pictures sent Bing and wife Dixie Lee on a cruise to Honolulu. Owens listened to the radio waiting eagerly for reports on when the S.S. Lurline would arrive so that he could nab Crosby and drag him over to the Royal Hawaiian to hear “Sweet Leilani” early and often. It was Crosby who initially refused to hear the song – joking that he couldn’t even pronounce the title! But eventually Bing approached the bandstand and asked his friend Harry to give the song a whirl for him. And at one listen Crosby fell in love with it and wanted to use it in the film. Producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. was adamant that the song would not be used – citing not only that they already had too many Hawaiian songs at the ready, but calling the song “childish” and “lousy.” As a result of this conflict, Variety magazine reported that there was some strife – the cause of which was unknown (at least to its reporters) – on the set and that as a result there was a work shut-down on Waikiki Wedding. The truth is that Crosby retreated to the golf course – adamantly refusing to return to work until Hornblow agreed to use the song in the film.
And the rest, as they say (and even I say it here at Ho`olohe Hou, trite as it may sound), is history. “Sweet Leilani” won the Oscar for Best Song at the 1938 Academy Awards, the song became Crosby’s first gold record, and it is credited for reviving a then slumping post-Depression recording industry by remaining on the Hit Parade for 28 consecutive weeks. And all the while the real-life Leilani was learning to swim from the legendary Duke Kahanamoku and hula from equally legendary hula dancer Napua Woodd (who would soon leave for New York City and her own fame in the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room).
Crosby would record a great many more Hawaiian songs throughout his career – both with the Hawaiian Room’s bandleader, Lani McIntyre, and later with guitar wunderkind Les Paul. “Sweet Leilani” would be the start of it all for Der Bingle. But his brand of Hawaiian music would likely not be considered “Hawaiian” in the islands by the culture that gave such music its birth and rise. Hawaiian music is not strictly about melodies and lyric content. Many will tell you that Hawaiian music is a “feeling.” You simply know it when you hear it. It is debatable whether or not anyone but a Hawaiian can generate that feeling in an audience when they sing or play. But as we listen to Ed Kenney perform “Sweet Leilani” on this episode of the Hawaii Calls TV show, it certainly feels Hawaiian, and his performance was likely more what Owens had in mind when he wrote the song – even if Crosby’s take was one of the most commercially successful in the history of music.
Editor’s Note: With all of this material at my fingertips in the Ho`olohe Hou Radio archives, I probably hadn’t pulled Harry Owens’ autobiography off the shelf since I found it on eBay and read it cover-to-cover nearly 20 years ago. So was I ever pleasantly surprised to open this book today for the first time in two decades and discover that it is a first edition signed by none other than Harry Owens. And that is as close to his greatness as I will ever come…