A West Coast Steeler’s New York Days

Ho`olohe Hou continues to honor the musicians of the Hawaiian Room – the New York City venue which for nearly 30 years delivered authentic Hawaiian song and dance to exceedingly appreciative mainland audiences.

So now we believe that Lani McIntire was the sole bandleader at the Hawaiian Room from 1941 (when Kinney departed) until 1951 (when McIntire passed away) – making him the bandleader with the longest tenure here. But we also conjecture that since he was hired for the 1937 opening of the room, the McIntire band may have rotated with the other bands (led by Andy Iona and Ray Kinney) or that members of these bands worked together like “interchangeable parts.” In any case, regardless of whenever McIntire took over as the sole leader, surely the same steel guitarist did not stick around for the entire decade. Because Ho`olohe Hou loves a good mystery, can we determine which steeler came first?

If we again turn to the discographies for a little data, the answer is likely Bob Nichols. You have already read here that Lani McIntire made his first recordings in New York City in August 1935 – two years before the Hawaiian Room’s opening. This means that some of McIntire’s musicians had to have been rooted in NYC since – regardless of the popularity of Hawaiian music in this period – not even the major record labels would pay to transport (by ship – not jet plane – in this era) musicians for one-off recording sessions. Bobby Nichols played on that August 2, 1935 McIntire session and on all subsequent McIntire sessions through March 21, 1940 (when steel guitarist Bob True, made his one and only performance on record with McIntire). The pre-Hawaiian Room sessions were all small combos typical of the kind assembled to record and perform hula music back home in Hawai`i – a group comprised of Nichols on the steel, McIntire on rhythm guitar, his brother, Al, on bass, and a rotating cast of `ukulele players-cum-falsetto-singers in either George Kainapau or Danny Kua`ana. But the sessions that occurred after the Hawaiian Room’s debut featured the larger big band sound complete with brass, woodwinds, piano, and percussion – a group with personnel rarely listed but which were likely comprised of local musicians who were working evenings at the Hawaiian Room. So despite that there is no pictorial evidence of Bob Nichols on the bandstand at the Hawaiian Room with McIntire, it is possible – even highly likely – that he was one  of the first steel guitarists (along with Andy Iona) in residence at this new hot spot.

Regular readers of Ho`olohe Hou know by now that one of my favorite past times is bemoaning the reality that while little is written about the history of Hawaiian music, there is almost nothing written about the history of its steel guitarists. This is equally true in the case of Bobby Nichols. The two prevailing volumes on the Hawaiian steel guitar do not grant Nichols more than two sentences each. So as I have written previously, most of the lore about a steel player like Nichols is perpetuated by other avid steel players such as on the Steel Guitar Forum. But even then such forums do not speak to the history of these players but more often delve into the “inside baseball” of the steel guitar such as whether or not Nichols was playing an early Rickenbacker fry pan model steel guitar and through which brand of amplifier. (Which is not to say that Ho`olohe Houdoesn’t deal with its share of “inside baseball” since it is written by a musician and because many of its readers are musicians.) But this time around there is simply so little information about Nichols that we are going to have let his playing speak for itself.

Click here to listen to this set by Bob Nichols with Lani McIntire as you continue to read.

A November 17, 1937 Decca Records session with the big band as it might have been heard each night at the Hawaiian Room gives us McIntire’s spin on “Hame Pila.” The brass and woodwinds trade instrumental breaks with Nichols’ steel guitars. Pay particular attention to Nichols’ trademark wide, rapid vibrato and the huge full chord glissandos (or slides) he plays behind the brass and winds. Nichols also jazzes us up the proceedings with generous helpings of blue notes in his solos. The vocal trio is Lani, Bob, and falsetto wunderkind George Kainapau. The upright bass is wielded by Lani’s brother, Al McIntire.

Check out Nichols’ trademark vibrato again on “Kane`ohe” recorded September 3, 1937 at the Decca Records studios in Los Angeles. This is the small group that McIntire had already formed before the Hawaiian Room even opened. This recording gives us a glimpse at the groups more traditionally Hawaiian sound they would have utilized before they added the winds, horns, piano, and drums that characterized the big band Hawaiian sound of New York City and the Hawaiian Room.

From the same band and same November 1937 session above which yielded “Hame Pila” comes the Sonny Cunha hapa-haole standard “Hula Blues.” Long a favorite of steel guitarists because of its jazzy rhythm and melody that is deliberately around non-scale tones (or the “blue” notes that give the “blues” its names), Nichols take on this tune with the McIntire orchestra and its stellar arrangement has long been one of my favorites.

One of the few lines written about Nichols in the aforementioned volumes reads, “After many years with Lani McIntire’s band, he ended his career playing music on the cruise ships in the Pacific…” Record collectors know this is inaccurate. Nichols – based on the West Coast for most of his career – went on to record with the mainland’s premier Hawaiian music aggregation of the 1950s, The Polynesians, who worked in and around Los Angeles and who were the first call session musicians for much of the Hawaiian-themed film fare that came out of Hollywood during this period. So we will hear more of Nichols when Ho`olohe Hou explores the mainland Hawaiian music scene in the 1950s.

Next time: Nichols is out. Next?!…