Andy Iona Dreams Big

Born in 1902 in Honolulu, Andy Aiona Long was a musician’s musician who wanted nothing more in life – from the very earliest age – than to compose and perform music. Believing this life a very real possibility for him since he was born into a family of musical virtuosos, Andy quit Kamehameha School and tried his hand at a career as a full-time musician.

Things seem to have worked out for the talented young man since Iona went on to become one of Hawai`i’s most well known, well respected, and influential musicians – breaking new ground along the way. Educated at Henri Berger’s Private School of Music in Honolulu and specializing in woodwinds, clarinetist and saxophonist Iona was accepted as a solo saxophonist in the Royal Hawaiian Band (under the direction of Mekia Kealakai) and later led Johnny Noble’s orchestra as first saxophone at the Moana Hotel. Although known now for his virtuosity on the steel guitar, Andy did not take up the instrument until he was in his mid-twenties. The multi-stringed instrument should have proven challenging given his unique affliction: Andy lost the thumb on his right hand to a machine shop accident at school (the same manner in which fellow steel player Billy Hew Len would lose his hand many years later). This is, of course, the picking hand (for a right-handed player). He compensated by turning one fingerpick backwards to be used for strumming. Those who witnessed Andy play the steel guitar called it “display of magical coordination.” Andy was dealing with such a physical infirmity long before Billy Hew Len or even gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Andy moved to the mainland in 1921 – appearing on the radio on KFI in Los Angeles and then joining the staff of KHJ. His group – Andy Iona and his Islanders – was one of the first to combine traditional Hawaiian song forms with American swing. Soon Iona was touring the country – back and forth between New York City and Los Angeles, in demand not only for his way with a saxophone or a steel guitar or the new sound he was creating by melding Hawaiian music with danceable rhythms, but also for his abilities as a composer and arranger. His musical ear was so well trained and finely tuned that – like the great arrangers Nelson Riddle and Billy May who would come long after – Andy could write an arrangement for full orchestra in his head without ever touching an instrument. Andy even toured Japan between the 1920s and 1930s – one of the first Hawaiian musicians to do so.

By the 1940s Iona had joined ASCAP and was composing for others besides himself and his band. (His compositions are still popular today and include “South Sea Island Magic,” “Maui Moon,” “A Million Moons Over Hawaii,” “Naughty Hula Eyes,” and – of course – the favorites among steel guitarists, the instrumentals “Sand,” “Carefree,” and the jaunty “How D’Ya Do.”) He scored the film Honolulu (which starred Eleanor Powell), and he even had roles in the films Bird of Paradise, Waikiki Wedding, and Song Of The Islands (with fellow musicians Lani McIntire and Sol Ho`opi`i). You may recall from an earlier edition of Ho`olohe Hou a mention that hula dancer Aggie Auld choreographed a hula-on-ice for a Sonja Henie film. Andy toured off and on with Henie for nearly 12 years, and from 1950 through 1952, he and falsetto legend George Kainapau toured as part of the Hollywood Ice Review.

There is much to be said about Andy Iona, but as there are many musicians to honor over the next few days, a full tribute to this man of many talents will have to wait until New Year’s Day when we celebrate his birthday. For now, we are concerned with the period around 1937 when Andy got “the call” from the Lexington Hotel’s talent agent to come and open at their new Hawaiian Room – a successful run he enjoyed for many years to come. I put together a set of music which focuses primarily on Andy’s recordings during the period just before he joined the Hawaiian Room. (And, in an interesting side note, there is a huge gap in Iona’s discography from 1937 until 1939 – demonstrating how busy he really was with his Hawaiian Room duties.)

But, first, a true rarity: The first recording Andy Iona ever made. Billed as “Andy Aiona’s Novelty Four,” the group laid down the song simply listed as “Hula Girl” on the record’s center label for Columbia Records in Los Angeles on January 14, 1929. (The song is, in fact, one of the earliesthapa-haole tunes, “Hapa-Haole Hula Girl,” by one of the earliest creators of the genre, Sonny Cunha.) Notice that there is nary a steel guitar to be heard here. Instead, we have Andy’s tenor saxophone – which you hear prominently in an improvised solo. You also hear the big dance band sound that was the rage back home at the Moana and the Royal Hawaiian and which Andy would soon bring to the Hawaiian Room.

Fast forward to May 10, 1935… Back in Columbia Records studios but this time in New York City, Andy returns to a more traditional Hawaiian small group format – just the quartet of steel guitar, rhythm guitar, `ukulele, and bass – for “My Sweet Hawaiian Maid.” But you are still not hearing Andy on the steel guitar. This popular version of Iona’s group featured Danny Stewart (later of Hollywood studio work and the Hawaii Calls radio programs) on the steel guitar as well as future Hawaiian music legends Sam Koki and Freckles Lyons. Which member is playing which other instrument here remains a mystery – as it does with most of this group’s recordings – since all of the members could play every instrument and so they often traded off instruments – perhaps to confuse ardent listeners, perhaps to beat the boredom.

A few months later on September 16, 1935, Andy returns to Los Angeles to cut a few sides with a large dance band again under the direction of old partner Harry Owens. And while I don’t mean to hold out on you, this is still not Andy at the steel guitar. It is again Danny Stewart. Andy is handling the tenor saxophone chores since he remained very much in demand for his sax playing even after he took up the steel. You hear them perform the Ray Kinney composition “Hawaiian Hospitality” sung by a vocal trio led by Iona.

The same group as on “My Sweet Hawaiian Maid” – with Buddy Silva substituting for Sam Koki – went back into the Columbia studios in L.A. on April 25, 1936 to cut their energetic double-time take on “Hola Epae.” And this is Andy on the steel guitar – finally. The lead vocalist here (who is likely Freckles Lyons) makes a most unorthodox musical choice: He does not sing the melody of the song. You hear what is supposed to be the melody sung by the vocal trio on the repeats, but the soloist improvises a different melody on his choruses. This is typically anathema in Hawaiian music – the lyric and melody considered somehow sacrosanct, to be sung exactly as the composer wrote them, especially when performed in the service of the hula. But as you can tell by the tempo, this version was never intended for the hula. Such is the carefree innovation of Iona and his collaborators.

Andy only cut a dozen or so more sides between this session and a session on December 15, 1936 – an indication that Andy had made the move back to NYC and devoted his time and energy to the Hawaiian Room. He would not record again for nearly two years on August 12, 1938.

And, not merely as an aside to the Hawaiian Room story, Andy married Leimomi Woodd – a Hawaiian Room dancer – and had three children. Leimomi’s sister, fellow Hawaiian Room dancer Jennie Napua Woood, married a local NYC musician named Lloyd Gilliom. Their granddaughter is Hawaiian songbird Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom – making Andy Iona her great-uncle.

I laugh when I read accounts that Andy Iona made “dozens of recordings.” There are early 200 sides in my archives alone (and I do not purport to possess every side Andy ever cut). So we will no doubt hear more of the amazing Andy Iona when we celebrate his birthday on January 1.

Next time: The Hawaiian Room needs an emcee and a boy singer…