Don Ho – The Early Years

I hesitate to tell the story of Don Ho yet again since almost any fan of Hawaiian entertainment in the 1960s and 70s knows it backward and forward and could tell it equally well. The reallyshort version (and to set straight the oft-inaccurate Wikipedia)…

James Ho and his wife, Emily “Honey” Ho, opened a bar and restaurant in Kane`ohe on the windward side of O`ahu in 1939 and raised their six children in the house adjoining Honey’s Cafe. Son Don graduated from the University of Hawai`i in 1954 with a B.S. in Sociology in 1954 before spending the next five years as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Don left the USAF in 1959 to return home upon hearing that his mother was ill. And this is where time and history usually give the story a glorified spin. Most say that Don’s aim was to revive his parents ailing business with entertainment. But the truth is that Don Ho came home to sweep the floors and take out the trash. Accounts vary about whether it was Don who suggested to his parents that they liven up the joint with music or if his father suggested it to him. But, no matter how it went down, to stack cliché upon cliché, a star was born, and the rest is history.

I think history often overlooks the important part of the story – that Don was a sociology major. In other words, he had a formal education in what makes people tick. Don was not a great musician. He was merely a passable musician. But he was inarguably one of the finest showmen who ever lived – the ultimate crowd-pleaser. He was also a fine singer with the ballad phrasing of Dean Martin and the up-tempo swagger of Bobby Darin. (I personally feel that history has underrated his vocal chops and branded Ho as a novelty act. But we have the recorded evidence to prove otherwise – that while he may not have been much of a musician, he was the consummate “singer’s singer” – a topic I will directly address another time). He made accommodations for his lack of musicianship by surrounding himself with a bevy of better musicians. And he used his understanding of people and his natural good looks and machismo to hold court every night – the President and his Cabinet, as it were, with Honey’s as his Oval Office, a Hammond organ for a desk, and a Chivas Regal and soda the beacon inspiring everyone not to “Vote For Ho” but, rather, to “Suck `Em Up.”

And, oh, yeah, it worked! Honey’s became the hotspot for local entertainment and the growing family of regular customers including the servicemen from the Kane`ohe Marine Base, co-eds, and occasional tourists who would hear what was going on outside of Waikiki (from which tourists rarely ventured in those days) and have to find out for themselves what all the fuss was about. To capitalize on the growing tourist trade and Ho’s burgeoning popularity, in 1962 the family up and moved Honey’s from Kane`ohe to Waikiki at the corner of Lili`uokalani and Kalākaua Streets. (When I am walking through Waikiki, I stand on that corner in awe and reverence at the Hawaiian music greatness that graced that location and mourn the reality that the only remnant of those glory days is the “don” in the sign for the McDonald’s that now stands there.)

So here is part of the magic that Flip McDiarmid captured when he visited Honey’s Waikiki one evening with a portable tape recorder. Regardless of the genesis of these recordings or the motivations behind them, ultimately we should be thankful that we have this permanent record of an important era in the history of the entertainment scene in Hawai`i. Listen to how comfortable Ho is – the instant rapport he has with the audience, everybody his friend, even the ones he’s never met before. That’s Ho the sociologist. And as they say, you can take the boy out of Kane`ohe, but you can’t take the sociologist out of the boy. (OK, they don’t say that.)

Leave a Comment