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.
Our investigation into the Lani McIntire aggregation’s tenure in the Hawaiian Room has so far led us to believe that he worked this room – in various combinations – from 1938 until 1951. And we have made tremendous use of the discographical information to determine that Bob Nichols was the first steel guitarist with McIntire during this period, that Sam Koki was the second, and that Hal Aloma was the third. I was prepared to tell you about the fourth when I made a startling discovery.
In my last article on steel guitar at the Hawaiian Room, I discussed the American Federation of Musicians strike of 1942 (which banned artists from recording from the summer of 1942 through the fall of 1943) and the rogue record labels that arose during this era. McIntire’s first post-strike recordings were for the rogue (presumably owned by RCA) Sonora record label. These sides dating to February 1945 are no longer readily available – certainly not as digital reissues – but were once among the most circulated of the Hawaiian recordings on the mainland U.S. (because of the unscrupulous practices of these labels working anonymously under the RCA umbrella). I put some of these sides on the turntable to identify the steel guitarist when – to my amazement – I realized immediately that I was hearingtwo steel guitarists at the same time! But I couldn’t identify either. I turned to the discographical information provided by T. Malcolm Rockwell in his essential multi-artist, cross-label discographyHawaiian & Hawaiian Guitar Records – 1891-1960, and he tentatively identifies the dual steelers as Al Kane and Sam Macy. End of story. For as has been the case with so many other steel guitarists, there is no documentation that either of these musicians ever recorded or worked with McIntire. In fact, according to the absence of any information about these gentlemen in either of the prevailing books on Hawaiian steel guitar (and a thorough internet search), neither Al Kane nor Sam Macy ever existed. (Ever the thorough archivist, even Rockwell admits that the steel players in question may not be Kane and Macy and that – despite his searches – the recording ledgers on these sessions have not yet come to light.) In truth (and we are ever as polite as possible at Ho`olohe Hou – spinning music that may not be magical even if it is historically important), the steel guitar work here is rather unremarkable. (In fact, I have omitted the steel duo’s version of “Hilo March” – a staple of the steel guitar repertoire recorded at least once by nearly every steel guitarist – because it is among the most uninteresting I have ever heard – the two having such difficulty with the dotted sixteenth notes that they simply choose to leave them out – changing the melody entirely. Amen.)
In this set, Lani takes the vocal lead on “Moonlight In Hawaii,” “Dreams of Old Hawaii,” and “Hawaiian Sunset.” The recording group here may not include all of the Hawaiian Room personnel since there are none of the big band elements – brass, woodwinds, piano, and drums – that characterized the dance hall sound of the Hawaiian Room era to date. But, then again, by 1945 the big band sound was beginning to wane in popularity, and so too McIntire may have been scaling down the size of the Hawaiian Room aggregation. Besides the dual steel guitars, the other notable curiosity on these sides is the addition of the vibraphone – a fairly new addition to any Hawaiian music group but a sound that would characterize Hawaiian music back in Honolulu from the 1950s through the 1970s. (Here the unknown vibraphonist doubles on bells, as well.)
But in still another discovery, we find an unknown girl singer in the vocal trio on “Mai Po`ina `Oe Ia`u.” Rockwell’s excellent sleuthing reveals the singer to be Leilani Iaea, and this is verifiable. According to an ad in the February 21, 1940 edition of the Hawaiian language newspaper Hoku O Hawaii, Ray Kinney would make a triumphant return to his hometown of Hilo for a three night engagement at the Mamo Theater and would be bringing back from NYC with him George Kainapau, Tommy Castro, Leimomi Woodd (sister of Napua Woodd, a Hawaiian Room dancer and Kinney’s first girl singer), and Leilani Iaea. Further, according to a well-researched source cited here previously – Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through The U.S. Empire by Adria L. Imada – Kinney recruited hula queen contest contestant Marjorie Leilani Iaea from Harriet Kuuleinani Stibbard’s hula studio on Maui in 1940 – putting her among the Hawaiian Room dancers five years before her voice would be heard on record. And what a lovely voice it is – reminiscent somehow of a contemporary of that period, the then still very young Genoa Keawe.
So concludes but the next in a long line of mysteries and curiosities in our pursuit of the complete musical history of the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room. If nothing else, this stop revealed a pair of mysterious steel guitarists – who, regardless of my efforts, may forever remain a mystery – and a hula dancer who was also a noteworthy vocalist. What could possibly come next in this story arc?
Next time: Ray Kinney’s bass player becomes Lani McIntire’s steel guitarist?…