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 and that Sam Koki came second. So, who’s on third?
By all accounts (and, again, I whine that among the leading books on Hawaiian music and steel guitar, a total of two lines have been written on this subject), Hal Aloma held the steel guitar post at the Hawaiian Room during the early 1940s after Koki’s departure. According to the only source available, despite getting an early start in Hawaiian music back home in Honolulu, Aloma rose to prominence once he was recruited by McIntire to assume the Hawaiian Room steel guitar throne. The discographical information corroborates this since Aloma’s first session with the McIntire big band took place in January 1944. Hal went on to record some (now acclaimed) sides under his own name in NYC a little later in the year between February and March 1944. But his turn with McIntire the month before appear to be Aloma’s first appearance on record – indicating that he was in NYC in the right period to be Koki’s successor in the Hawaiian Room.
But Aloma may have joined the McIntire group at the Lexington Hotel even earlier than this. We stated earlier that Koki had left the band by 1942 (based both on the date of his last recording session with McIntire on June 30, 1942). Surely the Hawaiian Room did not go without the sound of the steel guitar for a year-and-a-half from June 1942 until January 1944. But it is important to note that this same period saw no new recordings by McIntire’s orchestra – or almost any artist, for that matter. On August 1, 1942, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) launched a strike against the major American recording companies because of disagreements over royalty payments. According to Wikipedia, “Beginning at midnight, July 31, no union musician could record for any record company. That meant that a union musician was allowed to participate on radio programs and other kinds of musical entertainment, but not in a recording session in a recording.” While never cited as such, for this writer the strike marked the death knell of Hawaiian music on the mainland U.S. Hawaiian music was already waning in popularity, and as a purely business argument, there would be no good reason for the major labels to continue to produce Hawaiian music records if they were as costly as any other type of record to make but would now have to pay greater royalties for shrinking revenue. McIntire’s recording home for nearly a decade, Decca Records, was among the first labels to settle with the AFM in September 1943, agreeing to make direct payments to a union-controlled “relief fund.” But by then I believe it was too late. McIntire’s next records – as well as those by most of the other notable mainland Hawaiian music artists – over the next few years were released by Decca, Capitol, or Columbia but, rather, by such forgettable budget labels as Sonora, Varsity, Variety, Allegro, and Elite. (McIntire would not be affiliated with a major label for another six years when he would cut sides for MGM.)
As more than merely an interesting aside, this AFM strike resulted in a new era of “Prohibition” for record labels – many of which made the conscious (albeit unconscionable) business decision to bootleg themselves and their own artists. It is now widely understood by the record collecting community that the upstart Royale, Varsity, Allegro, Elite, Halo, and Concertone labels were all owned and operated anonymously by the Record Corporation of America (RCA). In order to continue generating revenue during this strike while averting paying royalties, a label like RCA would release its back catalog (or – worse still – as yet unreleased recordings by its currently signed artists) under the presumably completely disassociated vanity labels. And in order not to bristle the artists themselves, they would have to use pseudonyms for the artists. So a recording made Johnny Pineapple might be released under the not so veiled moniker of “Johnny Poi.” This must have confused the market terribly and – to my mind – further led to the demise of the popularity of Hawaiian music during this period. The most notable example of this pseudonymous preposterousness arose when one label began issuing one of its real artist’s recordings under the real name of another real artist. For a period of time, recordings made by Hawaiian notables Bernie Ka`ai Lewis and Danny Kua`ana were released under the name Lani McIntire. And why not? Lani McIntire was still popular and his group still going strong at the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room five years running. Why not capitalize on that? Who but the most ardent fan or savvy Hawaiian music analyst would know the difference? And the hoax continues to be perpetrated on “crate-divers” to this day – many picking up what they believe to be a Lani McIntire treasure on Royale for a mere $1 and never realizing that the group on the record is Ka`ai and Kua`ana. (The joke is doubly funny when one realizes that the second cost cutting measure employed by these labels during this period was the use of an inferior shellac in the manufacturing of these records – resulting in a super thick and sturdy platter but with such substantial surface noise that the artist and the music in those grooves becomes virtually unrecognizable anyway.)
So, anyway, given that McIntire cut no records for the duration of the strike, we cannot be certain whether Aloma assumed the Hawaiian Room steel guitar post in July 1942 (when Koki left) or January 1944 (when McIntire released his first records using Aloma). But this is immaterial since regardless of when the Aloma era began, it is now regarded as a golden era in Hawaiian music and the Hawaiian Room. Here are just a few of the memorable sides those 1940s sessions yielded.
The set opens with “Na Pua O Hawai`i” which features Hal on both steel guitar and lead vocals. The session personnel – except for Aloma and McIntire – are unknown, but as with other McIntire sessions, given the presence of the woodwinds, brass, piano, and drums, these are highly likely fellow musicians working in the Hawaiian Room under McIntire every evening (or, at least, the big band sound that visitors to the Hawaiian Room were likely to hear). The opening steel chorus reveals Aloma’s preferred soloing method of chord melody (i.e., harmonizing the melody with full chords which requires playing very quickly across multiple strings rather than one at a time – a very difficult technique). And the modulation in the out chorus reveals that Aloma also possesses an appealing falsetto which would may have been lacking in the Hawaiian Room since the departure of George Kainapau and Danny Kua`ana before him.
“Okole Maluna” features similar big band instrumentation as that heard on “Na Pua O Hawai`i.” The winds and horns take the opening chorus this time followed by a jaunty single-string steel solo from Hal – demonstrating that he is more than a one-trick chord melody pony. Lani takes the lead vocal on this song about a popular Hawaiian toast which is not very Hawaiian at all. (“Okole maluna” is the literal translation of the English “your bottom toward the moon,” but the term “okole” refers to a very specific location on the posterior typically used indelicately as a reference to one who is – simply put – not nice.)
“Makala Pua” [sic] (real title “O Makalapua”) is one of the many Hawaiian songs that honors its royal history – this one referring to Queen Lili`uokalani by her many nicknames (such as “Kamaka`eha” and “Makalapua”). The tasteful arrangement gives us something new: a string section. As there is no pictorial evidence that the Hawaiian Room ever employed violins and violas, this addition was likely only for this session and marks a rare recording by McIntire in such a formal setting. But such is called for in a song honoring a queen. The vocal trio is Hal, Lani, and (likely) Lani’s brother, Al, who was still with the orchestra during this period.
The next selection is most surprising and evidences that this New York City-based group has both some seriously deep Hawaiian roots and a finger on the pulse of modern music. “Tomo Pono” is a playful song known primarily to residents of the island of Hawai`i (sometimes referred to erroneously as “the Big Island”). The song lends itself to the boogie woogie arrangement – an arrangement which demonstrates that McIntire (and whoever his arranger was during this period) was abreast of the public’s tastes in music. (Although boogie woogie existed as a solo piano form since the 1920s, it was not fully expanded into big band form until more than a decade later. A version of “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” – considered the first boogie woogie “hit” in 1928, first recorded by its composer, piano player Pine Top Smith – arranged for big band and recorded by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra band was not merely a huge hit for Dorsey in the mid-1940s but became the swing era’s second best-selling record.) In this arrangement, the steel guitar trades quick boogie woogie “fours” (four bar solos) with the winds and brass. And the vocal trio – likely Hal, Lani, and Al again – do the syncopated rhythmic lyric justice at about 150 bpms (beats per minute).
Despite that the documented discography of Aloma with McIntire ends abruptly at 1944, one source indicates that Aloma spent four years in the Hawaiian Room with McIntire – bringing us to 1948. But that is not the end of Aloma’s story either. Like nearly all other Hawaiian Room alumni, Aloma – barely thirty when his first stay at the Hawaiian Room came to a close – went on to a long and varied career in Hawaiian music, perpetuating his culture for audiences on the mainland from NYC to Florida when capped off his amazing career as the first band leader at the Polynesian Village for the grand opening of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida on October 1, 1971. Ho`olohe Hou has honored Aloma previously, and his swingin’ small group sides from the late 1950s are worth a listen.
Next time: Aloma is out. Next?!…