Continuing our look at Lena Machado’s final recordings with guitarists Sonny Kamahele and Cy Ludington, steel guitarist Billy Hew Len, and the piano and vibes of arranger Benny Saks, I have compiled this segment in such a manner that allows us to compare the 1962 versions of some of Lena’s originals with versions of the same songs from her late 1940s sessions.
You have already read that Lena debuted her “Ku`u Wa Li`ili`i” on record in an April 22, 1949 session in Hollywood with a band that included such future Hawaiian music legends as Andy Cummings and Danny Kua`ana and which featured Bernie Ka`ai Lewis on the steel guitar. Lena tackled her song again with her new group during the 1962 sessions and arrived at a surprisingly familiar result – relying (as the first version did) on the Latin rhythms that Lena so loved and which pervaded her arrangements over the years and featuring (as the first version did) the interplay between the steel guitar and the vibes. In fact, the usually far-more-imaginative Saks even copped the “cha cha cha” ending from the original 1949 version. However, most importantly, Lena’s voice has lost none of its luster in 13 years – still singing “Ku`u Wa Li`ili`i” in the same key as ever. You can read more about Lena’s inspiration for the song – about the dangers of desiring to grow up too fast – here.
The May 4, 1949 session in Hollywood gave us the first recording of Lena’s beloved “Ei Nei” which she composed for her husband, Luciano, inspired by long, lonely nights apart when Lena was on one of her many tours. Again, the 1962 version differs little from the 1949 version – right down to the opening arpeggio from the vibes. However, arranger Saks does incorporate a new sound not yet prominent when the 1949 recordings were waxed: the “do-do-do-do-do” male backing vocals that had become the hallmark of doo-wop. Saks even has the boys sing one of the bridges – just like in the earlier version. The most notable difference: Lena has dropped the key on this one a whole tone from the earlier A to G. But her voice is still glorious. Flip over to this earlier post to hear the subtle differences between this and the earlier 1949 version.
“U’i Lani” bowed on wax in 1947 and was first recorded with a group led by steel guitarist and arranger Tommy Castro in Hollywood during a November 6, 1947 session. Lena has subtly dropped the key from C on the earlier version one-and-a-half steps to A for the 1962 version. Arranged in the style of jazz’s George Shearing Quintet still so popular during this period, listen to the exchanges between the vibes and steel guitar in the 1962 version heard here. Interestingly, while Saks does not deliberately appear to be a copycat, he is repeatedly paying homage to earlier Machado recordings – opening this version of “U`i Lani” with an a capellasection from the male voices just as Cummings arranged an a capella intro for the earlier version of “Ei Nei.”In the most notable twist, Lena for some reason decided to close the 1962 version with the English language verse as opposed to reprising one of the Hawaiian-language verses as she did on the 1947 version. As discussed here earlier, Lena wrote this lullaby-like melody to celebrate the birth of her friends’ first child.
The same May 4, 1949 session that gave us the earlier version of “Ei Nei” also yielded the first version of “Holo Wa`apa.” The steel guitar is front and center on the 1962 version. But the major difference between the versions is the rhythmic feel – the 1962 version in strict swing time while the 1949 version was taken somewhere between a Latin feel and the traditional `olapa hula rhythm. Notice also the addition of some backing vocals in the English language as the boys interject “in a canoe… just me and you.” (But as you read here earlier, the song is about so much more than a canoe ride.) The original 1949 version opens with a rare early appearance of slack key guitar on record (by a still unidentified guitarist), whereas the 1962 version opens with the steel guitar. But here is the kicker: A board fade! Although not discussed previously, while Lena performed music for the hula in her live performances, it is clear from all of Lena’s recordings – going back to the very earliest – that she was not recording music for the hula. How do we know this? Because all of her recordings include instrumental solos to feature her stellar musicians, and since the hula is an interpretive dance – the motions of the hands mirroring the lyric – the hula dancer cannot continue to dance when nobody is singing. If we did not understand that Lena’s recordings were not “hula music” previously, the board fade out is the dead give-away since if the song never ends, neither can the dancer.
Next time: Lena Machado’s recording and songwriting career comes full circle when the 1962 recording sessions reprise compositions she first recorded more than 25 years earlier…