Hawai`i’s Champagne Lady

Much to my surprise and delight, much has already been written about singer Myra English. She is one of the few Hawaiian entertainers of the 1960s and 70s to have a Wikipedia page. But, sadly, the nicest piece on the “Champagne Lady” was her obituary from The Maui News on her passing in 2001. Because you can read about English – the woman, the mother, the grandmother, and the entertainer – elsewhere, I would like to share something a little more personal about her music.

People often ask me how I became so interested in the music and entertainers of Hawai’i – especially being born in Philadelphia, more than 5,000 miles away from the islands. There is no short or easy answer to that question, but I’ll start here with the hope of saying more over time… Despite that I am not of Hawaiian descent, I was born into a family already steeped in Hawaiian ways. My father long loved the music of Hawai’i and learned to play the steel guitar. And because he could play the steel guitar, he quickly gained favor among the many Hawaiian ex-patriots living between New York City and Washington, D.C. So I spent much of my childhood – as far back as I can remember – at backyard lu’au and pa’ina with our local Hawaiian community. Sometimes the events were planned well in advance. And sometimes they just happened as breezily as if we had lived in Kane’ohe or Kapahulu – Hawaiians stopping by our house unannounced on a weeknight with two hot pizzas (poke would be in short supply in this region), a cold case of beer (for the adults), and a stack of the latest new music releases from Hawai’i (often on 8-track tapes). You might say you can blame bad parenting for my love of the Hawaiian people and their music since my parents would let me stay up until all hours with our Hawaiian friends – my “aunties” and “uncles” – playing music, laughing, and sharing aloha. If you have spent all of your life in Hawai’i, this might sound implausible to you. But it was my life.

I remember the music we listened to during those days. I still own most of it, and – in most cases – the very original copies we listened to on those nights and early mornings since thekupuna often allowed me to raid their record racks and take home – and keep – whatever I wanted, while others left them to me when they passed away. I remember the names: Tony Lindsey, Kahauanu Lake, Myra English, Eddie Kamae, Gabby Pahinui, Vicki I’i, Genoa Keawe. And I remember the songs. What I did not understand at the time is how so many songs sung in the English language became Hawaiian standards. Songs like “Blue Darling,” “For The Good Times,” or “Drinking Champagne.”

As the story goes, Myra English was living in Seattle and commuting to work every day when she would hear “Drinking Champagne” on the radio every single day. Written by Bill Mack, the composer’s version was not terribly successful. It was not until Cal Smith recorded the tune in 1968 that the song caught on and reached #35 on the Billboard Country Music Chart. This is the version Auntie Myra would have heard. Like Tony Lindsey, Don Ho, and a few other Hawai’i musicians, Myra had a knack for knowing when a tune would appeal to local audiences. When she returned home and took up residence nightly in the Blue Dolphin Room of the Outrigger Hotel in Waikiki with steel guitarist Billy Hew Len and slack key guitarist Sonny Chillingworth, she recorded “Champagne,” and it was a huge commercial success. But, more than this, it was the song that Hawaiians sat around singing in the wee small hours on back porches and in garages after a little too much to drink and the melancholy began to set in – just the way I remember it happening at the aunties’ and uncles’ houses on my coast.

The trio of Myra’s ‘ukulele, Billy’s steel guitar, and Sonny’s guitar was unusual in that it was missing an essential component – the bass, the all-important bottom end of most Hawaiian groups (or, for that matter, groups in any genre). It is not until you hear Sonny’s unique guitar style that you begin to understand how this could work. But while Sonny played most of these engagements in standard tuning – not in slack key tuning (more about this another time) – he still played in the slack key style ­– which means alternating melody lines and occasional chords with running bass lines, the signature sound of slack key guitar. Sonny’s guitar was all the bottom end this trio needed.

You would think that much of Myra’s recorded output would have been remastered and rereleased for the digital era for new generations of Hawaiian music fans to discover. You would be half-correct. There is only one “Best Of” collection reissued comprised of songs from Myra’s three Hula Records’ releases. If you’re really interested in discovering the wonderful sound that this unique trio produced (or a reasonable facsimile since on record they employed the services of bassist Kalani Flores), you really should pick up the “Best Of” CD. But, for me, “Best Of” collections always raise the question of choices: How did the producers decide what to include and what to leave out? Record sales figures? Radio play? Do they ever consider “sentimental value?”Ho’olohe Hou exists to bring you the music you would likely not hear elsewhere. So for this edition of the blog, I wanted to share with you some of Myra’s music that was not reissued on the “Best Of” collection – the music I remember hearing as a keiki, the music that has the most “sentimental value” for me and – I suspect – for many Hawaiians.

Click here to listen to this set from Myra English

The set opens with a beautiful composition from the pen of Irmgard Aluli and Napua Stevens. “Ka Nani O Uluwehi” would be considered a mele pana – a song written in honor of a place and the hospitality of one’s hosts – and there are many such songs in the Hawaiian idiom. In this one, Myra sings of the home of Albert and Ellen Kai in the Volcano area of Hawai’i island.

“And I Love You So” was composed by Don McLean (“American Pie,” “Vincent”), but was probably a bigger mainland hit for Perry Como. Like “Drinking Champagne,” Myra suspected that it would be a hit among Hawaiian audiences too. Listen to how gently Billy Hew Len and Sonny Chillingworth caress these beautiful chords.

Canada’s Gene MacLellan wrote a number of songs made famous by his compatriot Anne Murray (“Snowbird,” “Put Your Hand In The Hand”). MacLellan’s “Biding My Time” sat side-by-side with “Snowbird” in Anne Murray’s debut LP in 1969. Again, Myra had a hunch and took the tune to the studio with Billy and Sonny. Listen to the Spanish-like treatment Sonny and Billy give the tune with their intricate guitar interplay.

“Ka Nani O Uluwehi,” “And I Love You So,” and “Biding My Time” appear on English’s out of print 1975 LP Oh, How I Miss You Tonight.

For a change of pace, Myra returned to the studio in 1977 to do an album of old school hapa-haole songs. Hapa-haole is a category of songs that pay respect to Hawai’i and Hawaiian ideals but which are sung in the English language (hapa meaning “half” and haole meaning “foreign” or – more specifically – “Caucasian”). For the album Do The Hula (also out of print), Myra went to the studio with some veterans of this genre – Benny Kalama on ‘ukulele, Sonny Kamahele on guitar, and Norman Isaacs on bass. You hear this trio’s beautiful voices as well backing Myra on the R. Alex Anderson classic “Pretty Red Hibiscus.”

I close out the set with two songs from the first – and, still, perhaps, the best – Myra English album, Drinking Champagne. Many of the tunes from this LP made the cut for the “Best Of” collection. But not these two. As with “And I Love You So” and “Biding My Time,” Myra was certain that Hawaiians would fall in love with Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times.” And she was right. This is one of the first songs I remember hearing at our all-night parties, and I knew all the words at too early an age – even if I didn’t yet understand the heartbreak behind them. It was not until much later that I realized this was a Kristofferson tune, and I remember saying to myself embarrassed… So this isn’t a Hawaiian song? But that’s the thing, isn’t it? In the hands of Auntie Myra, Billy, and Sonny, this IS beyond a shadow of a doubt a Hawaiian song. Any Hawaiian will tell you so. (By the way, you can hear Sonny and Billy’s voices backing Myra in the choruses.)

The set closes with one of Myra’s originals. “I Turned The Lights Off On You” has unusual origins. Don Ho used to drop by to hear Myra and the trio. (Sonny played in one of Don’s early bands at Honey’s in Kane’ohe.) It is a Hawaiian tradition to call up to the stage any and all of the other professional entertainers who showed up on any given night – turning many Hawaiian club gigs into all-night jam sessions. Two Sundays in a row when Don dropped by and Myra called him up to sing, the power went out in the entire hotel. When it happened the second time, Myra said to Don, “What you think? I turned the lights off on you?” And the joke became a really lovely and poignant Myra original.

I hope you enjoy the forgotten recordings of Myra English in the company of many of my heroes – Sonny Chillingworth, Billy Hew Len, Benny Kalama, Sonny Kamahele, and Norman Isaacs. This was the music of my formative years – the music that brought Hawai’i so much closer to my home and my heart.

~ Bill Wynne / Ho`olohe Hou Radio