Koki, Koki! Lend Us Your Steel…

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 in the absence of photographic evidence, we have used the discographical information to determine that the great Bobby Nichols was the first steel guitarist in McIntire’s employ. Let’s make us of this same data to determine which steel player came next.

I mentioned previously that Nichols’ was the sole steel guitarist to appear on recordings by McIntire-led aggregations in the Hawaiian Room era in New York City through March 21, 1940 (when there was a first – and only – appearance by steel guitarist Bob True, a steel guitarist about whom surprisingly even less is written than about Nichols). But beginning with an April 14, 1941 session in NYC, the legendary Sam Koki became McIntire’s go to steel player for sessions for at least the next two years. Not only is there pictorial evidence that Koki worked the room with McIntire, we also have as-close-as-possible-to-first-hand-accounts. According to current Hawaiian music artist singer Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom whose grandmother, Jennie Napua Woodd was the featured dancer (and occasional featured vocalist) in the room during this period, Koki was clearly there every night dutifully behind McIntire because Woodd was dating him. Fair enough. Given all of these tidbits, can we assume that Koki succeeded Nichols in the coveted steel guitar chair of the Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room?

With regard to Hawaiian music and – specifically – steel guitarists, Ho`olohe Hou has spent a great deal of time and energy trying to sort out legend from lore. And like so many other Hawaiian music artists, there may be more of lore about Koki than legend. Much of what has been written about him is purely anecdotal and, therefore, ultimately, contradictory. One source indicates he arranged for certain major motion pictures, but more reliable sources indicate that the same arrangements were done by Hollywood heavyweights. (I am referring here to Koki being credited as the arranger of “Sweet Leilani” and other hits from the score to the Bing Crosby vehicle Waikiki Wedding. Koki may have appeared as a steel guitarist on screen in the film, but sources dispute that he was the orchestrator or even that he played steel guitar on these songs.) Many sources have him recording with such non-Hawaiian artists as Gene Autry, but the discographical information puts Koki in the wrong place and time to have been on the sessions. And many believe that whenever Koki was in the recording studio that he was necessarily the steel guitarist when – in fact – he often traded steel chores with other band members who did an equally admirable job. (This is true of many sides by Sam Koki and His Paradise Islanders on which it is assumed that Koki is the lone steeler, but those “in the know” that the vast majority of the steel playing on those sides was performed by fellow steeler Danny Stewart.) Part of the lore is that affixing Koki’s name to any work during this period largely made it gold by association (or Iona’s name, for that matter, with whom Koki got his start). I do love unraveling the legend and the lore, but as there are many more Hawaiian Room steel players to tribute and very short little time remaining to pay tribute in the time I have allotted, I am going to have to reserve a full-scale investigation into Sam Koki for another time.

Also interesting, however, is that most of Koki’s steel work on McIntire recordings during the Hawaiian Room era is with the smaller group of the Hawai`i delegation – not the big band sound one would have heard every evening at the venue. In no attempt to pull a “bait-and-switch,” I am going to here feature selections where Koki is playing steel with a similar group of the period, Mannie Klein’s Hawaiians, an aggregation which on record sounds much more like McIntire’s Hawaiian Room big band. An unusual name to lead a Hawaiian music group, Klein was considered one of the finest and most sought after trumpeters of the swing era. Starting out with the orchestra of Paul Whiteman in the late 1920s and working his way through numerous famed big bands through the band led by Artie Shaw in the 1940s, Klein forged an interesting alliance with Andy Iona at some point in the 1930s – Klein appearing on sides led by Iona for Columbia Records in Los Angeles in August 1934. Then, in an interesting turn, Klein decided to make similar records as leader under the name of Mannie Klein and His Swing-A-Hulas in May 1938. These sides featured Koki on steel and are some of the swingingest sides of the era if not – I dare say – some of the most Hawaiian (and not merely for a group led by a Jewish trumpet player). I thought it would be more interesting to hear Koki in the large group setting – even if it is not with the McIntire band – than it would be to hear him in the small group for which recordings abound.

Click here to listen to this set from Sam Koki as you continue to read.

I have always loved all the irony around composer R. Alex Anderson’s “Malihini Mele.” The nonsense song – written mostly in the English language – co-opts Hawaiian language words and expressions to create a song that seemingly makes sense to any non-native speaker. The irony of course is that Anderson himself was a haole poking fun at haoles. This is one of the earliest recorded versions (the song was only copyrighted in 1934) dating to a May 1938 session in Los Angeles. Klein and Koki are the only session personnel identified. I love the way the song sneaks up on the listener – starting out as a whispered ballad (as if we’re learning a secret of all of this Hawaiian gibberish) and breaking out into a double-time swing chorus before slowing down to a bluesy ballad for the out chorus. Despite that Koki only gets an 8-bar break for a solo in the bridge of the uptempo middle section, I have always considered this one of the finest steel solos on record.

From the same May 1938 session that gave us “Malihini Mele” comes “Moonlight In Waikiki” with a very straight-forward, very traditionally Hawaiian-style steel guitar solo by Koki.

The closing tune features a vocalist who – we can be relatively certain by his tone and phrasing – is not a Hawaiian. The mystery vocalist is none other than Tony Martin who would not yet be a household name until signing with first 20th Century-Fox and later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a series of well received musical movies from the late 1930s through the 1940s. (He was also married to popular actress/dancer Cyd Charisse.) Here Tony sings the Alice Johnson composition “Aloha Ia No O Maui” – redubbed the “Island of Maui Hula” for this mainland U.S. release. Despite never having sung the language before, Martin’s attempt is admirable – clearly having been coached by Koki, the only Hawaiian on the session. The song nearly passed as “Hawaiian” until Martin scats behind the vocal trio on the repeat of the chorus. The tune was recorded in a session for Conqueror Records on June 5, 1938.

Sam Koki’s last documented session with McIntire – and his last in New York City for a while – would be on June 30, 1942. At least one source says that Koki was with McIntire at the Hawaiian Room for two years, and the dates of the first and last recording sessions would serve to corroborate that. But there are no new recordings by the McIntire orchestra for another two years – a mystery for another time. Also for another time is the rest of the Sam Koki story as he went on to have a prosperous career in Hawaiian music for nearly another 30 years, mostly on the West Coast. Ho`olohe Hou will revisit the life and music of the enigmatic Koki when we celebrate his birthday next July.

Next time: Koki is out. Next?!…