For most of his career, Elvis was backed on stage and screen by an incredibly talented vocal group he cultivated called The Jordannaires. But when it came time to film “Blue Hawaii” in 1961, a slightly different vocal flavor was in order.
Years earlier, in 1957, at Glendale Junior College in California, musical brothers Al and Clay Naluai teamed up with two other Hawaiian boys, Bernie Ching and Pat Sylva, who – like them – could play every instrument they put their hands on. In addition to their talents on guitars, piano, vibes, even trombone, these young men could all sing really, really well. Together they joined the college choir, and eventually the choir director asked these four Hawaiian friends to arrange some traditional Hawaiian songs for their unique vocal style which they would performas a spotlight act during the choir’s concert performances. They took up the challenge, and The Surfers were born. The Surfers made a handful of records for the Hi-Fi Records label which featured their unique harmony style – reminiscent of such mainland vocal groups as The Hi-Los, The Four Freshmen, and The Lettermen – and went on to do more of the same and better when signed to Decca Records (when they – for reasons unknown – changed their name to The Hawaiian Surfers).
Decca’s parent company – MCA – also controlled Paramount Studios which produced Elvis’s films. According to an interview with the surviving Surfers, Clay once recalled, “On the soundtrack recording, they wanted to have an authentic Hawaiian sound. So they asked us if we’d be willing to do the soundtrack album with him.” On March 21, 1961 at Radio Recorders in Hollywood, three days of recording sessions commenced in which The Surfers added their touch to the legacy that would become “Blue Hawaii” and its iconic soundtrack. If you are a fan of Hawaiian music or The Surfers but it escaped you that it was their voices in the film, it is likely because – despite their rugged Hawaiian good looks – The Surfers were not asked to actually be in the film. They were guns for hire – voices intended to add the Hawaiian touch to the music, which – second only to the local scenery – may have been the most “Hawaiian” aspect of the film.
Elvis and The Surfers were beyond a shadow of a doubt a successful combination. The “Blue Hawaii” soundtrack album was #1 around the world – holding the top position for 20 weeks in the United States and remaining on Billboard’s Album Chart longer than any other Elvis album. Moreover, the single – “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” on one side and “Rock-A-Hula Baby” on the other – earned a Gold Record. You may not have known that it was The Surfers – not The Jordannaires – whose voices graced what may be Elvis’s most popular and enduring ballad – or that it was Alan Naluai – not Elvis – who sang the most memorable introduction to “Rock-A-Hula Baby.” Both deserve a listen again. Rather than the released soundtrack versions, I offer you an unreleased version of “Rock-A-Hula Baby” with some of the playful studio banter still intact and an alternate version – with a slightly different arrangement than heard in the film – of “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”