Tommy Castro

There’s No Steelin’ The Spotlight

Tommy Castro – Forgotten Steel Guitar Wizard

There is no question that the signature sound of Hawaiian music for the last more than a century since its invention has been the steel guitar. Anyone can recognize the steel guitar when heard. But while the steel guitar defines Hawaiian music for many generations, very few outside of Hawai`i can name a steel guitarist. This is why I hesitate to refer to any particular steel guitarist as “legendary.” If we are being completely truthful, the only people talking about steel players are other steel players.

One who was truly legendary, however, was Tommy Castro.

If you are a steel player, then you have already read all there is to read on any website or in any book about Hawaiian music… Tommy Castro was born Thomas Koani on April 12, 1912 in Anahola, Kaua`i. One of his earliest professional engagements was with Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs’ K.M.M. Syncopators in 1934. He went on to play with Gigi Royce’s Orchestra at the Young Hotel Roof Garden in 1936-37 before heading to New York City with Ray Kinney, the headliner of the famed Hawaiian Room of the Lexington Hotel.

What you might now know: Tommy had a well-trained ear which made him the consummate arranger. If we flash-forward to 1947, Castro did most of the arrangements for a set of Columbia Records releases by singer/composer Lena Machado (arrangements which by most discographies and liner notes are erroneously attributed to Andy Cummings). When Tony Todaro (composer of such hapa-haole classics as “Keep Your Eyes On The Hands,” “Somewhere In Hawaii,” and “There’s No Place Like Hawaii”) finished writing his first song ever – entitled “Hawaiian Moon” – he called his friend Gigi Royce about the tune, and Gigi immediately wanted a lead sheet to teach the song to the band. Todaro hung up the phone and ran over to the Young Hotel as quickly as he could – completely forgetting to bring the lead sheet! Tommy said he could help, and so Tony sang the melody to Tommy while Tommy dashed off a lead sheet in real time. Gigi liked the song, and by the next evening’s performance Castro turned the single melody lead sheet into a full-blown arrangement with parts for the entire orchestra. (This leaves us to wonder how many of the beautiful arrangements used at the Hawaiian Room or on Kinney-led recordings were done by Castro.)

While it may not be apparent to those who don’t play the steel guitar, Castro was among the most tasteful and yet inventive steel guitarists to ever grace the instrument. And he was somewhat of a wizard, as well! While many steel players took to playing guitars with multiple necks – each neck a different set of strings tuned to a different tuning – and might jump back and forth between the necks to attain the chords needed, not Castro. Tommy played primarily in the A minor tuning, but he also mastered other tunings involving minor 6th, major 6th, and major 7th chords while insisting on only carrying and using a single six-string guitar. This means in addition to mastering these many tunings, Castro also mastered the art of changing tunings not merely between songs, but in the middle of a song.

Other steel guitarists were keenly aware of Castro’s wizardry when it came to varying his tunings. According to an anecdote from Merle Kekuku – nephew of the steel guitar’s inventor, Joseph Kekuku, and a steel guitarist himself – one steel player in particular was “ever vigilant to guess Tommy’s latest moves.” That steel guitar great – Joe Custino – would eagerly await every new Castro recording and report to other steel players what new heights of innovation Tommy had most recently attained. (Much of this innovation occurred while Castro was on the mainland, and so the Hawaiian steelers back home could only hear what Tommy was doing next through the recordings and occasional radio broadcasts.) Because Castro was known to use primarily the aforementioned A minor tuning, it was immediately apparent to Custino that Castro has struck a new chord (pun intended) when he first heard the Ray Kinney recording (from a January 1, 1939 session in New York City) released as “Makala Pua” [sic] (real title “O Makalapua”). This was the first time anyone back home in Hawai`i had heard Castro use the Am7 (or sometimes called C6) tuning.

The desire to broaden the palate of the steel guitar to incorporate more jazzy tunings likely came from his long association and friendship with none other than Duke Ellington. Castro was known to “quote” – or repeat snippets from – his friend Duke’s compositions and arrangements in the middle of otherwise traditional Hawaiian songs.

Castro passed away much too young at the age of only 51 on July 29, 1963. But he left quite a legacy of recordings with such legendary vocalists as Ray Kinney, Alfred Apaka, Linda Dela Cruz, Ray Andrade, Lena Machado, and, of course the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders led by Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs and which featured vocalists George Kainapau and Benny Kalama. Regrettably most of these recordings have been lost to the ravages of time as they have not been remastered and issued again in the digital era. To hear near;y two hours of Tommy Castro’s classic recordings, click on the link below.