Entertainer anBy Burl Burlingame
island music icon
WAIKIKI, of course, would exist even if Don Ho never drew breath. And Waikiki will continue to exist long after Do Ho is a fading, distant memory. But the "Waikiki" of modern mythology, the playground of the Pacific, the heartbeat and rhythm unit of tourism, the melange of great natural beauty and the electric crackle of urban excitement ... well, you can pretty much thank Don Ho for that.
"The impact on the islands and particularly Waikiki of Don Ho is almost more than we can imagine," reflects Star-Bulletin music critic John Berger, a Ho-watcher for more than a quarter-century. "He was the first new idea in hapa-haole music since Alfred Apaka, and he and the Aliis moved Hawaiian music into mainstream American pop music."
Ho's timing could not have been better. As the 1960s bloomed, as popular music began to embrace the whole wide world, at the same moment kids began blowing pocket money on records, at the same instant that the recording industry became a mass market phenomenon, Don Ho broke through the scrim of national consciousness with his laid-back, exotic and vaguely hedonistic charm.
"Don Ho is one of three people who represented the concept of 'Hawaii' to the world, along with Duke Kahanamoku and Hilo Hattie," notes Hawaii cultural historian DeSoto Brown. "He is one of the best-known ethnic celebrities on the planet. And he has done it -- dare I say? -- by bringing pleasure to millions."
Born Donald Tai Loy Ho on Aug. 13, 1930, Ho grew up in his mother's Kaneohe watering hole, called Honey's, absorbing popular music from the bar's jukebox during the war years. He also was entranced by the silver airplanes that filled the skies, and joined the Air Force, becoming a command pilot.
To entertain himself while flying overseas, Ho bought an electric Hammond organ with push-button chords. He figured out songs by pushing the chords at random. "It was great for an old guitar player like me," Ho recalled earlier this year.
In 1959, intrigued by Hawaiian statehood, Ho separated from the Air Force and took over managing Honey's. It wasn't easy. "Family of six in a 10-by-12 room, making $25 a day -- if we were lucky," Ho says. "How did we do that? How did we survive?"
He didn't have money, but he had time. Ho began hosting jam sessions at Honey's to help pass the time, and the place became steadily more hip. He became friends with composer Kui Lee, who had a gift for melodies that reflected the nervy ambiance of post-statehood Hawaii.
"Kui and I often talked about the social aspects of life here, and we wanted the music to reflect that. We were from modern times, not the past, but we were also from Hawaii," recalled Ho.
This was exactly the right chord to strike in the 1960s cultural boomtown of Hawaiian tourism. Waikiki came calling, and Ho began to sit in at the Barefoot Bar when Sterling Mossman took breaks. Local audiences followed Ho, and tourists began to sense the excitement.
One of Ho's great contributions to show business was erasing the "fourth wall" between the stage and seats. "Don has a deliberately casual attitude to performing that makes him very approachable," said Berger. "It erases the line between performer and audience. Audiences always remember him fondly. He has defined Hawaii in popular culture around the world."