'He had magic'
Don Ho, who died Saturday at 76, defined Hawaii and the sound of the islands.|
BY HIS own admission, he wasn't much of a singer nor an accomplished musician. But Don Ho was purely the sound of Hawaii, an enduring entertainer with a native mastery for captivating an audience through simple performance.
In his near half-century career -- from Honey's, the Kaneohe restaurant-lounge owned by his mother, to the Waikiki Beachcomber stage where what turned out to be his last show Thursday drew a standing ovation -- Don Ho became an icon of the islands, up there with Waikiki, hula, sand, surf and Diamond Head.
Ho's life spanned the transformation of Hawaii from territorial outpost to booming tourism mecca.
He was born in 1930 in Kakaako, when industrial factories mixed with small, blue-collar homes in a district now marked with gleaming high-rise condos and spanking-new upscale stores. As he was growing up, so was Hawaii -- and nowhere was the visitor boom more evident than in Waikiki, where Ho came to make his home and his name.
In a 1999 Star-Bulletin interview, he recalled when Kalakaua Avenue was devoid of activity.
"There was no one there," he said. "You could fire a cannon down the street and hit no one."
As tourism escalated, Ho's music -- a blend of rock, blues, Latin beats, big band with touches of sha-lang-a-lang -- pulled crowds to the legendary Duke Kahanamoku's in the International Marketplace. There, backed by the brimming talent of the Aliis, Ho put on a show that felt like a backyard party, a garage gathering where friends, neighbors and strangers are welcomed.
With kitschy grass-hut ambience, the nightclub had visitors and locals rubbing shoulders while they sipped drinks from wide, heavy glasses with the song-derived slogan "Suck 'Em Up" scripted in red, which became sought-after souvenirs.
The show was simple; no pyrotechnics or video screens were needed. Ho sang, joked, talked story and led the audience in sing-alongs to such tunes as "E Lei Ka Lei Lei," the lyrics of which ("toujours l'amour, tonight for sure, e lei ka lei lei") were considered raunchy in the late 1960s, tame by today's standards.
Other entertainers sometimes stopped by to join in, young women were occasionally invited onstage to dance, drink minimums for cash-short college students were seldom enforced, but always the music and joy of living in Hawaii was celebrated.
Songs for which Ho is known, like "Tiny Bubbles" and "Suck 'Em Up," cultivated the persona of a slightly tipsy, fun-loving rogue.
A gorgeous local fusion of Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and German ancestry, his full smile and glinting eyes radiated sexuality. But when he sang the late Kui Lee's poignant "I'll Remember You," it was with a vulnerability that amplified his appeal.
Though times and tastes changed, Ho's popularity persisted. He appeared on television programs every now and then and made a notable cameo in the film "Joe's Apartment." Still, a club with a live audience was where he belonged.
Don Ho's failing heart stopped Saturday, but the pulse of his life will beat each time his mellow voice drifts through the airwaves. He possessed something few can claim.
"He had a gift," said longtime Honolulu columnist Eddie Sherman. "He had magic."