The classic album 'Honolulu City Lights'By John Berger
is reissued, marking its 20th anniversary
Special to the Star-Bulletin
THE sun had just set as Keola Beamer walked into the living room of his Alewa Heights home. It was twilight, his favorite time of day. A slight haze softened the geometrical starkness of downtown Honolulu and bright points of light were igniting across the city.
Keola sat at his desk and watched the transformation through the picture window that dominated the makai side of the room. He thought of the album he would soon be recording with his younger brother, Kapono.
It would be the Beamer brothers' first for Tom Moffatt's new label, Paradise Records. Moffatt had big plans for it. The brothers would record some of the tracks in Honolulu, but much of their work would have to be done in Los Angeles, a world away for the two island performers.
Keola glanced at the guitar that waited beside the desk, then once again at the city as the lights grew brighter and the buildings disappeared into the darkness. He picked up a pencil and started to write.
"Looking out upon the city lights...' "
It was a spring evening in 1978. The song that would become the title cut for the landmark album, "Honolulu City Lights," was born.
Keola & Kapono would record a second album in 1980 and another in 1982. Shortly after that, they ended their musical partnership. They have not appeared together in public for more than 15 years.
The song, however, continues to bind and 20 years after "City Lights" was issued, Moffatt is commemorating the music with a special "limited edition" 20th anniversary pressing of the album.
Kapono Beamer looks back at "City Lights" with pride and a bit of awe. Who knew in 1978 that the song he and his brother Keola were recording would become one of the biggest songs in the history of modern Hawaiian music.
"You never know what's going to be a hit; there are so many factors outside your control," Kapono said. "I felt like we'd done a good job on the performances, and as we were doing the final mix it was like we were infused with energy.
"When I heard the final mix it was more intense than 'chicken skin.' "
The song ranks with "I'll Remember You" as one of the most memorable local songs since statehood. The album may well be the biggest seller of the era.
Moffatt declines to discuss sales figures, but says "Honolulu City Lights" is a local mega-hit.
"It's the song that made the album, it's a great song," he says.
Moffatt, who is now a disc jockey and concert promoter, says when he first heard the song, "I knew it was a winner. I flipped."
As the album moved to completion, he wasn't sure what would happen with it, but "boom! It did happen."
To this day, Moffatt says, "Whenever I fly in or out of here at night I think of that song. I still love that song."
He isn't alone.
"After all these years (the song) still occupies a very special place in my memories and my heart because of the impact that it's had," says Keola. "My e-mail still to this day is filled with loving thoughts about that song from all over the world.
"Once you write a song it takes on a life of its own. In the case of 'Honolulu City Lights,' I didn't have any idea how people would respond to it, but by the time I was finished writing it there was sort of a magic to it."
Local songwriters have been trying ever since to match his success. Many songs have been written about leaving and returning to Honolulu. None has come close to matching the commercial and popular impact of "City Lights."
"It wasn't an easy song to write but it wasn't difficult," Keola says. "Everything seemed to fall into place."
The bittersweet emotions that come with leaving the islands were familiar, he says, having had to go to college on the mainland and because he was soon to fly to Los Angeles to record.
"It all came together."
Although "City Lights" was the biggest hit of all hits for Keola & Kapono Beamer, the album is also remembered by those of a certain age for two other songs. "Seabreeze" was the Beamers' reworking of Irmgard Farden Aluli's "Puamana," a song about the Farden family home on Maui. "Only Good Times" was written for a surf film starring Jan Michael Vincent. The film premiered in Honolulu with the star in attendance; Honolulu cheered loudest for the Beamers.
But beyond its popularity, "Honolulu City Lights" was a milestone in local recording. It would be the first project for Moffatt's new label. He felt the Beamers were unique and wanted to do something special so he called on two old friends, Teddy Randazzo and Frank Day.
Moffatt had known Day and Randazzo since the 1950s when Day was managing teen idol Bobby Rydell, and Randazzo enjoyed tremendous popularity as a teen idol in Hawaii. Randazzo was known nationally for his talents as a songwriter and arranger. The combination of the Beamers, Moffatt, Day and Randazzo made Hawaii music history.
"It was a marvelous project, something I am very proud to have been a part of," Day says today.
Keola and Kapono recorded some of the tracks in Honolulu. Their uncle, Mahi Beamer, played piano on "City Lights" and slipped in a bit of a song by Helen Desha Beamer as a counter melody that Randazzo then used in writing the string arrangements. Randy Lorenzo played bass and guitar and sang backing vocals on "Seabreeze." Day and Randazzo added the live string section in Los Angeles.
Day remembers the album as one of the best things he'd ever heard come out of the Hawaii recording industry.
"Between the vocals that the boys did and Teddy's arrangements, I got goose bumps. It was a classic song that said a lot and it had emotional lyrics -- a perfect combination."
"Honolulu City Lights" was good for six Hoku Awards in 1979: Best Contemporary Hawaiian Album, Best Song ("Honolulu City Lights"), Best Composer (Keola Beamer), Best Produced Album (Teddy Randazzo, Tom Moffatt and Frank Day), Best Engineered Album (Herb Ono) and Best Single to Keola & Kapono Beamer ("Honolulu City Lights").
"City Lights" was also the zenith for Keola & Kapono as recording artists and a high-water mark for years in terms of high-quality production values in a project by a local record label.
Keola & Kapono recorded a second studio album for Paradise, "Island Nights," which Kapono says didn't get the same degree of effort from anybody.
"It died," he says frankly.
It was followed by "Tahiti Holiday," recorded and released in conjunction with a local television special. Then the brothers parted.
A reunion concert or tour would be an extremely lucrative event, but not even Moffatt has been able to bring them together. Money evidently isn't the issue, but Keola cautions against reading too much into the continuing separation.
"People just sort of assume that because you change your direction in life there's a major problem. Often times it's a case of being unsatisfied with where you are and wanting to go somewhere else. Sitting in a dressing room for 10 years two feet away from the same guy, you're bound to take a look at your life and ask 'Is this it?' I know it may sound strange but I look back at it as a positive thing because we ended up a lot happier individually."
The Beamer Brothers' final commercial production in a Waikiki showroom, he says, was far removed from their slack-key roots or even the polished sound of "City Lights." "We were different people with different personalities," Kapono says.
Both brothers enjoy successful careers as solo recording artists. Both are actively exploring new ideas involving slack-key. Kapono's latest album is a collection of songs written by his great-grandmother; it is scheduled for release Sept. 1.
Meanwhile, Moffatt and Day had defined a distinct and commercially successful sound in local pop music in the early 1980s with hit albums by the Aliis, the Krush, the Kasuals and Danny Couch. They also worked together in producing landmark live concert albums by Cecilio & Kapono and Kalapana. The multi-faceted Moffatt continues to juggle interlocking careers as promoter, morning radio personality and head man at Paradise and Bluewater Records. Day owns Ocean Studios in Burbank; he distinguished himself last fall pulling together the 1997 "Homegrown" album.
"Honolulu City Lights" remains one of Day's favorites.
"The vocal talent was there, Teddy outdid himself with some of the best string writing I've ever heard...and Tom put it all together."
"I haven't seen such a perfect combination since."
Honolulu City Lights 20th Anniversary Keola & Kapono Beamer (Paradise)
The album has been available on disc since 1987. Special 20th Anniversary packaging that makes this a collector's item. The title song remains the landmark, but "Only Good Times" and "Seabreeze" also rank as local classics. "Only Good Times" has long outlived memories of the surf film it was written for and become a timeless celebration of friendship. "Seabreeze" likewise stands as an inspired multi-lingual interpolation of Irmgard Farden Aluli's "Puamana." The others came out of the brothers' rehearsals and live repertoire. Those recordings, too, are now classics.