Great Hawaiian Voices of the 1950s and 60s

Mar 11, 2020

Cruise ships entering Honolulu Harbor may not be a welcome sight right now, but in the 1950s and 1960s, Boat Days were a cause for celebration. Many of the passengers aboard based their visions of Hawai‘i on the songs they heard on film and radio. In those days, visitors could choose from the Tapa Room, Chuck’s Cellar, Duke’s, and many other live music venues featuring fine singers of the day.

Antoinette "Toni" Lee, President of the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame
Credit Toni Lee

Alfred Apaka’s voice is one of the most remarkable to come out of Hawai‘i, according to Hawaiian music scholar George Kanahele--Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and many others agreed.

“He was awesome, and he played at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, he was a soloist,” says Antoinette “Toni” Lee, President of the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, among other things.

Actually, the Hilton’s Tapa Showroom was created for Apaka, who died tragically of a heart attack at 40, just after signing a deal for a television special.

“Groups were not trying to play and sound like each other back then,” says Lee. “Take Haunani Kahalewai.”

Born in Hilo, Kahalewai was the First Lady of Song in Hawai‘I in the 1950’s and 60’s. It was her stately manner---and her 3 octave range. She sang on Hawai‘i Calls, starring at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and releasing many recordings of her regal contralto. She died at age 53 in California where she was studying for a career in computers.

Lee then mentioned the iconic Lena Machado, a soprano and Hawaiian style falsetto singer of great style and swing who became popular in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. She was part of the vanguard of Hawaiian women who sang in the ha’i style, where the voice "breaks" as it moves into the higher registers. Machado was among the first to be inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame.

Toni Lee shares anecdotes about Machado and Kahauanu Lake, whose trio was a stand out in its time. The Invitations combined Four Freshmen style harmonies with Hawai‘i style swing, and became among the first local groups to record for a major record label, Liberty Records.

Lee reflects on the different nature of Hawaiian music today, saying music before the Hawaiian Renaissance was concerned mainly with entertaining, telling a story and having fun.

“Now there’s a lot going on in the community,” continues Lee. “Those that can write and come up with authoring a song or writing a mele, it will be historic for this time, but it’s not necessarily a happy time.” For example, the contemporary song, Kū Ha‘aheo, written by Hinaleimoana Wong Kalu.

Lee points out that in the 1950’s and 60’s, there was an ecosystem of live music venues. Duke’s was the first place she mentioned, then the International Market Place with Don Ho, Chuck’s Cellar, Hilton’s Tapa Room, the Royal’s Monarch Room, down to assorted clubs and bars. Lee says locals filled these venues---parking was allowed on Kalākaua at the time.

As President of the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, Lee notes, there aren’t many places for Hawaiian musicians to play these days.