News Column

The Velvet Baritone

May 19, 2013


May 19--Seen on stage, Gary Aiko looks the part of a traditional Hawaiian singer. And, yes, he is a cultural icon who represents a grand era in island music. He is one of the great Hawaiian baritones of the 20th century and, with the evolution of Hawaiian and hapa haole music in recent decades, perhaps the last.

Aiko, who turns 78 next month, is certainly the last great Hawaiian male singer whose career began in Waikiki in the years before statehood who still performs there on a regular basis today.

But he also is famously remembered for his choice of leisure wear -- a pair of boots and a leopard-print, Speedo-style bikini bottom, whether cleaning the yard, riding a horse or jogging. A photo of Aiko in boots and bikini bottom appeared on the cover of one of his early albums.

When Aiko, a 2013 Na Hoku Hanohano Award finalist for male vocalist, isn't singing the classic Hawaiian and hapa haole songs of the Territorial Era, he lives life on his own terms.

Lynn Cook, who wrote the liner notes for Aiko's newest album, "Poina 'Ole 'Ia (Unforgettable)," calls him as an entertainer who "plays Hawaiian music with Hollywood style."

"From early Waikiki gigs to the weekly Keawe Ohana shows at the Waikiki Beach Marriott, fans describe his velvet baritone voice as somewhere between Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, only Hawaiian," she said.

Harry Soria Jr., a Hoku Award-winning musicologist who specializes in Hawaiian music from the first half of the 20th century, said Aiko "stole the show" during live broadcasts of his radio program "Territorial Airwaves," which started in 1979.

"At just the right moment in the show, we'd let him loose on a vintage sultry love ballad and Gary would become the embodiment of the ultimate Territorial Alfred Apaka Era torch singer. His deep, rich tones and clear enunciation would melt every heart -- both in the room and those listening on the radio," Soria said.

"Poina 'Ole 'Ia (Unforgettable)" -- funded with money Aiko won gambling in Las Vegas -- is a beautiful showcase for the singer and a celebration of his heritage. The title song, recorded in Hawaiian and English, is one of Aiko's favorite pop standards. "Behold La'ie" honors his birthplace. "E Maliu Mai" is a song he to used sing as a duet with his mother, legendary Hawaiian falsetto singer Genoa Keawe, in Waikiki; it's heard here as a duet with his niece, Pomaika'i Keawe Lyman, bringing the family's musical traditions forward another generation.

Aiko's younger brother, Eric Keawe, was persuaded to be the featured vocalist on "Lately," another of their mother's favorite American pop songs. Other selections recall Aiko's friendship with the late Benny Kalama, time spent working with the late Randy Oness, and family ties to other Hawaiian entertainers.

It's easy to get the impression that his mother, who died in 2008, may have considered the first born of her 12 offspring something of a problem child. (His father was Edward Puniwai Keawe-Aiko.)

Aiko started working while he was still in elementary school -- delivering newspapers and shining shoes -- to help support the family, but when it came to her religion he wasn't interested. "My mom gave me the Book of Mormon. 'Here, son, read this.' I said, 'Mom, in my own time,' and gave her the book back. I wasn't into that," he said. "And the time still hasn't come yet."

Many years later, even though Hawaiian groups have been using the big contrabass as a rhythm instrument for almost a century, Aiko decided an acoustic bass guitar would suffice -- even when he was playing bass for his mother, a staunch traditionist.

"She made some comments but she had to accept it," Aiko said. "I told her I was tired of bringing this big (upright bass) upstairs and downstairs. When my brother, Sam, was playing bass for her, he played an electric bass (guitar) and she didn't say anything."

Aiko and his 11 siblings grew up with music in their lives, but only he followed in his mother's footsteps in making music a career.

He was an eighth-grader at Central Intermediate when he won a local radio station's talent show three times -- singing pop ballads and accompanying himself on ukulele -- and was asked not to come back. He said he made an early choice to perform as Gary Aiko "to be different from my mom," but also because "it was shorter than Gary Puniwai Keawe-Aiko."

He graduated from McKinley High School in 1953 because he got kicked out of Kaimuki in the middle of his senior year. "I told the principal, 'You're supposed to save the Hawaiians, not kick 'em out,'" Aiko said with a chuckle, but he got kicked out anyway. McKinley, the school he'd attended as a sophomore, let him complete his senior year and get his diploma

He got married shortly afterward -- "My wife was six months' pregnant" -- and a family friend got him a job on an aku boat. Three months later a friend of his father-in-law got him a better job with Hawaiian Electric Co. (He would marry two more times.)

Eric Keawe, 57, says his big brother "never cared what anybody said" -- even when it came to making a fashion statement by stripping down to his bikini bottom.

"He said, 'If the haole guys can do 'em, I can. too,'" Eric recalled.

"Almost every summer during my middle school years and my high school years we would head on down to Makaha. He would go in his bikini and he had his big 10-foot long board. It was fun going out with him. You know how Waianae can get but all the guys respected Gary."

By the time Eric was old enough to pal around with his oldest sibling, Aiko was a well-known entertainer and his unconventional attire just a part of his persona.

AIKO began his musical career entertaining at the Waikiki Sands Restaurant in 1957, a nightspot near where the Duke Kahanamoku statue is now. He says he lost the job because he came to depend on having a drink or two to boost his confidence.

"I drank too much," he said. "I got to depend on it too much. I lasted almost a year and then I got kicked out."

Aiko fared better when his cousin, Tony Bee, took him over to Kaneohe and introduced him to Don Ho. Ho had an upright bass and needed a bass player for the group he was forming with Bee, Sonny Chillingworth, Gabby Pahinui and Mike Garcia. Aiko could play bass but didn't have one. For the five years they played music together at Honey's, Ho let Aiko use his.

Like most Hawaiian entertainers of his generation Aiko worked a nonmusical "day job." He spent "43 years and two months" at Hawaiian Electric and planned to work several years more until he was told in 1997 that he'd have to work nights.

"I told them, 'I don't want to work nights. I want to work days so I can sing nighttime."

His hobbies included horses. One of his brothers, the late Arthur Keawe-Aiko, was a roper but Aiko preferred polo. He left Waikiki for a 3-acre place he bought in Kahaluu where he could keep horses. Aiko played polo for six years but when Al Lopaka, a friend and fellow entertainer, was fatally injured playing the sport in 1985, "it wasn't fun (any more)."

"I played another year 'cause I didn't want to quit just because he died. I gave it a run one more year, and then I was going on a trip to Japan so I told my wife, 'When I come home I don't want to see (these horses) around.' When I came home the horses were gone, the horse trailer was gone, the saddle and all that. I had to move on."

THURSDAY evenings at the Waikiki Beach Marriott, Aiko plays and sings the Hawaiian and hapa haole classics of the Territorial Era as part of the Keawe Ohana, which includes Lyman, steel guitarist Alan Akaka and guitarist Kaipo Asing.

He is also a featured vocalist with the Royal Hawaiian Band, having joined the city-sponsored group in 2004. "Singing with a 34-piece band -- nothing like it," he said.

Bandmaster Clarke Bright said Aiko is an important asset who is "not above himself and his gifts."

"He never hesitates to support us and the band, moving equipment, picking up my podium, and always willing to do whatever we need. From somebody of his gifts -- the authentic baritone voice that he has -- it's rare to see," he said.

During a recent Friday noon performance at Iolani Palace, many of the tourists enjoying the show didn't notice that along with his band uniform -- a bright red-and-yellow aloha shirt and white trousers -- Aiko was wearing white cowboy boots with ornate metal tips.

"Rules are made to be broken," Aiko said afterward, climbing over a "keep out" chain to pose for photos. When asked if he still wears leopard-print bikinis, he smiled and referenced the Sheb Wooley novelty song, "I Just Don't Look Good Naked Anymore."

ALONG with Aiko, the Na Hoku finalists in the highly competitive male vocalist category are Kuana Torres Kahele, Manu Boyd, Nathan Aweau and Weldon Kekauoha. "Poina 'Ole 'Ia (Unforgettable)" is a finalist in three other categories: island music, graphics and liner notes. Despite his long career, Aiko has never won a Hoku as a solo performer. The winners will be announced Saturday at the Hawai'i Convention Center.

Win or lose, Aiko will be leaving for New York and a concert with Nina Keali'iwahamana, Danny Kaleikini, Ho'okena, Maila Gibson and a Japanese halau hula May 28 in Carnegie Hall.

In the meantime, Aiko said, he is thanking God for a prayer that wasn't answered.

"There were times I used to pray to God, 'Take my voice and give me hair.' I'm glad he wasn't listening!"


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