With little fanfare and almost no mention in mainstream media, one of the most significant re releases in the history of Hawaiian music occurred over the summer. On July 24th Universal Records released a remastered version of the seminal album “My Isle of Golden Dreams” originally released in 1963. This album by the great Alfred Apaka was for years only available on vinyl and from a time starting in the 1990s as downloadable mp3s. By releasing this remastered version, which is available on Amazon and iTunes, Apaka’s round, clear baritone is captured in its full glory. Many classics of the Hapa-Haole era such as “My Isle of Golden Dreams, “Old Plantation”, “Far Across the Sea”, and “Hawaiian Love Call” are found here, showcasing the sound that helped establish Hawaii as a tourist destination around the world.
For those of you not familiar with Alfred Apaka he is perhaps the most talented pure singer to ever grace the stage here in Hawaii. Apaka was born into a musical family, his father Alfred Sr. being a talented singer himself who was taught by his his aunt Lydia Aholo, the hanai daughter of Queen Liliuokalani.(source) Alfred Jr. became part of this musical legacy learning from his father and starting his own group called “Alfred Apaka and His Hawaiians.” Soon Alfred was noticed by the influential orchestra leader Don McDiarmid and offered the position of lead vocalist for the “Royal Hawaiians.” (source)
This opportunity exposed Apaka to new audiences throughout the 1940s enabling him to tour the U.S. mainland, perform with Ray McKinney, be featured on the influential “Hawaii Calls” radio program and also perform at the Moana Hotel with the “Moana Serenaders.” (source) But it was a luau performance at Don the Beachcomber’s that he was seen by Bob Hope. This served as his big break as he was soon to be featured on national TV and radio along with Hope and Bing Crosby and later on the Ed Sullivan show. (source) Here you can see a performance of Apaka from his first appearance on the Bob Hope show in April 1952 singing “Beyond the Reef.” As you can hear from the applause he was a hit and well received.
Soon Apaka was signed by talent agents Joe Glaser and Jay Faggen in hopes he could compete as a crooner to stand along the likes of Bing Crosby and Perry Cuomo in the burgeoning easy listening and pop standards market. (source) Destiny had other ideas for Apaka though as he was taken under the wing of businessman and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. (source) Having missed the resort boom in South Florida and Palm Springs, Kaiser was determined not to do the same in Hawaii. (source) Having built the Kaiser Hawaiian Hotel (later renamed the Hilton Hawaiian village) in Waikiki, Kaiser was looking for a top star to headline his Tapa Room entertainment lounge. Kaiser found that person in Apaka who performed there starting 1955. Here is video of Apaka performing courtesy of the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
Soon Apaka began recording on the Decca and ABC record labels and his popularity was steadily growing as his performances were the main attraction in Waikiki during the exploding tourist market of the 1950s. It is well documented that America had a new found fascination with all things Hawaiian, and now with an established entertainment market, all the big record producers from the mainland were coming to Hawaii hoping to make a big buck off of the premier stars of the Waikiki lounges. And here was Apaka with an established fan base, notoriety and a set of widely accepted and heard recordings. Apaka was now poised for his big national coming out party. As Deon Kane harpist with Honolulu Symphony related in an interview, Alfred was a strikingly handsome man, with a world class voice and an accomplished showman (source), and there was no doubt that Apaka would become a star in the now popular American lounge music scene along the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.
What was up next for Apaka was a nationally televised performance with all the promotions and sponsorships one could want to ensure exposure. But what was to happen is one of the great tragedies in 20th century American music. In January 1960 while practicing handball at the local YMCA Apaka suffered a sudden heart attack at the age of 40 and died.(source) This became known as the “The Day Hawaii Cried” (source) as Hawaii lost one of its great talents who could stand along side the greats of his profession and even surpass them much like Duke Kahanamoku did some 50 years earlier. And much like Duke helped establish Hawaii in the eyes of mainland America after becoming a Territory, so was it looked upon for Apaka as Hawaii looked to establish itself in its newfound statehood.
Fortunately there are 6 albums of Apaka material around for us to enjoy. And finally his last album “My Isle of Golden Dreams” is finally available in its remastered form. Whether you are a fan of “hapa haole” music or not, everyone can enjoy the pure vocal musicality of Apaka’s voice on this album. While the term “hapa haole” and the validity of its usage is topic for another blog post, what Apaka represented is a Hawaiian man who was looked upon to stand among the luminaries of the most popular musical form in America. We can only imagine what would of came of Apaka as he moved into the pop standards market of all the greats and had the opportunities to perform in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and the other great musical metropolises of the era.
So while it is unfortunate that many were unaware of this important release, those who are paying attention can hear the influence of Alfred Apaka all over Hawaiian music. Whether it is the complex scripted stage shows still popular at the hotel luaus, the standarized harmonized trios at the tourist bar or even the soaring falsettos performing in high end theatres across Japan, all who perform Hawaiian music today owe their livings to Alfred Apaka Junior.
And it was the great Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole who was able to sum up Apaka’s influence best when being interviewed by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin shortly before his death. It was at the ceremony to reveal a statue of Apaka in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Hotel when this icon of Hawaiian music said “He was definitely one of my biggest inspirations, maybe the biggest. He’s the first guy people think about when they think of Hawaiian music. The red carnation lei, the spotlight on the ukulele player in the middle, the hula dancers coming out every once in a while…he invented all that.” (source)
In that sense Apaka is a true embodiment of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. He created something new and fresh and put it on stage in the early years of Waikiki’s growth for all the world to come and see. It is just unfortunate that he couldn’t return the favor and take it out to all those who didn’t get a chance to see it. As another great of Hawaiian music Eddie Kamae said, “He was a classy Hawaiian person, he really made Hawaii look good around the world. He had the personality and the talent to compete internationally. He opened the door for Hawaiian musicians, not just Hawaiian music, to be taken on the level of Mainland acts.” (source)
So yourself a favor, pick up some of Alfred Apaka’s music, readily available on iTunes, Amazon and other major music outlets and take in the smooth, timeless baritone of Alfred Apaka Junior, the Golden Voice of Hawaii.