Don Ho has been a fixture in Hawaii since the 1960s, when he first started crooning from his mother's bar in Kaneohe, a small town on the island of Oahu. He is so identified with his home state of Hawaii that, for many, the mere mention of his name instantly conjures up hula dancers swaying to melodic tunes, a soft ocean breeze, and deep blue surf. Throughout his 44-year career, Ho has managed to parlay his career into an enterprise in which his name has achieved brand identity. Now in his mid-70s, he continues to draw large crowds to his show at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel, as well as to make appearances at Don Ho's Island Grill on Honolulu's waterfront, reveling in his niche as the ultimate entertainer.
Don Ho, one of James and Emily "Honey" Ho's nine children, was born in the quiet Honolulu neighborhood of Kakaako on the island of Oahu. Ho has a mixed ethnic heritage, claiming Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and German descent. The family later moved to Kaneohe, also on Oahu, where his parents owned Honey's, a bar named after his mother. During the 1940s the bar, frequented by American sailors, was a lively spot and Ho has credited the jukebox at Honey's as providing him with an array of musical influences, including Hawaiian music, jazz, and swing.
Ho attended the Kamehameha Schools, and was a high school football star during his high school years on Oahu. After graduating in 1949, Ho attended Springfield College in Massachusetts, but did not return after his first year, when he grew homesick for Hawaii. He later enrolled at the University of Hawaii, where he earned a degree in sociology. In 1954 Ho joined the Air Force and moved to Texas to attend flight school. As the Korean War was nearing its end, Ho graduated from the school as a fighter pilot. At one point he was forced to make a crash landing, an event that he said changed the direction of his life. "I was a shy kid, quiet, well-behaved. The crash made me realize that life was to be enjoyed," he told Burl Burlingame of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. During his stint in the Air Force, Ho began playing an electric Hammond chord organ, mostly as a diversion. In 1959 Ho, who had achieved the rank of first lieutenant, retired from the Air Force and returned to Hawaii.
When Ho returned to Kaneohe to run the family business, Honey's was no longer filled to capacity with visiting sailors. In fact, business was very bad. Ho recalled on his website that his father advised him, "Son, why don't you go make music," and so the young man started a band with a handful of musician friends. Ho conceded, "I was terrible. So, I just played softly." Ho put his Hammond organ under the bar and played it as he waited for customers. The effort worked, and soon Honey's became a favorite hotspot. Ho told Burlingame, "I loved the 'ipu' beat, and you hear it a lot in my music. I started to apply it to modern tunes, and guys started coming in with their ukuleles. It got to be a happening. People love live music. It was country people and they love to sing—boy could they sing!—and Sonny Chillingworth would come in and I sang harmony." Word spread quickly, and Ho got a job sitting in for the popular "Hula Cop," Sterling Mossman, during Mossman's breaks at the Barefoot Bar in Waikiki. At about the same time, Ho met Kui Lee, a rising songwriter and composer who helped shape Ho's sound and style.
An Island Icon Was Born
In 1962 Ho got the biggest gig of his career thus far: playing at Duke Kahanamoku's club in Waikiki. Ho played three shows a night to full capacity in the 700-seat club, backed by the Ali'is band, whose original members included Al Akana, Rudy Aquino, Benny Chong, Manny Lagodlagod, and Joe Mundo. Ho developed what would become his longstanding performance style, in which he held court behind his Hammond organ, one hand on the keys and the other holding up a glass of scotch (which in later years was replaced by pineapple juice), jovially inviting the crowd to "Suck 'em Up!." Ho became known for his laid-back style, and typically appeared bare-chested with a lei around his neck, in tight jeans and bare feet.
Ho's popularity at Duke's led to a recording contract with Reprise Records, and Ho released two live albums, the Don Ho Show and Don Ho—Again!, in 1965 and 1966, respectively. Ho's popularity carried over to the mainland, where he made his debut at the famed Los Angeles nightclub Cocoanut Grove in 1966. On the first night of his two-week engagement, Ho broke the club's previous attendance records. The sold-out shows continued, inaugurating a string of appearances at such high-profile clubs as the Sands in Las Vegas, Harrah's at Lake Tahoe, the Palmer House in Chicago, and the Americana Hotel's Royal Box in New York. He also made guest appearances with celebrity television hosts, including Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, and Art Linkletter.
Although Ho's recording career peaked by the late 1960s, he stayed in the limelight throughout the 1970s, appearing on numerous television shows, including Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, McCloud, Sanford and Son, Charlie's Angels, and Fantasy Island. His television career is perhaps best remembered for his appearance during the 1972 season of The Brady Bunch, when the popular TV family filmed in Hawaii. Some members of the Brady cast returned to Hawaii in 2005 for a Travel Channel TV special, and paid a visit to Ho at the Waikiki Beachcomber. Ho also hosted The Don Ho Show, his own variety show on ABC, from 1976 to 1977. He later made it to the big screen when he played the role of villainous landlord Alberto Bianco in the cult film Joe's Apartment in 1996.
For the Record …
Born Donald Tai Loy Ho on August 13, 1930, in Honolulu, HI; son of James A.Y. and Emily L. (Silva) Ho; married Melvamay Kolokea Wong, November 22, 1951; children: ten, including pop singer Hoku Ho. Education: Attended Springfield College, Springfield, MA; University of Hawaii, B.S. in sociology.
Began playing with a group of musicians at Honey's, a cocktail lounge in Kaneohe, HI, early 1960s; played with five other musicians as Don Ho and the Ali'is at Duke Kahanamoku's in Waikiki, 1962-72; signed with Reprise Records and released debut album, Don Ho Show, 1965; released live album Don Ho—Again!, 1966; played at the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood, CA, 1966; played top venues, including Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, Harrah's in Lake Tahoe, the Palmer House in Chicago, and Americana Hotel's Royal Box in New York; released hit single "Tiny Bubbles," on Reprise label, 1967; appeared on The Tom Jones Special, 1971; The Bob Hope Show, 1972; The Brady Bunch, 1972; Perry Como's Hawaiian Holiday, 1976; hosted his own television show, The Don Ho Show, 1976-77; performed nightclub act, Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel, early 1990s–; appeared in movie Joe's Apartment, 1996; played sold-out venues in mainland U.S. in summer coast-to-coast tour, 2002.
Addresses: Office—Don Ho Enterprises Ltd., 3954 Gail St., Honolulu, HI 96815. Bookings—Don Ho c/o Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel, 2300 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu, HI 96815. Website—Don Ho Official Website: http://www.donho.com.
A Lifetime of Hangin' Loose
Ho is perhaps most famous for his hit single "Tiny Bubbles," which hit the charts in the Top 20 and remained there for nearly a year. Ho recalled in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that his producer, Sonny Burke, and his promoter, Kimo McVay, pressured him into recording the song that would become synonymous with his name. He was tired from playing all night at Duke's, but "Sonny and Kimo leaned on me to record a song they thought was great. I didn't like it. So, to get away, I sang it once and ran home." That song has been following him ever since. Four decades later he still opens and closes each show with "Tiny Bubbles," much to the delight of his audiences, who sing along with each rendition. Other songs that have become mainstays in his act include "Ain't No Big Thing," "Hawaiian Wedding Song," "Suck 'Em Up," "Pearly Shells," "Down by the Shack, By the Sea," "I'll Remember You," and "With All My Love."
Throughout the decades Ho has changed little in his act, but he continues to draw crowds when he plays the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel five nights a week, with the shows bringing in between $2 million and $3 million a year for the hotel. One recent addition to his act is that he sometimes shares the stage with his daughter Hoku, who has entered the pop teen scene with such hits as "Perfect Day," the title track from the movie Legally Blonde, and "Another Dumb Blonde." He also makes occasional appearances at Don Ho's Island Grill and Tiny Bubbles Bar, a venture that opened in December of 1998, and which harks back to the Waikiki of the 1950s and 1960s. He has never grown tired of performing and loves the rapport with his audiences. According to Tony Perry in the Los Angeles Times, "He doesn't just give concerts, he throws parties, with his audience invited to sing along and revel in the romance and myth of the islands." His longtime friend McVay declared in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, "It's not that he's just a good singer—he has perfect pitch.… But he has an ability to completely mesmerize an audience. His timing is exquisite, right up there with Jack Benny. It's an amazing thing to watch him work." Ho claims he will keep on working as long as people keep showing up to hear him play. In a line from his show, Ho assures his audience, "I'll be here for another 30 years. I'm going to look like hell, but you'll look like hell too. … We'll look like hell together."
Don Ho Show, Reprise, 1965.
Don Ho—Again!, Reprise, 1966; reissued as The Don Ho Show!/Don Ho—Again!, DBK Works, 2003.
Don Ho: Greatest Hits, Reprise, 1969.
With All My Love (Me Ke Aloha Pumehana), Honey Records, 1990.
Hawaiian Favorites, Spectacular, 1994; reissued, BCI Music, 1994.
I Think About You, Honey Records, 1995.
Gold, Honey Records, 2000.
Tiny Bubbles, Collectors' Choice, 2000.
Don Ho Christmas Album, Collectors' Choice, 2001.
Don Ho Hawaii's Greatest Hits, Honey Records, 2003.
Tiny Bubbles and Other Hits, Flashback Records, 2003.
Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1999; July 12, 1999.
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, February 22, 1999.
Las Vegas Review, November 17, 2000.
Los Angeles Times, July 27, 2001.
Pacific Business News, October 8, 2004.
Time, August 25, 1967.
Toronto Star, January 8, 2005.
"Don Ho," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 8, 2005).
"Don Ho Isn't About to Quit Entertaining," Honolulu Advertiser,http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/2000/Sep/17/917islandlife1.html (March 8, 2005).
Don Ho Official Website, http://www.donho.com (March 8, 2005).
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