NYCD: The Blog

Sunday, April 15, 2007


Don Ho, who died on Saturday, is responsible for the first fight of my marriage. We were honeymooning in Hawaii near the Waikiki Beachcomber, where Don had performed for decades, and on the third night of our new life together, I took my bride to see his show. Ho was days away from being hospitalized with heart trouble, and he looked and sounded every bit of his 75 years. He mumbled and slurred his way through the songs; his between-song patter was barely coherent. Even the mai tais were watered down. The show went on forever, as other musicians and local kids took overly long guest spots. It started to feel like an amateur talent show.

But I wouldn't let my wife leave, because after the show -- for a fee, of course -- we could exchange pleasantries and get our picture taken with Don Friggin' Ho.

The only thing I remember about our brief and expensive meeting is that he said to my wife, "You look like my daughter." Having seen photos, we both disagree. I still treasure the photo, though. Christine eventually forgave me for holding her hostage, even though she didn't believe me when I tried to explain myself: "You don't understand! He wasn't just a great entertainer. He was a pioneer, a groundbreaker!"

"'Tiny Bubbles' is NOT groundbreaking," she snapped back.

I wasn't lying. Though he sounded more like Dean Martin than anyone else, his music was undeniably Hawaiian. Born and bred on the islands, he championed the work of fellow Hawaiians like Kui Lee, whose "I'll Remember You" became one of Ho's biggest hits. Most of his music had at least a sprinkling of his native tongue. And the subject matter of his music — paeans to Waikiki or Kauai, "beach boy" surfer anthems of love, or exclamations of local slang like "Geev'um" — was more often than not Hawaiian, even if a lot of it sounded like commercials for the tourism board.

But Don Ho was more than just the musical ambassador of Hawaii. At a time when the most recognizable Asian-American pop musician is American Idol laughingstock William Hung, don't forget that Don Ho crossed over to mainstream success without having to deny his cultural background or make a joke of himself. It was his smooth baritone that gave him half a dozen hit albums, not a funny accent. And it was his good looks, not a geeky caricature, that kept him on TV and in movies throughout the '60s and '70s (Remember his mid '70s variety show, anyone?). And if much of his legend rests on one song — the immortal "Tiny Bubbles" — well, that's one more hit than almost any other Asian-American act has had in the four decades since it first hit the charts.

I'm not going to try to convince you that "Tiny Bubbles" or "Suck 'Em Up" or "One Paddle Two Paddle" are the Hawaiian
Sgt. Pepper , because they're not. But they did help Don Ho not only become synonymous with his native land, they helped him become a star whose name is still known close to four decades after he last hit the pop charts. Nowadays, when it seems that musical stardom for Asian-Americans is more elusive than ever, his feat seems all the more remarkable.

And if that doesn't want to make you lift a mai tai in the great man's honor, I don't know what will.


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