Hitting a Romantic Note
By Susan Yim
As Harry B. Soria Jr. and I glance around the shaded courtyard of the stately, century-old Moana Hotel, nostalgia taps me on the shoulder. With a veil of clouds softening the late morning sunlight, and the waves drumming hypnotically on the Waikiki shore, it’s easy to daydream about what is was like here 65 years ago, when the radio program Hawaii Calls was broadcast live from this very spot.
Soria points out where the stage was at the Moana (now officially known as the Sheraton Moana Surfrider). Where bandleader Harry Owens and his orchestra of Hawaiian musicians were positioned during the show’s first two years. Where the audience sat under an ancient banyan tree that remains today a verdant umbrella beside the white-sand beach. Where an engineer draped a microphone over the railing at water’s edge to catch the sound of the surf that began each of the old broadcasts.
Hawaii Calls aired live from Waikiki between 1935 and 1975. At its peak of popularity, in the early ‘50s, the show was beamed to 750 stations around the world. For several generations of listeners across the United States – including my husband, who in those days tuned in by radio in upstate New York – those broadcasts of Hawaiian music created indelible images of the islands. The sensuous twang of the steel guitar transported audiences to Waikiki Beach, wrapping them in fantasies of moonlight over Diamond Head, sultry hula maidens with hibiscus blossoms in their hair, and sleepy lagoons ringed by swaying palm trees.
As we reminisce about Hawaii Calls, I’m struck by the thought that if this were the 1930s and Soria wore his dark hair slicked back a tad more, sported a pencil-thin mustache, donned a white suit, and draped a lei around his neck, he could easily step onto the veranda and emcee an edition of Hawaii Calls. After all, that is essentially what he has been doing, on a smaller scale, for the past 20 years.
Every Sunday at dusk, as the host of Territorial Airwaves, Soria plays an hour of ethnic Hawaiian and hapa haole music (songs with English lyrics about Hawaii), weaving the stories behind the tunes into a sentimental hour of music from Hawaii’s territorial days.
He is the hands-down authority on the music of the hapa haole era, which ran from the turn of the century through the ‘50s and produced such songs as, “Beyond the Reef”, which exuded romance by playing on the mystique and allure of Hawaii and other then remote islands of the Pacific.
Soria sings a couple of lines – “Beyond the reef, where the sea is dark and cold, my love has goine and our dreams grow old….” He tells me that, while the song remains one of the best known about the islands, the lyrics never actually mention Hawaii. The tune was written in 1948, by a Canadian named Jack Pitman, who settled in Hawaii, played piano in nightclub lounges, and turned out to be, in Soria’s words, “a heck of a songwriter.”
Soria is filled with anecdotes about hapa haole songs. He knows all about such greats as Harry Owens, who in 1934 wrote, “Sweet Leilani” to commemorate the birth of his first daughter. A couple of years later Owens and his band were playing at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, when Bing Crosby danced by and asked them to play it again. Crosby, who happened to be in Honolulu while the scenes for the film Waikiki Wedding were being shot (the actors worked in a Hollywood studio), became smitten with the number and lobbied for it to be included in the movie. At the 1937 Academy Awards, it won the Oscar for Song of the Year – and reignited a craze on the mainland for music from and about the islands.
“That’s my favorite time,” says Soria. “That’s when the real glamour came. It was a period when the music was strongly influenced by Hollywood and vice versa.”
My own all-time favorite hapa haole composition is “Waikiki”, by the late singer-songwriter Andy Cummings. Soria, of course, has the story behind the song: It was written in 1938 on a cold, foggy night in Lansing, Michigan, where Cummings was touring with a Hawaiian troupe. What makes it so unforgettable is its purity and sweetness: “Waikiki at night when the shadows are falling, I hear your rolling surf calling, calling and calling to me….”
Whenever I listen to that song at twilight, a wave of emotion hits me, filling me with feelings of tenderness for the unspoiled Waikki I took for granted as a kid growing up in Honolulu in the ‘50s. Cummings performed into his 70s, occasionally in Waikiki lounges, and one moonlit evening he paused at my table, strumming the song on an ukulele and singing in his reedy tenor.
“The song is timeless,” Soria says.
Contemporary Hawaiian musicians, including the popular female trio Na Leo Pilimehana and the Brothers Cazimero, agree: both have recently recorded loving interpretations of the classic tune.
And even though “Waikiki” was written on the mainland – or perhaps because of that – it evokes the sense of longing that characterizes the most romantic Hawaiian music of the Territorial period.
“These are love songs and torch songs, songs about being on an island and parting,” Soria says. “It was music about this faraway place that, in those days, you could only reach by steamship, that someday, maybe once in your life, you might get to.”
Humming, singing, and talking, Soria takes me back to the 1920s, when the Moana was the place to be seen and “Hawaii’s Jazz King,” Johnny Noble and his dance band performed sassy numbers like “Hawaiian Vamp,” with lyrics that hinted at the insouciance of the time: “Down in Honolulu, beside the sea, a naughty dance is haunting me….” As the couples moved gracefully across the dance floor, Soria says, sand tracked onto it from the nearby beach produced a sh-sh-sh sound under their shoes.
While his 20 years as a disc jockey have made Soria an unassailable authority on the hapa haole days, it could be said that he was born with the music in his blood. That’s because his father was a music man, too. Born in 1905, Harry B. Soria Sr. danced at the Moana to “Hawaiian Vamp,” befriended Hawaii’s Jazz King, and went on to become “the Voice of Hawaii,” which aired on local radio.
His show went head-to-head with Hawaii Calls in the mid-‘30s, but while the competition was recording live on the beach at Waikiki, Voice of Hawaii was broadcast from the studio.
“In retrospect, it didn’t have the romance of Hawaii Calls, Soria Jr. says, with the objectivity of a historian. When World War II broke out and his father joined the war effort, the show went off the air.
For years, growing up in the Honolulu suburb of Aina Haina, without much interest in the music of the past, Soria Jr. did not appear to be the one who would rekindle the hapa haole flame. But while he was attending college in California, the music he used to consider old-fashioned started sounding good. Back in the islands, Soria began to collect Hawaiian memorabilia, and his father noticed.
The turning point came one day when his dad hauled out a large shipping trunk jammed with the sheet music, 78-rpm records, radio scripts, and publicity photos from his radio days.
“It was like a time machine,” Soria says, smiling at the memory. “As I became an admirer of his previous life, our relationship changed.”
Soria pumped his father for stories about the dance floors at the Moana, the Royal Hawaiian, and other night spots, for tales of the legendary band leaders and the great musicians; and, of course, for the substance behind the songs. He searched out the musicians and composers of his father’s day and asked them about their recollections; it didn’t hurt that they remembered Harry Sr. with fondness.
Soria also began building a record collection that now includes more than five thousand 78-rpm records – most of the songs from the era were recorded in the 78 format – and another five thousand LP albums. So when the opportunity to do a radio show came along, Soria was ready.
Now, every week when the program goes on the air, the switchboard lights up with his listeners calling to thank him for playing their favorites. Because of Soria’s extensive music collection and vast knowledge, some fans assumed he was an old-timer who had rubbed shoulders with the legends. Whenever he emceed a music event early in his career, the “aunties” – older Hawaiian women – in the audience would gasp when he walked on stage. They couldn’t believe he was only in his 30s. “They thought they had been tricked,” Soria says.
Such humorous misunderstandings aside, Soria is keenly aware that his audience is aging and that his most ardent fans, like the entertainers who have been guests on his program, are passing on.
“It’s a challenge,” he says. “How do I appeal to a new generation? How do I make the music palatable to an ever-younger audience? It’s my mission.”
We could reminisce till sunset, but Soria has to get back to his day job as a credit manager for a Honolulu wholesale company.
“My dad told me, ‘Never do this full-time; keep it as a side business, and you’ll have more fun’.”
He has, and he does.
Soria strolls across the lobby of the Moana to his car; a moment later he is maneuvering through traffic. And while the drivers around him are probably listening to talk radio, 24-hour news stations, or Top 40 hits, Soria loads his CD player with something familiar – personal favorites from his dad’s Territorial days. PAU.