BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE WINTER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
You could call New Jersey native Bill Wynne a musical prodigy. His first instrument was a plastic guitar, and for his second birthday some Hawaiian family friends bought him a Sears ukulele. At age four, his parents gifted him a new Harmony ukulele and a Roy Smeck record entitled The Wizard of the Strings. Before long, he had learned to play the entire recording in the same fascinating way we learn to speak our first language: by ear.
Wynne is not Hawaiian by blood. His family does have a connection to Hawaii, however: In 1910 Wynne’s Filipino grandfather left the Philippines and relocated to Honolulu, later immigrating to the United States and settling in New Jersey. The music of Hawaii, it seems, came with him.
Growing up far from the islands on the mainland, Wynne was exposed to Hawaiian music as part of his family’s band. “I used to refer to us as the Polynesian Partridge Family,” he says. “We’d get in our van and tour up and down I-95 from Connecticut to Washington, D.C., playing Hawaiian music every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday during my entire childhood.” His father played steel guitar and tenor saxophone; his mother played bass, accordion, piano, and pipe organ. By age three Wynne had learned the I-IV-V chords and was playing Hawaiian songs with the family band.
For his fifth birthday, Wynne’s parents sprung for a Kamaka tenor ukulele outfitted with a Barcus-Berry pickup—the same instrument played by one of his idols, Jesse Kalima, a famous Hawaiian ukulele player known for his stunning rendition of “Stars & Stripes Forever.” Around that time he also got a copy of Ohta San’s 1970 album Pacific Potpourri. “I wore the crap out of that record,” he says. “As I did with the Roy Smeck record, I learned all the solos on the album. I think I was five-and-a-half.”
By the time he was six, Wynne was writing charts for the family band. “I knew nothing about notes or the staff but could write chord charts,” he says. “I would listen to records and figure out the chord patterns. I could then transcribe them without even having the ukulele in my hand.”
This innate musical ability, however, did not bring him joy early in his life. “When I was a kid, music was more burdensome than anything,” says Wynne. “It was not a passion. I had to endure it because of my parents and family. There were Saturday afternoons when the neighborhood kids would knock on the door and ask if I could come out and play ball. My mother would say, ‘No, he’s taking a nap because he has a show at midnight.’ We played shows every Friday and Saturday night from 9 pm to 1 am. In that way, my childhood was not fun. My passion for music came out of survival.”
Divorcing from Hawaiian Music
Wynne’s parents divorced when he was ten, resulting in a complete change in his musical direction. “Hawaiian music was such an integral part of our family that when my father left, my mother wanted no part of it anymore,” he says. “So I turned my focus to jazz guitar.” He immersed himself in records by great jazz guitarists, including Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, and others.
Although he played jazz guitar to appease his mother, Wynne would secretly continue with the ukulele. “My parents’ divorce and my mother’s remarrying were very anxiety-ridden times,” says Wynne. “I would crawl into my room, put on my headphones, play the ukulele or guitar, and sing falsetto so no one could hear me. The Hawaiian music in particular got me through the roughest parts. It was a salve that covered up all the wounds.”
Throughout his teens, Wynne played mostly jazz and pop while honing his vocal chops in musical theater (he played the lead in Fiddler On The Roof). But by age 20 he had come back to Hawaiian music. He began studying slack-key and steel guitar, taking weekly lessons with Hawaiian steel guitar master Alan Akaka. “I didn’t want to play the steel in my formative years because it was my father’s instrument,” says Wynne. “But the sound of the steel is so beautiful I couldn’t resist it.” At age 23, Wynne organized his first steel-guitar convention. “Playing onstage that weekend was my coming out party back to playing Hawaiian music.” Also that weekend, Wynne debuted his Hawaiian falsetto singing—more on that later.
Getting to Carnegie Hall
Wynne’s reputation as a falsetto-singing steel and slack-key player grew soon after that fateful weekend. In 1996 he was invited to open for a troupe of traveling Hawaiian musicians at a well-known venue in New York City. “I played slack-key guitar and sang falsetto at Carnegie Hall. It was my second coming-out party playing Hawaiian music in public. I’ve been playing it in full force since then.”
In May 2019 he was in Hawaii playing some gigs when he ran into his friend, ukulele master Bryan Tolentino. “He told me he had a gig in my neck of the woods at the Funky Frets Ukulele Festival near Philadelphia,” recalls Wynne, who was unfamiliar with the annual event. “It was strange me being an ukulele player and not knowing of a festival less than an hour from my house!” Wynne met up with Tolentino at Funky Frets. “Bryan asked me up on stage during his set, and I played 20 to 25 minutes with him. Since then, I’ve been invited back to the festival every year.”
During this time, Wynne discovered that his authentic voice was not with the tenor ukulele but with the baritone in high-D tuning. “This was the tuning used by some of the heroes from my childhood,” he says. “I finally realized why it was hard for me, with a tenor ukulele, to figure out what they were doing because they were in a different tuning… I found my sound once I figured out that Lyle Ritz and Benny Chong used high-D baritone tuning.”
In 2022, in honor of his 50th anniversary of picking up a ukulele, Wynne released two albums: Stardust and Alone Again (Naturally). He strays from his Hawaiian repertoire on these recordings and into the world of Hoagy Carmichael, George and Ira Gershwin, and even Gilbert O’Sullivan. His vocals and fingerstyle ukulele make up the bulk of the arrangements, with bass anchoring the tunes. “The albums are based on the ukulele and bass duet playing of Benny Chong and Byron Yasui,” says Wynne. “I play ukulele, a Kala U-bass, and sing. It’s a straightforward approach, and the ukulele really stands out.”
Though his voice on these two albums is a baritone register, he can also reach into the high end with falsetto singing. “When I was a kid in the late ’70s, Mahi Beamer was one of the first falsetto singers I heard. I thought it was a woman singing. I was fascinated and wanted to know how he sang like that,” says Wynne.
The first step was collecting every Hawaiian falsetto album he could get his hands on. For years he practiced mimicking those high falsetto voices, and when he revealed his new singing talent at the aforementioned steel guitar convention it went over wildly.
Years later, a friend told Wynne of the Aloha Festivals in Hawaii, which host a falsetto contest on four of the islands each year. Wynne entered for the first time in 2003. He didn’t win, but a review in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin called him “a crowd favorite.”
In 2005, Wynne made another trip to Hawaii for the contest. He placed second this time on the Big Island and took first place in Honolulu. The win led to widespread notoriety in the islands as the first haole to win first place in the falsetto contest.
In 2015, despite his deep love and appreciation of Hawaiian music, Wynne almost chucked 50 years of playing and singing it out the window after being criticized for being an “outsider” playing Hawaiian music. “In this era of cultural appropriation, I have not (always) been welcomed with open arms in Hawaii,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘We don’t need no white guy from New Jersey singing Hawaiian music.’”
These comments made him seriously question his role in Hawaiian music. “I did a concert in my hometown, and at the show’s end, I announced I was quitting Hawaiian music. When the news hit Facebook, many Hawaiians came out of the woodwork to say I was born to do this. Do not give up, they said. They rescued me from the abyss. And even though some don’t believe in the concept of ‘Hawaiian at heart,’ that’s how I’ve been described. When folks hear me sing and play, many say there is no way he is not just a little bit Hawaiian.”
What Bill Wynne Plays
- Kanile`a HNS-B Premium baritone, high-D tuning
- Kanile`a ISL-ST 19″ super tenor (extra-wide lower bout on body), tuned F-Bb-D-G (low-F)
- Uke Logic Super Fluorocarbon hard tension strings
- Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre acoustic preamp/direct box
Wynne’s dedication to Hawaiian music and culture led to the creation of his online radio station, Ho ’olohe Hou. “Ho ’olohe Hou means ‘to listen again,’” says Wynne. “I stole the idea for the name from my hero, Frank Sinatra, who started Reprise Records. Reprise in Italian means ‘to play and play again.’”
He began the station with 20,000 unique tracks from his collection, many out of print, by digitizing thousands of LPs, 78s, and 45s in his basement studio. Some of the music dates as far back as 1904. “It’s one of the largest Hawaiian music collections on the planet,” he says. “I figured that for everything the Hawaiian culture had given me, I needed to give something back.” —JD