From the Fall 2016 issue of Ukulele | BY EDDIE SCHER | PHOTOS COURTESY OF ROBERT ARMSTRONG
“King” Bennie Nawahi was a true crossover artist on ukulele and other instruments, long before anyone thought of that label.
In summer 2000, I picked up the then-new Yazoo Records CD King Bennie Nawahi: Hawaiian String Virtuoso at Tower Records in Washington, DC. In the days before listening stations or looking things up on smartphones, it was the cover photo of a dapper young man in leis, and the promise of “dazzling” Hawaiian string playing, that hooked me.
The Yazoo collection brings together 23 tracks from Nawahi’s various bands and collaborations from the 1920s and 1930s. That’s not a lot of recorded music to go on, but it’s enough that his name pops up at #30 on Harmonix’s list of top guitarists, in between Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and crackerjack Telecaster blazer Danny Gatton. But give one listen to Nawahi’s lightning-fast ukulele, steel guitar, and mandolin playing and it’s easy to see how this mostly forgotten Hawaiian virtuoso ended up in the company of rock guitar slingers.
A photo on the back cover of the Yazoo CD shows Nawahi kneeling in front of a cowboy string band holding three guitars, with a ukulele in his mouth. Listening through the 23 songs recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, you’ll hear Django Reinhardt–like hot jazz, novelty pop, traditional Hawaiian music, and Hawaiian blues. But there are also three ukulele songs that will grab your attention and make you understand why so many ukulele players celebrate Nawahi.
The first, “Ukulele Benny,” opens with Nawahi playing a fast ukulele chord-melody solo. After the band comes in, Nawahi takes another hot solo before switching to lap-steel guitar. “My Girl from the South Sea Isles” opens with another beautiful ukulele feature, before the band joins in and Nawahi switches once again to steel guitar. He also takes a dazzling single-note ukulele solo on the jazz standard “Dinah,” something nearly unheard of during this era. His ukulele playing on all three is simply smoking. Nawahi described his own playing as “hot,” as compared to the “sweet” sound of his childhood friend Sol Hoopii. It’s jazzier, too, which explains why he fits in so well with jazz players, including clarinetist Benny Goodman, swing guitarist Harry Volpe, and pianist Walter “Fats” Pichon, who all make appearances on Hawaiian String Virtuoso.
Born Benjamin Keakahiawa Nawahi on July 3, 1899 in Honolulu, Bennie picked up the ukulele early and began his music career playing for pennies in the parks of Honolulu with his childhood friend and, later, rival for crowned king of the steel guitar, Sol Hoopii. Most of what we know about Nawahi comes from an interview of Nawahi by musician and artist Robert Armstrong.
In 1919, Nawahi graduated from playing in parks to passenger ships, making the voyage between Honolulu and San Francisco as part of his brother Joe’s band, the Hawaiian Novelty Five. His timing couldn’t have been better. In 1915, the Hawaiian Pavilion at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco exposed millions of visitors to hula and string music by the Royal Hawaiian Quartet. It helped launch a Hawaiian music craze that began in that hall and lasted for decades, and King Bennie Nawahi was one of its biggest stars. Soon after his arrival, Bennie landed a gig as a solo act singing and playing ukulele on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. His vaudeville agent first crowned Nawahi the “King of the Ukulele,” though he also seems to have earned the title winning ukulele contests while barnstorming across the US in the 1920s and Depression-stuck 1930s.
He spent those decades recording on the biggest US record labels with various different bands. In his brief appearance in the 1983 documentary on musician Roy Smeck, Wizard of the Strings, Nawahi explains how Hawaiian guitar and ukulele playing influenced “cowboy” music. If you ever wondered how steel guitar and slide ended up in country and bluegrass music, look no further than the pre-War Hawaiian music craze. While he was a major star in that era, what Nawahi humbly leaves out is his personal role—one of his early collaborators was a young guitarist named Leonard Slye, who later became the singing cowboy Roy Rogers.
Tragedy struck Nawahi when he suddenly, and permanently, went blind in 1935. The cause was never found, but blindness didn’t seem to slow Nawahi down. He continued to tour, rejoining his brother in an LA–based band and performing for another four decades. In 1952 he became only the seventh swimmer to cross the 22-mile channel from San Pedro, California, to Catalina Island, swimming for 22 hours following a bell rung by his coach in a lead boat. A remarkable feat for anyone, and one that remained unmatched for a blind swimmer until 2006.
He retired from touring in the 1970s and passed away in Long Beach, California, on January 29, 1985.
Somewhere out there is a road-worn soprano ukulele with Nawahi’s teeth marks on the headstock. Wherever it is, I hope someone occasionally strums a few chords on that storied instrument.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Ukulele magazine.