Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox
Original air date: Tues., Aug. 18, 2009
Hawaiian Music “Diva”
Singer and actress Marlene Sai tells Leslie Wilcox about growing up in the golden age of Hawaiian music, of her early years as a recording artist, her unusual after-hours recording session in a bus barn, and her iconic portrayals of Queen Liliuokalani on stage and on television.
So now, this Kainoa. [PIANO] I have to honestly say that I have never learned the words, because I believe that your recording is classic. No one else should have to ever record it again; and yet, at the same time, we do want the song to live. And that’s why this is such a great night, because we get to do it just one more time, and I get to play for you.
Yes; that’s my act.
When you think of walking through Waikiki at night, what images come to mind? Maybe traffic congestion, street vendors? Well, how about live music? Marlene Sai grew up in the golden age of Hawaiian music, a time when Kalakaua Avenue was full of the songs and voices that beckoned the world to the romance of Hawaii. Marlene entered that magical world at the early age of eighteen, and never looked back.
Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to PBS Hawaii’s Long Story Short. There are only a handful of true divas in Hawaiian music, women who wrap their powerful voices with grace, elegance, and beauty. You can add to the list, Marlene Sai. This product of Kaimuki and the Kamehameha School is quite comfortable in a business setting; but she was destined first to be a singer, an actor, even to inhabit the role of queen. This regal performer started out life with the most undignified of nicknames.
You know, one time, I was kind of on the fringe of watching what you were doing, and uh, and somebody called you Goofy, and I was just offended on your behalf.
Little did I know that all of your friends and family call you Goofy.
Yeah; I’m Goofy.
Why is that? How did that get started?
Oh, gosh. There is a story to that. When I was little, I had very curly, curly hair, and as my parents would say the Hawaiians would always comment, and they would say, Oh. And the older folks would say, Pupuka, referring to me. Instead of saying, Oh, she’s cute, oh, she’s pretty, oh, she’s this, they would say, pupuka. Pupuka means goofy.
Because they didn’t want you to get conceited?
No, because that’s the way Hawaiians are; you don’t compliment in that fashion. So you say the opposite.
You say the opposite.
You say the opposite. So as time went on, and of course, it just kind of stuck, and the personality became goofy oftentimes, you know.
And of course, my father would always say, Oh, gosh, she’s so goofy. Well, it was he who kind of left me with that uh, nickname. But then our entire family, we all have nicknames, you know. I have siblings; I have three brothers, a sister, and myself. I’m—
Okay; what are the—
—right in the middle.
What are the nicknames?
My oldest brother Ronald, his name is Jiggy.
Jiggy. And he works for Kamehameha Schools; he’s a retired fire captain, and he’s on the gate. So you drive in, you say, Hi, Jigs.
My second brother Dennis, he’s retired from the telephone company; and his nickname is Big Head.
Because when he was born, his head was a little bigger than the rest of his body. But then as he grew up, they all kind of blended in together. And, of course, then it’s me. And my sister just below me, her name is Yvonne … Peewee.
Does that mean she was big, or she was small?
She was tiny. The story goes that they could fit her in a shoebox, she was so small. And ‘til today, she still is very tiny. And she still works at Kamehameha Schools. And my kid brother, Gary, retired from the telephone company, he loved Hopalong Cassidy. So his nickname became Hopalong.
[chuckle] And nowadays, the new generation probably wonders …
What is that?
Yeah; oh, yeah.
You know, you lived in Kaimuki.
Nowadays, we would consider that town, but in those days, it was a bedroom community to—
I mean, what was it like living in Kaimuki in those days? Because now, it’s such prime real estate, because it’s so close to town. I don’t know if you considered yourself town folks, though, right?
No; it wasn’t town, but it was a family community. And what I liked about it is, because as I was growing up, I loved the ocean. So I paddled a lot, I used to go surfing.
Did you catch the bus?
[INDISTINCT] or you walk it, you know. But no such thing. And, you know, we had our own little path. Made our own, because 4th Avenue never went all the way through, so you would just kinda make your way through the bushes and everything.
Did all of that. Yeah. Good memories, though.
Off to uh, Kuhio Beach—
Off to Kuhio—
—Beach. Well, you know, the wall?
Okay; we used to swim over there a lot; the wall. I would go to Ala Moana to paddle, because I paddled for Hui Nalu, Hui Kalia, uh, Healani.
And that’s a whole other kind of subculture and culture of Hawaii, the paddling community. So you were very much involved uh, in your life, first in paddling.
And then music. And not one of the others went into showbiz.
No. None of them did. I was the only individual from the group. And I think because it—you know how in life, if you’re there, and things happen, and it’s meant to be, and it just develops in that fashion—and see, we were always surrounded by music as we grew up. Always.
What kind of music?
Hawaiian music and a variety of them, really; a variety of music. But I remember our house on Kaimuki on 4th Avenue; it was our grandfolks’ old house and my mom and dad took it over. And I remember every New Year’s, we would have um, a luau. And we would—Mom and Dad would uh, kalua pig and uh, you know, dig the hole and do the whole thing. And everyone would, you know, make something, and we would have a uh, a feast. And Uncle Andy and his musicians—that’s Uncle Andy Cummings, and musicians, and I remember Uncle Sonny, another aunt’s—my mother’s sister’s husband, got on the piano. And it was music … always. You know, it was continuous.
It was your own live music, you’re—
So we kids were exposed to this all the time. As we grew older, Uncle Andy would be traveling, and we developed into our own music and besides hula, you know, we’d try to sing a song or two. But at some point in time in my growing up years, uh, I remember Uncle Andy and the Cummings family moved to the mainland. But when they moved back for just a spell while they were looking for a place, they stayed with us. And I remember attending Kamehameha Schools, and Uncle Andy would say uh, when he’d see me coming home from school, he’d say, Come, sit down over here. This was before doing homework. This was before doing anything. So I would sit on the steps with him, and he’d have this ukuele and he’d be playing a song, or whatever instrument. If it was a mandolin or—you know, ‘cause he played so many.
—known at that time as a composer?
Yes. And he was I think this was my sophomore year at Kamehameha or even my fresh—I can’t remember. But in my early years. He was going to the Big Island, and he was working with a composer by the name of Jimmy Taka. And Jimmy Taka had the song, Kainoa, but he didn’t know how to write the music, to actually write it in music form. So Uncle Andy was helping him by putting it in meters an—and writing it and structuring it for him. So he was making these trips back and forth. So Uncle wanted me to listen to the song; and I said okay, and I would come home from school, sit me down, and uh, on our steps outside of the house, and he’d play the song. He said, Now, I want you to learn the song. And that’s how I started to learn Kainoa, which was the song that started me in the business.
It’s the signature song—
It’s one of—
—the signature songs. Yeah.
How does it go?
[SINGS] I’m waiting on a warm and sunny seashore, yearning for the one that I adore. My heart is true, I’m thinking of you; forever I will love you, Kainoa.
Now, Andy Cummings is a heck of an uncle to get started—
—in the music business with.
Now, I have to ask you something about him. He was, of course, one of the greatest hapa Haole composers, ever, um, and he wrote Waikiki, which is another song you are known for.
But I heard that he also tended to write songs about causes. I think he might have been against—
The puka in the Pali.
—statehood. Yeah; no puka in the Pali, right?
‘Cause he didn’t want to see the Pali Tunnel built.
Yeah. He did all of that.
Do you remember all that?
Oh, yes; I do. And I remember him singing it, too. You know, I—
How did it—
How did it go? I’ve never heard it sung.
Oh, gosh; I can’t remember it right now. Oh; it was the puka in the Pali. But when we would have these gatherings, you know, his group, which was made up of uh, Gabby Pahinui, Uncle Andy, and Ralph Alapai, and all of these old folks, and they would come to the house, and they would jam, and they would practice. And you don’t know all of this wealth of talent that’s right there with you.
You don’t realize these are—
—very special people. You think—
—everybody’s got uncles like this.
Exactly. Yeah, it was Uncle Gabby, and it was Un—uh, Uncle, Uncle, Uncle all over the place, which is the way we are, right? And then as you grow older, and then you realize all of this talent that’s right there with you, and how privileged you’ve been through your younger years.
I don’t think Uncle Gabby was at a whole lot of backyard—
—luau. I think he was pretty selective.
Yeah, but you know, he was the baby in that group. So he was so kolohe. So when he played, you know, he was playing always from the soul, and the heart, and the seat of his pants. And he would just go into, you know, one song, and the rest of them would just jam. But it was um, it was a nice experience through those young years.
You know, when um, Uncle Andy would call to you on the uh, front porch—
—um, did he pick any of the other kids, or did he sense—
—something in you?
No one else; it was just I. And I don’t know why. And because I would try to sing around the house, and I guess he would, you know, hear. Oh, maybe there’s possibility here, you know, with this child. Or nothing in particular for him to just pick me out of the—
He never said anything to you—
Never did. But all he said was, uh, he would help me with the phrasing. Then, if I wasn’t hitting the note, he’d make sure that I’d get up to it, and we’d go over it, over and over again.
What did he tell you about phrasing?
Like, I’m waiting on a warm and you don’t take a breath until, seashore.
You’re waiting on a warm and sunny seashore.
So we say you see what I’m saying? You see what I’m saying?
It’s the thought.
It’s the complete thought. So you’re waiting on a warm and sunny seashore, yearning for the one that I—so you don’t break up your phrases. Okay; okay. So here you are [chuckle], tenth grade, ninth grade. Okay, Uncle. But this would go on, sometimes for a couple of hours. Then my parents would step in; she has to do her homework, and she has chores to do. And so … things of that sort.
Did you have a—
—disciplinarian family or—
Oh, yeah; Dad and Mom were very much the disciplinarians. Yes. You know, with five kids, I guess you would have to be.
You went through Kamehameha Schools, and then what?
M-hm. You know, with all of the music besides all of the complete education that one gets, but the beautiful music that the students do learn, and that’s all the choral singing and that became a learning process too for me.
Yes, but I think you were doing it at a time when Hawaiian language was not in favor at Kamehameha.
So you got the music, but not necessarily the Hawaiian lyrics?
Or the meanings?
—get the lyrics, but we didn’t have, in those days the Hawaiian language was not taught at Kamehameha. This is my fiftieth reunion this year, so it’s been—’59, so 2009. So this will be fifty years for me. And back then they didn’t speak Hawaiian.
So you would sing Hawaiian songs, and not know what they meant?
Exactly. Or you would have to sit down with my parents or kupuna, and ask, you know, What does this mean and what is this all about?
Because the language wasn’t spoken, because the language wasn’t taught. You know.
Did your parents think you should learn the Hawaiian language? Probably not in that generation, right?
No, because they hardly spoke it at home. Rarely, did they speak it at home. It was hush-hush.
You’ve seen it come a long way.
I’ve seen it come a very long way.
Have you learned to speak Hawaiian since?
No. And I would love to.
You must hear it all around you now.
I do, I hear. And you know your phrases, and you know some things about Hawaiian, but that you can relate to. And yes; that, I know. But to converse; no, I don’t. And I would love to.
But you grew up at a home and at school in an environment that uplifted music as a value in life.
Well, and at that time too—well, when I graduated from Kamehameha, and during that period uh, my later years at Kamehameha as I said, you know, with all of the choral singing the music that came from there, I thought it was just a natural.
And so you apply it to oneself, and as you go to parties, and you’re with friends, and you’re sitting with an ukulele and you’re playing along with someone else, who has an instrument, and you’re carrying on; you’re singing all of these songs, knowing basically what they all mean, but not completely and totally. But you’re also bringing out what you’ve learned at the school.
All that was taught you. Because there’s music appreciation, and so therefore, you’re learning all different facets of it.
So at this point in Marlene’s life, the building blocks of her singing career are falling into place. A family that embraced the concept of kanikapila, the musical craftsmanship of her famed Uncle Andy Cummings, and an appreciation for music nurtured at the Kamehameha Schools; now, Marlene Sai just needed to be discovered.
It was when I came out of Kamehameha, and the plan was to go, because it was full-on business courses that I was taking at Kamehameha, ‘cause that was my intent to go on and further my education in business. And that was the concentration. I was working during that summer uh, in travel. Matter of fact, Uncle Andy had gotten me a job, ‘cause he was with either Aloha or Hawaiian Airlines. So he got me this job in this travel agency, and I would sell tours and do all of these things and earn some money during the summer. Well, my friends got to have jobs in the industry too, and so we would meet every Sunday. A good friend of mine, Vicky Hollinger, and this other gal, Norma, and I would meet at Joe’s in Waikiki. Because we were low on the totem pole, so we had to carry all of the Sunday work, and everyone else was home with their family. But we didn’t care; we were young. So we pulled the Sunday duty. And when we were done, we always planned, Okay, let’s meet at Joe’s, let’s have lunch and everything, and then plan from there what we’re gonna do. This one particular weekend, we’re at Joes, and in comes—and the beach boys would always come over.
Because you were attractive young women?
And because I used to paddle, so I knew a lot of them too. So, you know, they always—you know, Hi, Jessie, hi, you know, Rabbit, hi, hi, hi, and all of this. This one day, they were sitting around and everything, and said, Hey, uh, you want to come down to uh, this place. Our friend has a bar, restaurant bar, club on the other side of the island, Kaneohe. He’s taking care of it for his mom, and he manages the place. You folks want to go down next week? They have nice music, good music. Okay. So the next Sunday, we plan, and we all meet, and we all get in the car and we’re driving down. So one with the ukulele and another with the guitar, and the top is down, and we’re singing on our way down to Kaneohe from Waikiki. And we get to the other side of the island, and we get into this—park in the back, walk into Honey’s.
Honey’s. And he’s giving us the lowdown on who this guy is, he’s a beach boy, and oh, they got great music. Sonny Chillingsworth, Gary Aiko; oh, these guys, they’re good, good. So we get there, and we’re hearing this music. Oh, my gosh. So this guy comes over and he says, I want you to meet Don Ho; I want to meet—this is Marlene. Eh, this wahine can sing; she was singing in the car. You gotta call her up to sing. And this is her friend Vicky. So we sat there for a little bit, and we were having our libations, and having a nice time. He calls me up to sing. I said, Oh, gosh. Do you know Kainoa? If I sang it, do you think you could play it? Sing it to us. Sonny. So I hummed a little tune to him, and he says, Oh, I can get it, sure. So I sang Kainoa, and they asked me to sing another song. I sang another song. And then I went and sat down. Before we left, he came up to me and he said, Can you write your name and your address, and your phone number, just you know, so I can get in touch with you? I said, Okay. He says, What are your plans? I said, Well, I’m planning to go to the university, and I want to get my degree. Well, maybe you can make some money; extra money. Think you might want to sing here? Sing? Really? Oh, my gosh; how much am I going to get paid? And I’m asking all of these questions. He says, I’ll call you. One week went by, two weeks went by; and I didn’t hear from him. And I thought, oh, gosh; put it out of my head completely. And I thought, okay, that guy was just all wapa. One day, I’m driving down Kalakaua, and I’m looking in my rearview mirror, and it looked like a Thunderbird, and the top was down, and I see this car darting in and out. And it’s approaching me. And this guy’s hair is blowing; no shirt on, and he’s coming up closer to me. And I’m getting nervous. So I roll up my window, roll up this window, and I’m going further, and he comes and he’s telling me to pull over. So I pulled over, and I’m looking at this—and I’m thinking, Who in the world is this? ‘Cause he—I didn’t recognize him. He got out of the car, came over to me, and he—I had the window up, and he’s knocking on the—
—window, and he’s saying to me, You remember me? I was playing the organ for you; you remember me? And I’m thinking, What church is he talking about? I gotta remember organ? Where—and then he said, You came to my place with Jessie. When he said Jessie, my play—and I said, Oh—
—is at your window.
And I’m looking at—so I rolled my window down, and he said, I lost your number. He says, I don’t know what happened to the paper, I lost that. He said, I’ve been trying to get your phone number. So he asked, Can you come down to the um, to Honey’s tonight or tomorrow night? He says, I’d like to know if we can get some songs together. If you’re still interested, I’d like for you to sing, and maybe make some extra money. And that’s really how it all started.
Singing at Honey’s. And your boss was Don Ho.
And my boss was Don Ho. Yeah. But things happened so fast. Because that night that I got down to Kaneohe, and there were these men that were sitting there; Bill Murata, George Chun, and I didn’t know who they all were, and they were all recording individuals. Herb Ono and I’m not sure if Jack DeMello was there too. And they were there to hear Sonny Chillingworth.
Because they were gonna make a recording of him?
Right; right. Sonny pulled me over; he told me what was happening. And he said, Don’t worry about it and just be comfortable, and we’re just going to rehearse. We went through rehearsal, and at the end of that time, Sonny said that a couple of the individuals wanted to talk to me about recording. I mean, it all happened that fast. So I said, What do I do? He said to me, Don’t worry; he said, just meet with them, and we’ll get a lawyer or somebody that you trust. And it just escalated from there. And in a matter of a short time, I mean, I was meeting Lucky Luck, and Jimmy Walker, if I remember correctly.
Who’s Jimmy Walker; another radio guy?
Yeah, he was a radio guy. And then J. Aku Head Pupule.
The uh, top paid disc jockey in the world—
—as they said.
Yeah; yeah. But—yeah, and things really started to escalate, and really happen very fast.
And here you were, how old; nineteen?
No; seventeen, turning eighteen. I just got out of high school. And it was just that quick.
Quick, indeed. What began as casual conversations with her Uncle Andy had now turned into the opportunity of a lifetime. In Part 2 of our Long Story Short with Marlene Sai, we’ll hear the story of a highly unlikely recording studio that was the setting for one of her iconic songs. And we’ll hear advice for anyone aspiring to pursue a career in music. Until then, thank you for spending this time with us. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
I enjoyed Donald; and you know, his nickname is Quack.
Yeah; you knew that.
No, I didn’t. [chuckle]
Yeah; he was Quack.
And I’m Goofy.
—Goofy, and he was—
Yeah. Uh, matter of fact, all of the uh, beach boys, everybody, all of his close friends called him Quack. Many of the songs that he recorded for all his beach boy days songs, lot of it you know, all of the different songs that he sang. And he would just sing it over and over, and over at his shows. I loved them, because they reminded me of my paddling days. So it was good fun. [SIGH] And I didn’t mean to interrupt you; I’m sorry.
Not at all.
As we’re talking, all of these different stories are just popping in my head.
Well, just the idea that you call him Donald, and if you don’t call him Donald, you call him Quack.
This is Don Ho we’re talking about. [chuckle]
Yeah; yeah. I miss him. Yeah.