Jimmy Borges

Neva Rego


Original air date: Tues., Apr. 1, 2008


Hawai‘i’s Voice Coach to the Stars


Neva Rego is known by many as Hawai‘i’s Voice Coach to the Stars, the wind beneath their wings, with a list of vocal students that includes Robert Cazimero, Tony Conjugacion, Jimmy Borges, Jasmine Trias and Jordan Segundo, and a waiting list with more than a hundred names.


Leslie Wilcox sits down with Neva to discuss how she followed her musical dreams, and how she shares her training and experience with her vocal students.


Neva Rego Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox with PBS Hawai‘i. We’re about to sit down with Neva Rego. Never heard of her? Neva is known by many as a Voice Coach to the Stars, the wind beneath their wings, with  a list of vocal students that includes Robert Cazimero, Tony Conjugacion, Jimmy Borges, Jasmine Trias and Jordan Segundo, and a waiting list with more than a hundred names. Neva Rego—next.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox – produced with Sony technology – is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in HD. High definition… it’s in Sony’s DNA.


Neva Rego is an extraordinary woman because she did an extraordinary thing. She followed her dream. Her wish was to be trained in a classical, Italian style of singing, the kind she’d been listening to on records since she was a child. So, at the tender age of 18, not long after World War II, she hopped on a freighter and shipped off to Italy to seek her destiny. She didn’t speak Italian and she didn’t even know the name of the technique she was seeking. It turned out to be bel canto.


It’s very hard to explain. It’s easy to listen to. What I think about it is, it’s so legato, meaning tied together; it’s all beautiful singing without pushing, without smashing those poor little notes. You know, it’s just gorgeous, beautiful singing; very legato. And free. I mean, if you’re singing bel canto, you’re not killing yourself when you hit a high note. It just—Pavarotti is an example of bel canto.


You know, my dad was a radio DJ and when I wanted to work in television I said, Dad, how do I use my voice? And he said, Do it the bel canto way. And of course, I had no idea what that meant. And he said, Take a candle and light it and put it in front of your mouth and speak, but make sure that you don’t blow that candle out.




No clue what he meant. And of course, when he spoke in front of it, he knew how to use his voice. But how does the candle relate to bel canto?


It doesn’t blow out. I’ve tried it so many times. It’s because your air is utilized with your voice, and no [BLOWS] comes out. No spurts of air or anything. It’s amazing.


And so that should help you as a performer to have a career over time, that you don’t destroy your vocal cords.


Oh, yeah. You don’t hurt yourself. And then it’s easier. Singing wise, you’re using your diaphragm and not your throat muscles to hold it up, you know, like some singers do.


So tell me a little about what life was like for you growing up. You were in Ka‘imuki.


Right; on 18th Avenue. And I’m still there. And I must say, we had a beautiful childhood, my brothers and myself. And at that time, there weren’t that many houses around us. You know, we had a lot of empty lots and little foresty-looking places that we built our clubhouse and all the kids would gather after school there. And I must say, it was a lovely time.


And you went to what school?


I went to Sacred Hearts Academy. And loved it. The nuns were wonderful, and I think they were a bit instrumental in my learning languages. Because all the nuns at that time were French, and I remember studying Latin and the teacher taught to us in French. How do you like that? And we had a lovely sister from Germany, Sister Polaneya, and she was a fabulous musician.


Now the girls at Sacred Hearts Academy are primed to go to college, and have professional careers. What was the goal in those days?


In those days, I do believe that a lot of the girls strived to be nurses or teachers. There weren’t that many kooky ones, like I was. [chuckle]


And how were you kooky?


Well, I wanted to something in music. I wanted singing; I loved it. And you know, here’s this little kid from Kaimuki, wanting singing. And you know, I don’t know why, but I felt it. As I recall, when I was seven years old, I heard this beautiful aria on the radio with this Italian singer. And I remember telling my mother that was the most beautiful thing I ever heard in my whole life. All of seven years, yes? And Mother said, You really loved it? I said, Oh, I love it, I just love it. Well, that did it. Mother went down to House of Music, at that time in Waikiki, and she kept buying all these records of Italian singers. And well, that whetted my appetite for opera.


What were the other kids on the block listening to? What kind of music were they listening to?


They were mostly in Hawaiian. And I loved Hawaiian; but there was something about opera that was for me, I felt. You know. And if nobody else liked it, that’s okay; but I did.


What appealed to you about it?


Oh, I loved the language, first of all. The Italian language is so beautiful to sing. You never have a bad sounding word in it.   You know, everything is so fluid and beautiful. And the drama, the music; I mean, it’s just glorious. Opera is complete, I feel. You have acting, singing, dancing, tragedies, happiness; everything all rolled up in one. You know? And that appealed to me.


So Italian opera was speaking to you from the time you were seven years old.




And you’re singing at Sacred Hearts Academy.




And looking at graduation.


Yes. And then I said, I think I want to go and study more music. I was looking all over for it; I had seven teachers here, and they were wonderful; all seven of them. But it was not what I was looking for. I kept hearing this other thing in my head, and even though all my relatives told my mother that they were sorry for her, because they felt that she had only one daughter, and what a shame she was crazy.




So I thought, never mind, they can’t hear what I’m hearing. So I convinced my mother and father that I had to go to Italy. So my mother said, Oh, my god. You don’t know Italian; what are you gonna do? But you know, when you’re 18 you think you have the world in your hand; you can do anything. So I said, I’ll learn it; no problems. So [chuckle] off I go on a on a freighter to Italy.


You know, some people follow their dreams to find fortune or fame or truth. Neva Rego heard a beautiful sound and followed it all the way to Milan, Italy simply to seek its beauty. Today, with air travel and cell phones and the internet, traveling halfway around the world, alone at that age, may not seem so remarkable. But to do it, at that time, seems so foreign.


Who did you go see? I mean, who did you know in Italy?


Well, before I left Honolulu, I was singing at the Hawaiian Village. And Rossano Brazzi, this Italian actor, he heard me singing, and he said, You know, senorina, you should be singing opera. And I said, Oh, I’m going to. And he said, Yes? I said, I’m going to Italy. And he said, Oh, wonderful. He said, I write to La Scala for you. And I thought, Well, that’s very kind, you know. But when I got to La Scala, I realized that [chuckle] it was so silly, because it was like shooting mosquitoes with a cannon; it was that ridiculous. I wasn’t ready for anything, except maybe to clean it.




You know. And but the maestro was very nice, Vittorio di Sabato. He was very nice, and he understood my plight. And he told me, Oh, senorina, I will get you a teacher and this and that. So I got set up with this teacher.


How did you pay for this? Were your parents funding this uh, adventure?


Not really. I mean, they gave me a little in the beginning, ‘cause I didn’t come from a wealthy family. We were medium, you know. And so I had saved money when I was at the Hawaiian Village. And then just before I left, I was fortunate to get an Atherton scholarship, Atherton Foundation scholarship.


M-hm. They’re still giving –


–thanks to Bob Midkiff.


Still in business today, helping folks.


Still in business. So that really helped me. And I thought, Maybe I’ll stay a year and see how I do, you know. I think I’ll understand well after a year. Oh; after a year, I didn’t know beans yet. So I knew I had to stay on. And there was no more scholarships; my mother and father helped me a bit, without a doubt. But then I started to get jobs; little jobs. I’m not ashamed to say that I cleaned a few houses in the beginning, because I didn’t know the language. And then I started to teach English, which I think was horrible, because I didn’t really understand the grammar. [chuckle] And poor Italians would study with me, but they were mostly interested in speaking.




You know, conversation. And then later on, I got a job with the designer Pucci. And that started me working in haute couture. And I went on from him to Valentino and I was with him for seven years. And all the while, studying.


Now, were you dreaming of becoming a huge Italian opera star?


You know, I have to say no, I was not. Because I was so interested in this bel canto technique, that that’s what I kept looking for. I was trying to find it. And after two and a half years with this maestro from La Scala, I wasn’t finding it. And I was so embarrassed to tell my family that I didn’t find it yet, in Italy, two and a half years. So I didn’t tell them.


Did you think maybe you were chasing a phantom, that it really didn’t exist, it was something you heard, but you really couldn’t learn?


I knew it existed; I just couldn’t find it. You know, and I didn’t know where to go. And so I quit La Scala, the maestro from La Scala, and and then I must say, I passed about three months of sheer depression. [chuckle] I just said one fine day to the dear Lord, If you really want me to sing, you better show me the way, because I’ve exhausted everything. And so now, I leave it in your lap. If you want me to find this elusive little thing, you will let me find it. And so I stopped worrying. But that night, I had to get out of my little apartment, because I was getting stir crazy, you know. And so I went to La Scala to hear a concert. And I heard this girl singing. She was studying with me before at Scala, but she had left—she was gone about a year. And she was singing divinely; just what I was looking for. So I thought, How could that be; she must have found someone. So I was sitting in the opera house in the very top, which we call the chicken coops, yes?




And I rushed down, but somehow I was too late; and I missed her. So I was so upset and depressed, because I didn’t know how to get a hold of her. And I remember walking home; I couldn’t even take the tram, because I was crying. And so the next morning, I got up, still depressed. I said, I’ve gotta get out of here. So I went—in Milano, they have this big galleria in the middle of town, glassed in, and you have a coffee, you know. And it’s a nice diversion; people are walking to and from. And I was sitting down and all of a sudden, here comes this girl that sang the night before, walking down. Wow; I ran after her, and I said, Ciao; I said, I heard you sing last night; it was just beautiful. And she said, Oh, Neva; did I find a teacher. I said, I can hear it, I can hear it. And she said—I told her that I left that maestro, and she said, I wondered when you were gonna get smart. You know. I said, Yeah, but I didn’t know enough to know I didn’t know. You know? And so she said, What are you doing now? I said, Absolutely nothing. She said, Well, I’m going to a lesson; come with me. So I followed her to the lesson one-hour lesson, and I sat in a little corner, and I listened to lesson, and I cried for one hour. [chuckle] Cried. Because it was like there was so much emotion, because it was like something I was looking for, for so long and I found it. And so afterwards, the senora came over to me and she said, Senorina Neva, she says, are all Hawaiians so emotional? And I said, No, Senora, I said, you know, it’s just because I was looking for you since—I was trying to find you since I was seven years old. And she looked at me, and she started to cry. And we hugged, and it was love from then on; for 22 years, I was with her. Yeah.


What’s her name?


Her name is—was Magda Piccarolo. She was a lyrica leggiero soprano, and she sang all over. She sang at Scala and in America at the Met.


So you continued to have lessons with her for twenty-two years?


Yeah; twenty-two.


And you became a singer in Italian opera houses.


Italian opera. I first started off in concerts, because that’s what everybody does to get going; get your feet wet sort of thing. You know, and then you get a little role here and a little role there, and it just starts getting better and better.


What was your favorite role?


There’s so many. Gosh. Lucia is beautiful; Rigoletto is beautiful. I love La Sonnambula, but we never do it, because it’s very classical, it’s very bel canto, and maybe boring. But the singing is beautiful. And those are ones I love.


To sing in opera houses in Italy. To live and achieve a dream. Can you imagine? Neva Rego did what she loved and loved what she did. And that’s what I love about this story!


You know, I love the language. And I love the people; they’re so wonderful. You know. When I first went to Italy, it was not too long after the war, so people were still quite poor. And we didn’t have a refrigerator in the house. And there was no washing machine either. [chuckle] You’re looking at it. And you know, it’s difficult to wash sheets in the bathtub.


You did that for years?


I did all of that.




Yeah, I really learned well. You know. And then I realized, silly Americans, when they complain; how beautiful our life is in America. And I think anybody who speaks against America should go abroad a while. Then you will how wonderful our country really is. You know. I know we are having problems now, but I mean, you know, the life is beautiful in America.


You stayed how many years; 26 years in all?


Twenty-six years. Really. It’s a lifetime, isn’t it?


Had you intended to come back? I mean, were you going to come back?


I think I might not have. The the thing that pushed me back was, in the late 70s, the man responsible for opera in Italy—he’s the one that subsidizes—that part of the government subsidizes opera. It was a Communist who got in. And when he got in, he decided no foreigners were gonna sing.


How high had you risen in the hierarchy of opera singers? Were you a big deal?


Well, I don’t think so. It was hard to get to be a big deal, because it was so political.




You had to do so many things; you had to make sure an empresario liked you. [chuckle] And I didn’t wish to go further than that. So I just struggled along and sang and it worked well. But say that I got to the jet stream top; no.


And was that okay with you?


That was okay. Because I didn’t start off to be a big opera star. I started off looking for this technique. [chuckle]


And you found it—


I found it.


–and then you practiced it, and –


And now, I’m teaching it.


Neva Rego is a professional voice coach, teaching her beloved bel canto in her longtime family home in Ka‘imuki.


I never intended to teach. Never. But when I arrived home, after Italy, I thought, What am I gonna do? So I decided I was gonna go to Seattle. Because Seattle had good opera. And I was still young enough. So, then my father got ill.




And had a stroke. And so that determined what I should do; I should stay home and take care of him. Because my brother was taking care of him all those other years, ‘cause Mother died so young. And so I stayed home, and this man came over and did an article on me in the paper. And the phone started ringing. And that’s the wonderful part of the story; it hasn’t stopped.


You have a waiting list this long. How many people are on your waiting list to take lessons?


Well, it used to be 200; right now, I think it’s down to about 100, 120. Which is nice; it’s security.


So the world started beating a path to your door; people wanted voice lessons from you.


Right. And one of the ones that came was Robert Cazimero.


How old was he then? Was he a young singer, just starting out?


This was in the 80s, early 80s.


In the 80s.


They were just from Manoa—


Sunday Manoa.


Sunday Manoa; and Robert came to me and said, You know, I’m having to lower my keys, and I don’t like that. He said, So I thought maybe if I studied a while, you’d help me. So 15 years later [chuckle]–


Now, why fifteen years?


Well, because he didn’t want to leave. He kept saying, No, I need it. I said, Robert, you don’t need lessons anymore; you know it so well. But we got on so well; he’s wonderful.


And this is not something that’s a quick fix, right?




A student has to commit himself or herself.


Oh, yeah. With poppy music, I would say two years, two years and a half. Classical, forget it; six and seven. And you can’t learn it overnight; it’s not like you learn to play piano overnight. You know, you just need time. And anybody can learn to sing, if they wish it.


You are such a popular voice teacher. What kind of criteria do you have in accepting a student?


Just that they really want to learn, and that there’s a voice there.


So tell me some of the people you’ve trained over the years.


Well, as I said, Robert Cazimero. And I had Shari Lynn at that time too. She’s been great. And Jimmy Borges, and Tony Conjugacion. At one time, on Broadway, I had 17 people. Really. That was great for me, but it was kind of sad, because I wanted one at the Met.


[chuckle] Don’t ask for much.


And everybody was on Broadway. I said, Oh, my lord; what am I doing? You know. We even helped Richard Chamberlain study, Betty and I, and gosh; there’s so many.


Well, and just recently, American Idol came along and—




Didn’t I hear your name with Jordan Segundo and—




–Jasmine Trias? After the competition, though; not before.


After. And Anita Hall, Les Ceballos is one of mine too; a dear one. Jasmine, Danny Couch, and John Koko from Makaha Sons. You know. So there’s a long list, and they all are like children, like my kids that I never had.


How interesting that a lot of these people distinguish themselves in singing before they had lessons from you, but they were motivated to learn—


More. And you take Jordan, for example. He’s singing so well now. I’m so proud of him. And that he’s such a nice boy. And I really want him to get ahead. And he’s learned very well. He never misses lessons, he’s so enthusiastic. See, that’s—


Now, he didn’t win American Idol, obviously. Do you think he would have gotten farther if he’d had the lessons earlier?


Without a doubt.


How would his voice have changed?


Well, he would have—now, he has a complete range. He sings down the bottom, he goes all the way to a B-flat, and a high C. He never had those notes before.


How about Robert, because he had wonderful training at Kamehameha, I would think.


Yes. Robert can go to a B-flat like that too. You see, what you do with the technique is, you tie the voice together. Especially people like Jordan and Robert; you might sing with your chest voice here; but then the minute you get near what we call the break, the passagio, you have to have a different placement for those high notes. So you have to blend in the bottom to the top, and you learn to go over that transition very smoothly with study. And they do it; beautiful. Listen; listen to Robert. After all these years, he still sounds glorious.


And after all this time, it’s still bel canto for you.


Yeah, it’s still—


You’ve never heard another type of vocal technique that works as well for you?


No; I’m in love with bel canto.


And so your mother didn’t raise a crazy daughter after all?


No, I don’t think so. I hope not. I don’t know if others feel that way, but I’m in love with what I’m doing. I love it.


Mahalo to Neva Rego for sharing her stories with us today. And thank you for joining me for them. That’s all the time we have for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ciao bella and aloha hui hou kakou!


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is produced in HD by PBS Hawai‘i with Sony technology. High definition. It’s in Sony’s DNA.


My name is not really Neva; it’s Aggreneva. And everybody gets all twisted ‘cause they don’t know who she is. But my mother named me after a Russian opera singer, and her name was Agraneva Schlovanskaya. I’m kinda happy Mother stopped after Aggreneva. Mother never told me that I had this name. I knew it was a kooky name; at school, they called me Aggrevacious. You know how school kids are. Anyway, all of a sudden, I said to Mother that I was in love with music and I wanted to do music. So Mother said, Well, you know, I think I’ll tell you about your name. And she told me about Aggreneva Schlovanska, who had come here years ago with some Russian group. And they sang at Hawai‘i Theatre. Isn’t that interesting?


And your mother obviously had a love for opera.


Yeah. But I was the one that was gonna make it my life.


Jimmy Borges:
Faced It All

A video clip from Jimmy Borges: Faced It All. Jimmy performs Night and Day


In tribute to the late Jimmy Borges, PBS Hawai‘i presents this encore special performance, taped in December, 2015. “Faced It All” is a phrase from the classic song “My Way” that Borges was often asked to sing.


The performance, to an audience of 50 handpicked friends and family, also featured Bruce Hamada (upright bass), Mike Lewis (horn), Dan Del Negro (piano) and Noel Okimoto (drums).

Borges made it clear that this was a time of celebration, not mourning. Between songs, he shared funny anecdotes and heartfelt insights.


“I’m living the life I have chosen to live,” Borges said. “Tonight is not about ‘poor Jimmy.’ Tonight is about sharing my music with all of you. Tonight we are telling someone out there that we care enough to invest in their future.”


“I’m living the life I have chosen to live,” Borges said. “Tonight is not about ‘poor Jimmy.’ Tonight is about sharing my music with all of you. Tonight we are telling someone out there that we care enough to invest in their future.”


Borges was referring to future recipients of a University of Hawai‘i vocal music scholarship that his friends established in his name. Borges hoped it would encourage Hawai‘i teens to pursue their dreams, just as he had done during his 60-year music career. “There’s no such thing as a stop sign,” Borges said. “Just speed bumps.”



To see more on Jimmy Borges, you can also view his guest appearance on Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox:

Jimmy Borges: The First Verse

Jimmy Borges: The Ballad Continues


PBS Hawaii devotes local programming to mortality

Press Release Header


Jimmy Borges, Kirk Matthews among those scheduled to participate in discussion


HONOLULU, HI – PBS Hawai‘i is dedicating the next two Thursday nights of its local programming to a topic that so many of us are afraid to face – our own mortality.


Entertainer Jimmy Borges, nightlife promoter Daniel Gray, former news anchor Kirk Matthews, and blogger Christa Wittmier are scheduled to appear on Insights on PBS Hawai‘i, Jan. 28 at 8:00 pm.


Insights on PBS Hawaii: Facing Life-Threatening Illnesses


Borges, Gray and Matthews are battling advanced stages of cancer. Wittmier says she is a stage-four cancer survivor.


On Feb. 4 at 8:00 pm, Insights is scheduled to host a follow-up discussion with the caregivers of each of the above guests.


On Feb. 4 at 9:00 pm, the documentary Living Your Dying will be showcased on PBS Hawai‘i Presents. The 2003 film follows the late Rev. Mitsuo Aoki, as he guides four individuals who are facing the end of their lives.


For over 40 years, Rev. Aoki attempted to take the terror out of dying, and showed others how to experience death as not just the end of life, but as a vital part of life, as well.


Both episodes of Insights on PBS Hawai‘i will be live streamed and posted online after the broadcast at pbshawaii.org/insights


After the Feb. 4 broadcast, Living Your Dying will be available to watch online for a limited time at pbshawaii.org


Download this Press Release


For questions regarding this press release
Contact: Liberty Peralta
Email: lperalta@pbshawaii.org
Phone: 808.973.1383


PBS Hawai‘i is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and Hawai‘i’s sole member of the trusted Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). We advance learning and discovery through storytelling that profoundly touches people’s lives. We bring the world to Hawai‘i and Hawai‘i to the world. pbshawaii.org | facebook.com/pbshawaii | @pbshawaii


Jimmy Borges: ‘I’m living my dying’

Press Release Header


‘Jimmy Borges: Faced It All’ premieres Jan. 21 at 8:00 PM on PBS Hawaii


Actor Jim Nabors, 85, has a moment with Jimmy during a pre-concert audio check.HONOLULU, HI – Entertainer Jimmy Borges, who is battling stage four lung cancer, performs on a new PBS Hawaii special, Jimmy Borges: Faced It All, premiering Thursday, January 21 at 8:00 PM.


Right: Jimmy Borges shares a moment with longtime friend, actor Jim Nabors, during a rehearsal prior to taping Faced It All.


“Faced It All” is a phrase from the classic song “My Way” that Borges is often asked to sing. The performance, taped last month, also featured Bruce Hamada (upright bass), Mike Lewis (horn), Dan Del Negro (piano) and Noel Okimoto (drums).


Borges introduced his performance by telling his audience of 50 handpicked friends and family that he is dying. “My cancer is back, and this time, it doesn’t look like it’s planning to go away,” Borges said.


But Borges made it clear – this was a time of celebration, not mourning. Between songs, Borges shared funny anecdotes and heartfelt insights.


“I’m living the life I have chosen to live,” Borges said. “Tonight is not about ‘poor Jimmy.’ Tonight is about sharing my music with all of you. Tonight we are telling someone out there that we care enough to invest in their future.”


Borges was referring to future recipients of a University of Hawaii vocal music scholarship that his friends have established in his name. Borges said he hopes it encourages Hawaii teens to pursue their dreams, just as he has done during his 60-year music career. “There’s no such thing as a stop sign,” Borges said. “Just speed bumps.”


Download this Press Release


For questions regarding this press release
Contact: Liberty Peralta
Email: lperalta@pbshawaii.org
Phone: 808.973.1383


PBS Hawaii is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and Hawaii’s sole member of the trusted Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). We advance learning and discovery through storytelling that profoundly touches people’s lives. We bring the world to Hawaii and Hawaii to the world. PBSHawaii.org | facebook.com/pbshawaii | @pbshawaii


Jimmy Borges: Faced It All
It’s an intimate, one-of-a-kind concert.


Leslie Wilcox, President and CEO of PBS HawaiiJimmy Borges, one of Hawaii’s most beloved performers, tells a small studio audience of hand-picked friends that he’s “in the process of learning how to die.”


I invite you to tune in and watch this concert and the man who shines through the music, in the show’s premiere on Thursday, January 21, at 8:00 pm on PBS Hawaii. The title, Jimmy Borges: Faced It All, comes from a phrase in the song “My Way.”


Jimmy Borges


Jimmy speaks to his friends matter-of-factly, from the heart: “My cancer is back. And this time, it’s not planning to leave. But tonight, or any night, is not about ‘poor Jimmy.’ Tonight is about me having a wonderful life, sharing my music. And tonight is about someone out there whose life is going to be affected by what we’re doing here tonight.”


By “someone out there,” Jimmy has in mind a Hawaii high school graduate with financial needs who will benefit from the brand-new Jimmy Borges Vocal Music Scholarship fund at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His friends in the audience established this perpetual fund in his honor.


Actor Jim Nabors, 85, has a moment with Jimmy during a pre-concert audio check.

Leading whirlwind fundraising were cancer survivor and retired Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI) CEO Robert Clarke and Matson Chairman and former First Hawaiian Bank CEO and Chairman Walter A. Dods. Jr. They raised $300,000 in less than a month.


Right: Actor Jim Nabors, 85, has a moment with Jimmy during a pre-concert audio check.


Taped last December 3, in PBS Hawaii’s studio, the concert marked Jimmy’s first public disclosure of the recurrence of liver cancer which has spread to his lungs. We at PBS Hawaii are honored to present this gift of a program from a former PBS Hawaii Board member and favorite son of Hawaii, who assures us, “I’m here living the life I chose to live. I’ve got the best musicians, and each song we’re doing tonight is a song seen through the prism of my life. So let’s cook.”


Thursday, January 21, 8:00 pm


Friends of Jimmy Borges establish UH music scholarship in his name

Press Release Header


HONOLULU, HI – Friends of local jazz vocalist Jimmy Borges have raised more than $300,000 for a vocal music scholarship fund bearing his name at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The needs-based scholarship will benefit Hawaii high school graduates.


Borges, 80, is battling cancer.


Friends of Jimmy Borges establish UH music scholarship in his name


Borges is thrilled with this legacy fund and wants the vocal music scholarship to encourage Hawaii teens to pursue their dreams, just as he has done during his successful 60-year music career. “There’s no such thing as a stop sign,” Borges said. “Just speed bumps.”


A team of the entertainer’s friends raised the scholarship money in less than a month:


• Robert Clarke, a cancer survivor and retired chief of Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI)
• Walter A. Dods Jr., Matson Chairman and retired First Hawaiian Bank CEO and Chairman
• Leslie Wilcox, PBS Hawaii President and CEO


Contributions are still being accepted by Malia Peters at the UH Foundation: malia.peters@uhfoundation.org


About 50 scholarship donors were treated to a special concert by Borges last week at PBS Hawaii. The singer candidly explained his situation: a recurrence of cancer has migrated from his liver to his lungs. He does not expect to survive.


The footage will be used in an upcoming TV presentation, Jimmy Borges: Faced It All, scheduled to premiere at 8:00 pm on Thursday, January 21 on PBS Hawaii.


Download this Press Release


Contact: Liberty Peralta
Email: lperalta@pbshawaii.org
Phone: 808.973.1383


PBS Hawaii is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and Hawaii’s sole member of the trusted Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). We advance learning and discovery through storytelling that profoundly touches people’s lives. We bring the world to Hawaii and Hawaii to the world. PBSHawaii.org | facebook.com/pbshawaii | @pbshawaii


Jimmy Borges: The First Verse


Original air date: Tues., Feb. 28, 2012, 7:30 pm


Hawaii’s legendary jazz vocalist Jimmy Borges hears the story in every song and his own story is nothing short of breathtaking. The PBS Hawaii board member is back on the scene and on screen. Leslie Wilcox sits down with Jimmy in a special two-part episode of LONG STORY SHORT.


In “The First Verse,” Jimmy takes us along on his journey from Kalihi to the Bay Area, from student athlete to world-class jazz singer.


View the second-half of this interview, Jimmy Borges: The Ballad Continues


Jimmy Borges: The First Verse Audio


Download the Transcript




I always believed that my journey was gonna be successful. I wasn’t afraid to fall down and get up, wipe myself off, and start all over again. There’s a song like that. But I just felt that that was the norm. You know, if you don’t succeed at something right way, and you fall down, you get up. And if you keep doing that your whole life, you will be successful.


His body of work has seen enough success to encompass several lifetimes. He’s an actor, singer, goodwill ambassador, and a gentleman. Jimmy Borges.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program

produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. When a song is recognized as being a standard, it’s a song that’s at the top of its game, one that maintains its popularity through generations, and is relevant whether it’s being interpreted by Frank Sinatra or Lady Gaga. Our spotlight tonight shines on an artist who is a standard by any definition of the word. His career has spanned generations, his voice is classic yet unique, and his grace and professionalism are a model for anyone in any career. He is Jimmy Borges.




So you started off life in Kalihi, but you didn’t stay there.


No, I didn’t. To me, Kalihi was … the world, you know. Because I played football on the streets, I climbed the mango tree in my backyard, and I would sit up there and eat the mangoes all day, and eat the waiwi’s, and the sour sap, and the guavas.


What street did you live on in Kalihi?


Self Lane. It was right across from the Kalihi Fire Station. And I was a premature baby, so Mrs. Self, you know, they named the street after her father, Captain Self, and she was my mother’s midwife. So she delivered me. I was a preemie.


She delivered you at home?


At home. I was like about seven and a half to eight months. Not even eight months. And I remember my mother telling me that my first bed was a cigar box. So she said I would fit in her hand, the palm of her hand. And I don’t think they had incubators at that time. But I got very lucky; I survived, you know.


And you have the lungs.


And I have the lungs. The singing lungs. [CHUCKLE]


Because preemies don’t have developed lungs, right?


Exactly; yeah. Everything worked out fine. I had no idea, but my mother was very adamant that Jimmy’s gonna live, Jimmy III was gonna live.


What were your parents like?


My mother was a typical Chinese-Hawaiian lady that stayed at home, and chatted with the neighbors. And my father was kinda like … a rake. He was very handsome, and had a little thin mustache, and always drinking with the guys. You know, drinking the Primo beer, and hanging with the guys. He was sort of a guy type guy. And my mother was more a homemaker. So that was my basic background. Not too, you know, unique. But music was always in my life. My mother brought music, my father played the piano and the ukulele by ear. Everything was by ear. And so, I always had music around me. I always liked it. I didn’t realize that I would move into that direction.


What kind of music was in your life? What did your father play?


My dad, strangely enough, was the Portuguese side of the family. He loved the Hawaiian things. He loved to sing the Hawaiian things and play it on the piano.


And your mom?


And my mother was a big band aficionado. And we got those records. We had those what they called Vee records from the military guys during World War II. I was six and a half when the war started, so I was already pretty aware of what’s going on. But when all the GIs were here, my mother and her two aunties, young aunties, opened up a hotdog stand on King Street and Self Lane. And now, my mother was only seventeen when I was born. So at the age of about eight, my mother was only like about twenty-five. So she’s pretty hot.




And she looked—really. And then my aunties looked pretty good. And so, they were selling these hotdogs. Well, the GIs were coming by in their trucks, and … they could care less about the hotdogs, they wanted to see these three hot little, you know, local girls that were selling it. They would bring them gifts, and the gifts would be like what they called Vee records. And those were those big, big records that were made for the GIs. And on them were the big bands like Tony Dorsey, and Jimmy Dorsey, and Frank Sinatra, and all that. My mother would play it. And I got really involved listening to those big band sounds. That was my first inkling at that time that I realized that I liked that kind of music. The classic music of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and all that. I didn’t know these people’s names, I just knew that music took more of a hold on me than the Hawaiian music. I liked the Hawaiian music, but I loved the big band music.


So we can thank the GI’s of World War II for introducing Jimmy Borges to big band music. But isn’t it intriguing to imagine Jimmy Borges singing Hawaiian music, or for that matter, playing professional football?


So you’re listening to records at home, but you’re also out on the streets playing ball.


Oh, yeah.


And you love sports.


Sports was my whole life. We would play tackle in the street, and that was part of—yeah.


Road rash.


Yeah. We got road rash. But that was part of the whole thing, the guys. You know, this was part of it. Eh, what?




You can play tackle, yeah? And so me and Gilbert, and I remember all the guys’ names on Self Lane. You know, they were my buddies. In fact, a few of them still contact me now through email. But, sports was my whole life. All I cared about was football. Because we really didn’t have baseball back in that time. Baseball wasn’t a real—


And soccer, no way.


—big thing in Hawaii. And no soccer. And basketball was, you know. They were secondary or tertiary sports. Football was the thing, because that was a real manly sport.


And you played tackle, you said?


No, I was a running back. But we played tackle football on the streets.


So you were fast.


I was fast. And I played high school ball at a hundred and sixty pounds. But the thing that got me by, and that I got my accolades from, was my speed and my moves. And that all came from my hero. One of my heroes was Herman Wedemeyer. He went to St. Louis, I went to St. Louis. And he was a great, great football player. And I tried to emulate his moves.


Was he a little older than you?


Twelve years.


Oh, twelve years.


Yeah, ‘cause he was in the twelfth grade when I was in the first grade. But he was like one of my, wow, my heroes. I would go to every football game that St. Louis played. And I would watch him, and watch the way he ran, and the way he juked, and all this, and I learned from that. And when I played high school ball on the mainland, I was playing against some pretty big guys, and fast guys. But I learned. I was fast, and that was the secret to my success, and I got a football scholarship to go to college and all that. I wanted to continue on in sports, and then I realized that sports, it was a dead end and, you know, it wasn’t that satisfying. I wanted to be … growing up, I wanted to be someone. I wanted to be somebody.


Football’s loss was music’s gain. Jimmy’s drive to be somebody gave him a focus that would determine the rest of his life. For Jimmy Borges, it wasn’t about fame or celebrity; it was about living a worthwhile life.




I wanted my existence to be important. I wanted to be important in some way or another, as long as I did something that was worthwhile in life. I wanted to do something worthwhile, not just to be sand on the beach. And I always had that drive. It wasn’t an ego thing. It was a thing that … it was necessary. I always believed, from the time that I was young that if you’re gonna be here … do something important, I don’t care what, whatever it happened to be. So if it was gonna be in sports, be the best, the best that you can be. If it was gonna be in anything, be the best that you can be. And so, that was always my thrust. And it helped me in good stead, because when I went to the mainland, I had to overcome things that I never realized existed, which was prejudice. I didn’t realize that people might not like you because you were brown.


What did they think you were?


They had no idea.


[CHUCKLE] What’d you tell them?


When I was in Los Angeles, I was Mexican. When I was in Florida, I was Puerto Rican. When I was in upper New York State, my buddies were Italian, so they thought I was a funny looking Sicilian. I mean, Eh, what you doin’, Jimmy?




You know. And I’m walking around with my Italian buddies like that. So they looked at me, and I was exotic, right? I didn’t realize, that became a plus in my career, jumping ahead to my career as a singer. Because it set me apart, what I thought was going to be a negative. Because whenever I auditioned when I was younger, you had to either be Black or White. They said, What does a Hawaiian know about jazz? I like it, and I just like it. So I had to audition. And it took longer for the buyer to pay attention to me.


Because they weren’t looking for you.


No; because I didn’t fit. And this was before Don Ho or anything. Hawaii, the only thing anybody ever knew—this was in the 50s—knew about Hawaii was Pearl Harbor, before Hawaii Five-O. Pearl Harbor or Diamond Head, you know, or Harry Owens, which was an old, old show. But you know, there was no other connection. So, if I auditioned and there were some Black guys there, and some White guys here, and this Hawaiian guy over here, I was given short-shrift many, many times.


You didn’t fit in either category.


Yeah. And so, I had to work harder. And so, I learned at that age that equality was not guaranteed. [CHUCKLE] And that’s okay.


And you didn’t get discouraged. You just worked harder.


No, it made me mad. I says, Okay, I’ll show you. That was mine.


How do you get mad in music for your advantage, without being bitter? How do you do that?

I never had time to be bitter. That never even occurred to me. My whole thing was always that, I’ll show you. And you know where that started from? That started from—going back to this prejudice thing. I had a girlfriend in school, and I was just so crazy about her.


Is this college?


No, this is high school.


High school. Okay.


High school. And I was just crazy about her, and she was so cute, so pretty. Her name was Virginia. And I was gonna marry her, and we were gonna have children, and that was gonna be my life. You know, I’d spend the rest of my life with her. When we started talking about marriage—of course, this was like you know, my junior year in school. You know kids are. The parents told her, she says, You know, if you marry Jimmy, your children will be Brown. And I said, And?




So? It just never bothered me, but it bothered … her, and because that wasn’t fitting into the social mode you know, that they were acclimated to. And then I realized that it affected my life. My thought, I got upset and it hurt me at first. And then … not too long after, I decided, you know what, you’re gonna be sorry. One day, you’re gonna be sorry that you weren’t my wife, or you’re gonna be sorry that I wasn’t in your life. And that just gave me more impetus to be something, to show. But strange things happen to give you, you know, drive. And I used that.


It could easily have been taken a different way.


Oh, yeah.


But you used it for the positive.


I just used it. I says, I’m gonna be somebody, and you’re gonna wish you were my friend.


Okay, now, did that ever happen? Did she ever regret?


Well, you know, with those same people—there were other people like that. When the time did come, and they saw me and I was successful in San Francisco, and over here, it never occurred to me to be that way. I was more gracious to them than I probably was to anybody else, because it didn’t matter.


You were beyond that. You’re not an I-told-you-so guy.


No. It didn’t matter. Because if it wasn’t for them, maybe I might not have been here, maybe my drive might not have been as strong.


Okay; so you’re at college, you’ve decided sports is not gonna happen for you because it’s a dead end. So then, what happened?


There was a transition there. There was a girl that I was going with, and her name was Ann Richards. She’s gone now. But she was at that time a very well known local singer. She had already started a singing career when she was like sixteen or so. So she was my girlfriend in college, and she heard me sing when we were at home together or out on a date together. And she said, Why don’t you come and sing in one of our college rallies? And at the college rallies, some of the people that went to school there at San Francisco State was Johnny Mathis, Cal Tjader, Paul Desmond, all these great classical legendary artists. And that’s the people I went to school with. So I sang at some college rallies with them, and they applauded. And I said, Hey …


That feels good. [CHUCKLE]


I really like that. What it did, it took the place of scoring a touchdown. I liked that idea.


And it didn’t hurt as much when things went bad.


I didn’t have to—‘cause I was one of those jocks that didn’t want to wear the face mask. You know, I said, That’s only for sissies. Well, my face was always beat up, and I had road rash, on all my whole face, I had bruises and all that, all during football season. I didn’t have to do this anymore. People applauded. Not only that … the girls were there too. The same thing; I still had the girls.


Girls are a theme here so far.


I was very, very much into—I love women. I absolutely love women. In fact, some of my best friends are women. And the reason for that is that I learn a lot from women. I learned things from women that I would never learn from men.


For example?

Well, they’re nurturers. Women are very strong. They’re very strong in a very soft, gentle way, and I like that. Because that’s kinda my nature. I’m a gentle person in my dealings with people, but I’m very strong also. And I like that about women. And I learned a lot about women, because of their nurturing aspect. And they’re Mother Earth. Men aren’t that way. Men are testosterone, you know, and everything is banging heads and all that. That’s okay. That’s fine in its place. But that’s not what life is all about.


For every Jimmy Borges who makes it, there are hundreds of singers who never do. Sometimes, the difference between success and failure is perseverance.


How did you get your first break, big break?


I created my own breaks many times. I would go to clubs. I would audition at any audition that I found out about. And if I didn’t make it, I would say, Your loss. That was my mentality, you know. That was a safeguard. I didn’t want to get down. I would go to clubs and sit in. One club I went to, I went and sat in, and I thought about this then. I sent up a note saying, Hi, my name is Jimmy Borges, and I’m looking for a band to take with me to Las Vegas. And I never asked the singer, I just sent it up to them. And I know that the guys were gonna say, Hey, there’s this guy out there that he’s gonna go to Las Vegas, and he’s looking for a band, let’s call him up.




Of course, that’s how I got up on stage and sang. Sometimes when I sang, they hired me. Most times, they didn’t. But sometimes, they hired me. That’s how I got some of my first jobs.


Was it hard to make a living in the beginning?


Very hard.


How’d you do it? How’d you get by?


I would take like a small little job. I would work for my uncle for about maybe two weeks. He was a butcher, and I would work on a Saturday for him for about two or three weeks, and then make enough money to go out so that I could buy drinks at a nightclub and audition. And that was basically the MO. Whatever money I had coming in, you know, I would save for gas, ‘cause I had to drive to all these clubs. I just went to any club that had live music.


This is while you were in college, or after college?


Before college, and after. During that period of time. I became a professional full-on at twenty, at the age of twenty. Because then, that’s when I started working steady, I started getting jobs.


And did you ever finish college?


No, no, that was—


You were already on your way.


—strictly a cup of coffee in college. That was it. You know, after football season, I left because football didn’t do what I needed it to do for me, and singing did. Singing was coming into play.


So you could support yourself at age twenty with singing in San Francisco?


It didn’t take that much anymore. I was living in Oakland, and I’d go across the San Francisco Bay Bridge for twenty-five cents. It was a quarter then. Now, it’s like four dollars. And drinks, I could buy a drink for—I would nurse one drink and it would be eighty-five cents. [CHUCKLE] Something like that.


Now, the night life scene has destroyed many a person, as far as gotten them down the wrong path, and really blocked their chances of success because of habits and people. Did you ever fall victim or fall prey to that?


No. And there were reasons. First of all, I didn’t like what drinking did to me. But secondly … it might be my Chinese blood that’s in me. Whenever I drank anything, I would turn red. I would get red. And I never liked that. [CHUCKLE] But I didn’t like the feeling that it gave me. I didn’t like—


Which is exactly why most people drink, ‘cause they love the feeling.


They like the feeling. And I didn’t like that. Part of it is, I guess I’m a control freak. In fact, I am. The truth is, I am. And being a control freak was necessary for me to follow my dream, to follow what I had to do, and to stay on course.   I needed to be as focused as possible. And then once I got started in the business, I needed to have control over my musicians, to make sure that they did what they were supposed to do, and they supported me. Because the most important people in my life, in my professional life, are my musicians. I’m only as good as they make me. Otherwise, I’m better off singing a cappella. But I needed that to control them. They can drink and do whatever they want, but as long as they stayed within the concept of my music and what I wanted, that was fine.


What about peer pressure? People going, Eh, eh, come on Jimmy, we go drinking, we go do this, we go do that.


That was hard at certain points in my life to try to keep up with the Joneses. Because most of them had money, or more money than I did. Playing football, I never had my own football shoes. They were secondhand-me-downs from my friends in high school. I never had my own baseball cleats. I had to borrow suits to go to the prom. You know. And it felt, wow, even if it was too large.




But it was a suit, you know. That kinda thing. But it was no big deal. It really wasn’t a big deal. I never thought of it as being—that I was, you know, ever in a position of being second or third class. It just was okay.


Secondhand football cleats, a borrowed suit, out of these humble beginnings—how often do we say that about some of Hawaii’s most successful people, came a man who not only sings with elegance, he lives his life with grace.


Did you always have, or if not, when did you pick it up, this sense of style and grace that you have?


That’s an interesting question. I enjoyed emulating … using that word again, people that I found to be important, I guess, because I wanted to be important. So, if I saw somebody who was a gentleman, but he would take off his clothes, and he’d have a cape underneath, I saw different things with different people. I saw the strength in gentle people. When I saw how people acted in their approach to life, I saw the gentility and the strength. And I would see this kind of thing in different people, whether it was in movies, or people that I saw in life, and that’s how I tried to emulate. And I saw that they didn’t have to yell and scream, that they could speak properly, and in complete sentences, and that it was much more powerful to be softer than it is to be louder, many times. And I learned this without having it taught to me. It just was like osmosis. Things happened, it just came into me. And that’s the kind of person I became. In fact, that was part of my music when I first started singing, and I needed to be a little bit more aggressive, because I sang very … gently, and I needed sometimes to attack more. And I had to learn that.


Who told you that, or did you just figure it out, I gotta be stronger on these certain songs?


Well, sometimes some people told me that I needed to pay more attention to the content of the song. I was told that by a bandleader. And when I started watching or paying attention to other singers that I saw, I saw that their use of dynamics. And I use dynamics a lot in my singing. I bring it down to a very soft, gentle spot, or sometimes I just whack ‘em over the head. And there are times for both of those. Because I found out that there’s power in gentility, in everything in life, not just music.


The truly gifted singers take their audiences on a journey, one that taps deep emotions and connects with each and every listener. For Jimmy Borges, that talent would serve him through generations of fans, and that connection would come back to reward him in the most challenging time of his life. On our next Long Story Short, we’ll hear Jimmy talk about his battle with liver cancer, and how fans who were touched by his music came back to support him. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with

Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.


A sad song can be a happy song, or a happy song can be a sad song. Example. [SINGS] Happy days are here again, the skies above are blue again. And then, you put that in a minor, and it becomes [SINGS], Happy days are here again … the skies above are blue again, da-da-dee-da-da, and cheer again … happy days … are here again. Well, you know, that’s sad. But that’s the same song, same words and all that, but it can be done. That’s the power of music.


Caregivers for Seriously Ill Loved Ones


Caregivers for those facing life-threatening illnesses are often unpaid nonprofessionals – partners, family members or friends – who provide essential emotional and physical care. Join the discussion on the next INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I as four caregivers share their challenges as the lifeline of support for those confronting serious illnesses.


Your questions and comments are welcome via phone, email and via Twitter during the Live Broadcast.


Phone Lines:
973-1000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.




Join our live discussion using #pbsinsights


Facing Our Mortality


On this INSIGHTS, we feature a candid discussion with those facing life-threatening illnesses. This revealing discussion includes beloved entertainer Jimmy Borges, retired news anchor Kirk Matthews, nightlife promoter Daniel Gray, and blogger Christa Wittmier. Their journey through serious illness involves a profound change of mind, body and spirit while dealing with mounting medical costs, possible job loss and its impact on family and friends. Join the conversation as we take a first-hand look at what it means to truly face our mortality.


Your questions and comments are welcome via phone, email and via Twitter during the Live Broadcast.


Phone Lines:
973-1000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.




Join our live discussion using #pbsinsights


Jimmy Borges: The Ballad Continues


Original air date: Tues., Feb. 28, 2012, 7:30 pm


Hawaii’s legendary jazz vocalist Jimmy Borges hears the story in every song and his own story is nothing short of breathtaking. The PBS Hawaii board member is back on the scene and on screen. Leslie Wilcox sits down with Jimmy in a special two-part episode of LONG STORY SHORT.


In “The Ballad Continues,” Jimmy reveals what he did to gain exclusive access to Frank Sinatra’s music archive. He also opens up about the most difficult challenge he has had to face – battling cancer.


View the first-half of this interview, Jimmy Borges: The First Verse


Jimmy Borges: The Ballad Continues Audio


Download the Transcript




The first singer that I really liked was a singer by the name of Mel Torme. And what I really liked about him is that he was a perfect technician. Technically, his sound was perfect. His placement was perfect, his intonation was perfect. He was the first one I emulated. When I started really enjoying music and listening to more singers and all of that, I realized that Frank Sinatra had something that none of the other singers had.


Torme, Sinatra; Jimmy Borges idolized and emulated these great crooners. But he didn’t stop there. He took the classic tunes and made them his own, as they like to say. He wrote his own story. Next, we’ll continue the Long Story Short of Jimmy Borges; his connection to Sinatra, how he courted the love of his life, and how liver cancer brought him even closer to his fans.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program

produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha. I’m Leslie Wilcox. The truly accomplished singers, the ones we connect with, know how to tell a story through song. They hold us in the palm of their hands, evoking our emotions, taking us on a journey. Jimmy Borges has been taking us on that journey for more than fifty years, with enthusiasm, love for life, and a gracious style that was influenced by his idols.


When did you meet Frank Sinatra? What did you know of him firsthand?

First of all, I went to Las Vegas. Shirley MacLaine saw me singing in San Francisco, and she told her husband that I was the guy that would fit in with his show. And I went to Las Vegas, and I did, I fit in, and I stayed there. At that time, Shirley MacLaine was part of the … Rat Pack was just forming. That was Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Shirley MacLaine, and few other fringe guys. So, my opening night in Las Vegas—this is an adjunct to the story. There was a show called Holiday In Japan, and I went there to replace the star of the show, which was James Shigeta, another local guy. And so, I went there, I come out for my first song, and there in the very front is Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Shirley MacLaine. And I’m going [GASPING].


And they all had martini glasses.


And they’re sitting over there, they says, Okay, here’s the kid, let’s check him out. You know. And uh, I was so nervous. I was so nervous, my mouth was so dry that my lips stuck. Like that. [CHUCKLE]  And so now, I was able to sing, I sang okay. And then Shirley MacLaine ask them, Well, what do you think of him? They said, Kid sings okay, sings good. He says, One of the things I noticed, though is, he’s really got a nice smile. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] A big smile.


That wasn’t a smile. [CHUCKLE] So that was my first meeting and introduction with Jim. In the show, there was this gorgeous, gorgeous girl who was the only one outside of the people that worked that weren’t in the show that spoke English, from Japan. And so, she became my buddy. And I did want to—I kinda liked her, but she wasn’t that interested in me. She was dating Frank Sinatra at the time. And it was really very, very funny. There are so many funny stories about her. Her name was Shizu, Shizuko, and she became my wife eventually.


Certainly not when she was dating Frank Sinatra.


Not when she was dating Frank Sinatra, but eventually, she became my wife. She felt that there was something in this young man that deserved more of her time. But she introduced me to Frank Sinatra. I was really nervous when I first met him, because I looked in his eyes, the deep blue eyes, and this was my hero. This was the person who taught me how to sing, who taught me how to sing a phrase and to tell a story. This was the most important man, this was my Einstein. So he meant more to me than just being a star. He was my raison d’etre, he was my reason to be. This is why I sing. And so, meeting him … and she says, Oh, Jimmy-san, this is Frank. By that time, when she introduced me to him, we were already married. So eventually, my wife and I divorced, my first wife and I divorced. But we’re dear, dear friends.


When you’re just a guy from Hawaii, you can choose to take a backseat to the world, or you can dive in and take your chances with the big boys. Jimmy Borges always dived right in.


I understand you’re the only singer ever offered free access to Frank Sinatra’s archives of recordings. Is that right?


Yes, I am. But that came with chutzpah. That came with the Hawaiian chutzpah that I had. I said, I wanted to do a concert, and I wanted to do a tribute, not to Frank Sinatra, but to the music of Frank Sinatra. And I said, But the only way I can do that is getting his music, and I don’t know him well enough to ask. So I asked Frank Valenti, who was here, from Milici Valenti. And I knew that Frank knew Frank Sinatra. I said, Can you call Mr. Sinatra for me and ask him if I can borrow some of his arrangements to do a symphony concert in honor of his music? Well, he did; he called. And about seven weeks later, I got a call back from the Sinatra office, Frank Sinatra office, which was at Warner Brothers Studios at that time. And the lady—I can’t remember her name now, she calls; she says, Mr. Borges, Mr. Sinatra said that you can have access to his library, anything you want. And when she was talking, I noticed there was a smile in her voice. So I said, There’s something humorous about this that’s happening right now, but I’m not aware of; maybe you can let me in on it. Is there something funny about this? She says, Well, Mr. Borges, the Boston Pops Orchestra conductor, and Quincy Jones, they both had wanted to talk to Mr. Frank Sinatra—Mr. Sinatra, that’s what they all called him, Mr. Sinatra, about borrowing some of his music. And they were afraid to ask, and you, who we don’t know, who we have no idea who you are, asked, and you got it. So you got the music, and they didn’t, and we don’t know you. [CHUCKLE] So we think that it’s very, very funny, that Jimmy Borges from Hawaii got the music.


And how did it happen? Why did it happen?


He sent people to check me out.


You mean, really sent people?


Yeah. Well, yeah. So somebody came over to listen to me, and because if I was doing a Sinatra copy, I would not have gotten it. They wanted to know if I was a singer in my own—


He didn’t want a copycat.


Right. Exactly. And okay, that was assessed, they liked my singing and the whole thing, and went back and reported to Mr. Sinatra. I mean, he took it all on his own to spend money like that to check me out before he allowed that. And then, when they told him, he says, Let the kid have what he wants.


Does that mean you went into his vault?


I went to Los Angeles, and I said, Dorothy—that’s her name, Dorothy Ullman. She said, Just come to Warner Brothers Studios, and you’ll have a parking, your pass will be there at the gate and all that, and they’ll tell you where to go. So I drove up, I went to Los Angeles. I did my homework for like about five or six months to know what songs I wanted. Because he would do like Night and Day had about twelve different arrangements, so I had to know which one I wanted. So I drive in over there, and he said, Mr. Borges, right this way. And they sent me up. I had a parking spot that said, Jimmy Borges. Wow. I drove in, I said, This is pretty cool, I love that. Drove in and got in. I walk in and she says, Mr. Borges, happy to meet you, I’m Dorothy Ullman, this is so-and-so, and this is so-and-so, and you’ll have to go to such-and-such a street near Vine, and there’s a cottage there. That’s where he keeps his arrangements. He has a whole cottage, just filled with arrangements, like two thousand arrangements. So I went there, and because Mr. Sinatra said to treat him good and give him what he wants, I was a king.


And no money changed hands?


None whatsoever. Not only money; I mean, he gave it to me to use, and they took care of the shipping. The shipping for those arrangements were like four or five hundred dollars one way.




And he took care of the shipping back and forth. And all he asked, he said, These are for you alone. And I wound up with sixty-four arrangements.


To keep or copies of? What exactly did you get?


It was to be given back at the beginning. And then, I wanted to do it again, so I asked again, and he said, Okay, just keep the copies. And he wrote me a letter. He said, This will be strictly for you; as long as it’s in your hands, it’s okay. So I can use it. And so, I have my own set of copies because of that.


Spend any time with Jimmy Borges, and you see the man doing what he does best; connecting with people. Shake his hand, and he makes you feel like you’re the only other person in the room. Much of that comes from Jimmy himself. His sense of grace is refreshingly old fashioned, and some of that comes from his wife, Vicki, who helped to nurture Jimmy’s gentle side.




You know, we’ve talked about your first wife. Let’s talk about Vicki. ‘Cause you said there were two important women in your life, most important women, and that’s Vicki and your daughter Steffanie.


Yeah. Vicki and my daughter Steffanie. Of course, I’m going back to my first wife too, she really belongs in that category. Vicki came along in my life after my first wife left me. And for good reason. And I won’t get into the reason, but things weren’t going well. And when she left, it was very hard on me. And at that time I just started dating everybody, and the whole thing, and that really didn’t work for me, and I was kinda lost. Even my daughter saw that. But nobody could really tell me much; I had to find my own way. And Vicki … she came into Trapper’s, and she was with somebody else. And I looked at her and said, Wow. I really liked what she looked like. I just—wow. And I was full of ploys. I always had a ploy to do something. I said, Hm, I have to meet her. So I went up to Vicki and the guy that she was with, who I had no idea who he was, and I pretended I knew him. And I talked strictly to him. I says, You know what, I’ve met you somewhere before, I don’t know where, but you’re really familiar. Where do you work?, and all that. I’m only talking to him. After about four minutes of this nonsense repartee, he says, Oh, by the way, this is my date, my girlfriend, this is Vicki. And then, I said, Oh, hello Vicki. [CHUCKLE] Like I had just noticed her, and she was the reason I was there. The minute he goes to the bathroom, I got onstage and I says, Look, if you ever come here and you’re by yourself, I’ll make sure that you’re watched over, and you can be my guest and all that. So she did. She came back one time, and …


She came alone to the nightclub?


She came alone. And what I liked about her, she’s a very strong woman. She speaks her mind, and she never says anything she doesn’t mean. Very, very honest, bottom line. And we had a relationship that was very stormy at the very beginning, because I’m a control freak, and she wouldn’t allow me to control her. And I liked that about her, and I liked it and disliked it at the same time. But I admired it, and I liked the character of the person, besides the beauty and whole other thing that was there, that was pure lust. That was the very beginning, but I started to like her, I really liked her as a person. And we’ve been together now almost thirty years. But the first five years before we got married, was a matter of just feeling each other out. But it was really good. Because I found out the strong woman. This is going back to my thing about women. I like strong women, and everything I’ve learned in my life, most of it came from women, and the strength, the gentility of it. She was gentle, she taught me how to be gentle, besides her strength, by introducing animals into my life, including birds and things. And it gave me something else to be concerned about. And she brought those kinda things. She saw that she softened up my life.


Cancer; the word that no one ever wants to hear, the word that changes your life forever, for good or for bad. Jimmy Borges always respects and appreciates his fans, but when he stepped into his battle with liver cancer, he found that the love from his fans went way beyond his music.


How long has it been since your operation, your successful operation?


My successful operation was July 18th of this year. And I’m a miracle. I really am a miracle for many, many reasons. My cancer was diagnosed in April, on April 21st. Three days later, I was singing with a big band, and I was cookin’. But from that moment on, my whole life was consumed with the fact that I have cancer. When they told me I had cancer, my first thought was one word. I didn’t say it. But I said, Me? I had a perfect life going. My life was perfect, in every respect, and all of a sudden they tell me that I had cancer. It was surreal. I was scared, and then mad, and then you go through the process, when I had to tell my wife and my daughter. And they helped me through it. They would cry on the side, but they were strong for me, all the way through.


How did you know you had cancer?


I was coughing at home, and I had a low grade fever that accompanied it. Vicki told me, she says, You gotta go to the doctor and see, you might have walking pneumonia, take an x-ray. So I did. I took an x-ray, and the x-ray showed up … well, my liver, I guess it’s right below, it caught the lower part of the x-ray. They saw a spot. We see something there that we want to send you to a CAT scan. Sent me for a CAT scan the next day, and then immediately the next day after that was an MRI, and that’s when they told me that half my liver was cancerous.


Grapefruit-sized growth.


Yeah, a large grapefruit-sized. They actually said small football, small football.


And you couldn’t feel that?


No, not at all. It didn’t show, and I felt great, other than my cough and my low grade fever. So I didn’t feel badly about it. Then they put me through chemo, a thing called chemoembolization. And it’s a one-time thing, and that’s why I kept my hair and all those things. But it goes right into the tumor. The dye goes in there, and the radiation, and then they pinch if off. It clogs up all the arteries and blood vessels, so that the cancer has nowhere to grow and go.


Often, when you hear liver cancer, you think, Oh, no, I mean, that’s … I mean, the chances are lower than most, right?


Two doctors didn’t want to do the operation. One doctor other than that said I had a five percent survival rate. One doctor actually told my wife, who didn’t tell me until two days after my operation that he said I would probably die on the operating table, because of the size and where it was. And my wife had to live with that, and still show a brave face for me. So she suffered more than—and my daughter, more than I did, because they had to live their lives normally in front of me, and yet cry behind my back. I just had me to worry about and think about. And yet, with me thinking about it, I says, I’m a seventy-six-year-old man, I’ve lived a great life. If I died right now, I got no complaints. God was really good to me. I have no complaints whatsoever. But, living was important for the people who love me. And then, I found out so much about the people who I’ve touched throughout my life.


Because they touched you back, while you were sick, right? They came to find you.


Oh. With [SIGH] … with a vengeance. I got calls from the Netherlands, and from South Africa, and from New Zealand, and Australia, and Asia. And these people told me that my music had touched their lives. And I didn’t know that what I did had made that much of an impact in their lives. That’s what we all aspire to, is to touch another person’s life in a positive way. And I had, and that’s the first time I knew, first that I knew about it. It validated my choice of life and my existence. So now, I go back and I have my operation, and I’m declared clean. And now, I realize that this cancer is not a bad thing, relatively speaking. It’s a gift, because it focused me on what I need to do for the rest of my life.


What’s that?


First of all, God gave me this gift that I connect with people through my music. I have touched their lives in a positive way. So that in itself. But it also makes you realize that I have so much experience in what I do that very few people, really, in the world has gone through as long, and as varied a career as I have. I’m really nobody. They don’t know who I am in Portland. They don’t know me in Fresno. But I’m a journeyman singer who’s been doing it for fifty-six years, and I’ve worked the small clubs, I’ve worked with the big bands, I’ve worked with symphony orchestras, and I’ve done it all. And there’s so many lessons to be taught there. Not just about singing, but how to prepare yourself for your career, for your life, how to assess yourself as to who you are. And this needs to be taught, and I need to recycle my knowledge. I need to do that, it’s a mandate that I have put upon myself.


Who will you teach?


Oh, anybody who wants to listen and any age, any group, but mostly young people. I want those young people so that I can cut out the steps to their journey to success. If it takes twenty steps, I want to cut it down to ten, or to five, so that they got somewhere to go. And that I can show them that there’s hope. And if this seventy-six-year-old man can beat cancer, and be as vibrant as I am—I’m a very vibrant person. God gave me this. That’s reality, and I attack life. If I can do it, then you at the age of sixteen or the age of twenty-four, or whatever, you definitely can do it. And if I can one person take the help, and do something with it, then that’s successful. If I take more than that, that’d be fantastic. But that’s my dream, and that’s my focus. That, and my singing.


And the cancer is gone?


They told me that they got all the cancer, and they didn’t see any other cancer in me. Because it was encased in my liver, it was in my right lobe, and the cancer was inside of it, it wasn’t outside. So they looked all over, and they didn’t find any other cancer. And when they took it out of my liver, it was complete.


There’s a story going around the hospital that you sang going into the operating room.




And then you sang as you were leaving the hospital.


Yeah, I did. I wanted to loosen everybody up and soften them up, and say, You know, it’s okay. I was scared.


What did you sing?


They were rolling me in, and I got this thing around my head. They were rolling me into the operating room, and I’m singing [SINGS] We’re off to see the wizard. [CHUCKLE] The wonderful Wizard of Oz, because, because, because, because, because, because of the wonderful things he does. Da-da-da-da, da-da. By that time, I’m sleeping.


What about on the way out of the hospital?


Oh, I was doing that thing from the John Travolta, that the Bee Gees sing. I was going, [SINGS] Staying alive, staying alive. [CHUCKLE] I was doing that. So it made everybody realize that life is a series, that this is part of life, this whole thing that I just went through is part of life, and it really is no big thing. That I faced it beat it. I won; I’m a winner. I won. And it’s now what was once a curse, is now a gift. It is now a gift, because I’m alive and I’m able to take that, utilize that, and make something out of it, to prove and show to other people that you can have hope. I just called Jackie Young at the Cancer Society. I just want to start just going to hospitals and talking to young cancer patients and older ones, and show them, this is me, at thirty pounds, thirty pounds lighter. I said, Yeah, I looked this bad too, and this is me right now. And you know what? I’m seventy-six.


So in two and a half months, you’ve regained your weight, you’ve regained your health.


Yeah; and I’m stronger than ever. I’m stronger than ever.


In 2011, the spring in Jimmy Borges’ step has not wavered. He can still fly to the Moon, and he still has the world on a string. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story


Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.