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Author Topic:  Tribute: A Short Story
Tod Johnson


From:
Hawaii, USA
Post Posted 15 Mar 2017 3:02 pm     Reply with quote

I was the dinner cook for Pat’s at Punalu’u on the windward side of O’ahu in the early 80”s. The kitchen was situated so that a partition wall blocked the view from the dining room. As you walked out of the kitchen the wall was in front of you. When you turned left you walked into the bar, tended by Kawika, a big Hawaiian. It was good as a cook to have a large sized bartender because they eat a lot, so in turn we got to drink for real cheap after work. (We also fed the police for beneficial reasons, benefits which I collected on driving home after a few.)

Steve and Teresa were the house band, later to become big time and move their performance to Waikiki. Catching a Wave and Uwehe Ami and Slide were their top hits. I was steeped in Hawaiian music at the time, buying all of Gabby’s albums and learning some Hawaiian lyrics and playing slack key. So it was a joyous time after work most nights with cheap beers and world class music and an occasional hula dancer.

One night the owner booked probably the biggest act in Hawaii and I was working that evening. They set the band up on the dining room side. So I could stand right behind the wall, out of the way and sight of everybody. The steel player was right there, 3 feet away and the rest of the band spread out along the adjoining kitchen wall to the right. He was a short, (well I’m 6’4 so…) slightly built Hawaiian with greying hair. But his most prominent feature was his smile which exuded nothing but pure aloha. The kind of spirit we would get when we surfed with Rell Sunn, as any island surfer reading this can attest to.

I couldn’t keep my eyes off the fretboard. Not only was it the first time I had seen a steel being played up close, the player was obviously a master. I was completely mesmerized and continued staring in awe at the performance going on, all the while having a vantage point of a better than back stage seat. The most memorable part of the experience was the musician’s smile, looking directly at me and not the steel. He was seemingly appreciative of the fact that I was obviously blown away at his expertise around the fretboard, and looking at me completely full of aloha, all the while bringing down the roof with a driving rhythm and melody of the song, not skipping a beat.



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Cutting to the chase, The band was Auntie Genoa Keawe.

Billy Hew Len on steel.

Years later I told the story to my friend and dobro player of a bluegrass band I played the mandolin in. By then I had heard a little about a player that used a leather extension for the slide and my friend said oh yeah, I’ve heard of him. I think he’s famous. When I decided to take up the lap steel about 4 months ago, being more curious now I messaged Alan Akaka a short description and he immediately messaged back the legendary name. I looked him up with Google images and said that’s the man.

Since then I’ve read about the journey about him injuring his hand etc. I started wondering if when he was noticing me staring at him playing, if he thought I was looking at his expertise or his handicap. I reminisced through my mind and as it was at the time, I couldn’t see the steel bar from my vantage point. I actually thought that, even though there was something not 100% right about his hand, he was using the brown leather substitution strictly for the sound it made on the strings, instead of a bar. So no, I could resolve to myself that I was absolutely enthralled by his dexterity up and down and across the fretboard.

Billy Hew Len was, to me, the best and someone I aspire to emulate, as close as possible in style and sound. Maybe the mana I experienced being in his presence that evening will help me along the way. I know I’ll need all I can get.


Last edited by Tod Johnson on 15 Mar 2017 7:39 pm; edited 2 times in total
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David M Brown


From:
California, USA
Post Posted 15 Mar 2017 3:12 pm     Re: Tribute: A Short Story Reply with quote

Tod Johnson wrote:


the player was obviously a master. .......

Cutting to the chase, The band was Auntie Genoa Keawe.

Billy Hew Len on steel.


Since then I’ve read about the journey about him injuring his hand etc.
......I could resolve to myself that I was absolutely enthralled by his dexterity up and down and across the fretboard.

Billy Hew Len was, to me, the best and someone I aspire to emulate, as close as possible in style and sound. Maybe the mana I experienced being in his presence that evening will help me along the way. I know I’ll need all I can get.


Billy has been one of my favorites - on recordings - since the 70's when I discovered him.

He was a true great, and all the more so for doing it with a serious handicap for a musician, a missing hand.

Thanks for the story. I still think Billy Hew Len and his style should be better known and more widely copied.
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Ron Ellison


From:
D.C.
Post Posted 15 Mar 2017 4:55 pm     Reply with quote

Rell Sunn..

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rell_Sunn
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James Hartman


From:
Pennsylvania, USA
Post Posted 15 Mar 2017 5:07 pm     Reply with quote

Great story, Tod. I lived in Kaneohe '79/'80. I remember driving past Pat's, somehow never had time to stop in. Always thought it looked a cool place.
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Scott Thomas


Post Posted 15 Mar 2017 7:01 pm     Reply with quote

Welcome, Tod. BHL was one of the greats, and you were truly fortunate to have been in a position to see the master up close. Thanks for sharing that story!
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