Steel Guitar Legends Of The Past


Alvin Kalanikau "Barney" Isaacs, Jr. (1924-1996) was one of Hawai'i's premier steel guitarists. Barney grew up in a remarkable musical family that included his father, composer and band leader Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, Sr., and two brothers, slack key master Leland "Atta" Isaacs and multi-instrumentalist Norman Isaacs.

Barney remembered being exposed to music from the time he was small. "We had a big house and music was there all the time. Our dad had a dance band that rehearsed on the premises. They played all kinds of music, not just Hawaiian." Alvin, Sr. actively encouraged his ten children to play. He taught Barney, Atta and Norman the rudiments of steel guitar while they were still in elementary school. "When my dad noticed that we were always playing together, he suggested we form a trio," Barney recalled. When the trio was formed, they had to spread out. "As the oldest, I got to pick first, so I stayed with the steel." Atta went to the guitar and Norman played the bass. "We could sing parts and everything. At that time Hawaiian music was very danceable; fox trots, waltzes. We were always trying to keep up, learn as much as we could from the older guys and each other. Pua Almeida, Jules Ah See, the Kalimas, they were all our age. Jules' steel playing probably had the most influence on me. He could really make it sing. He had so many styles and different tunings. He was so adept at picking things up, but he never lost his own recognizable sound."



A native of Lahaina, Maui, Jules Cryles Ah See is usually classified as one of the great steel guitarists in the world. He was a truly gifted entertainer, a born comic, a talented singer, and virtuoso. His version of the song 'No Huhu" remains a classic. He recorded with Alfred Apaka, Benny Kalama and Pua Almeida, while performing at such spots as the Royal, the Kewalo Inn, Moana, Surfrider, and his final engagement, with Apaka at the Hawaiian Village Tapa Room. Ah See passed away tragically young, at age 36, in 1960.

Biographical material from Tony Todaro, The Golden Years of Hawaiian Entertainment (Tony Todaro Pub., 1974).


Alfred Aholo Apaka was born in Honolulu in 1919 and died suddenly in 1960. His stunning baritone and good looks earned him the title of 'The Golden Voice of Hawaii.' He graduated from Roosevelt High where he was an athlete, singer, emcee and ROTC cadet captain. His family moved to Molokai but he and his sisters were shunned because their English was too good and the family moved back to Oahu. His father, Alfred A. Apaka, was also a singer and often performed with his son.

The Royal's orchestra leader Don McDiarmid Sr. gave Alfred his first professional break, hiring him as lead singer. He next traveled to New York and performed at the Hotel Lexington with Ray Kinney. He returned to the Royal and was a featured singer on Hawaii Calls. That led to a regular gig with the Moana Serenaders at the Moana Hotel. He moved on to Don the Beachcomber's, where Bob Hope 'discovered' him and took him to Hollywood for his TV show.

But most people first saw and loved Alfred during his long-running engagement at the Hawaiian Village's Tapa Room, a venue he opened in 1955 and where he played until his death. The Tapa Room is gone, but a statue at the Hawaiian Village commemorates his enduring popularity.

He became one of Hawaii's best-known entertainers through his Decca and ABC records and his legacy continues to inspire other performers, including his son, Jeff Apaka. Some of Alfred's earliest recordings have recently been remastered in the CD Alfred Aholo Apaka: Hawaii's Golden Voice (Cord HOCD32000). One has only to listen to know why the day he passed away is known as "The Day Hawaii Cried."

Biographical material from Tony Todaro, The Golden Years of Hawaiian Entertainment (Tony Todaro Pub., 1974), which is dedicated to Alfred.



Charleston Puaonaona Almeida was born in Honolulu into what would become one of Hawaii's great musical families. Under the guidance of his father John, Pua became a virtuoso steel guitarist, composer, arranger, singer, band leader and consumate musician. He played all the local clubs before the war--Pago Pago, Ramona Cafe, then USO shows with Buddy Peterson and Randy Oness, and work on radio station KGMB. After 1945, he performed at the Moana Banyan Court for a dozen years with his group The Sunset Serenaders, and performed on Hawaii Calls for 17 years.

Pua, like Alfred Apaka, had a bad heart, and passed away in 1974, one of the mostly unsung greats of Hawaiian music in the 20th century. His generosity and humility as a performer, friend and mentor led many others on to greatness. Fortunately, many of his hundreds of recordings live on.

Biographical material from Tony Todaro, The Golden Years of Hawaiian Entertainment (Tony Todaro Pub., 1974).

~By David J. Stewart

Some Thoughts by Jerry Byrd (1920-2005)

(Jerry passed away on April 11, 2005 in Hawaii)

Has it ever occurred to you that we play the most "cluttered-up" musical instrument ever invented?? Well, we do by far! And why so? I have lived to bear witness to all of them, most of which were designed (?) to make playing a difficult instrument easier but actually doing just the opposite, and then finally giving it up altogether - or moving on to another instrument like electronic gadgets of all kinds.

Let's look at one of those: Electronic Keyboards. It was now possible to electronically "bend" or "slur" notes (and here I'll use a salesman's "pitch") to sound just exactly like a steel guitar. These came into being when? - 15 or 20 years ago? - and would now replace a whole orchestra: string section, rhythm section, everything and anything and would now throw hundreds of musicians "out of work."

Since I was, and still am, teaching at Harry's Music Store, I witnessed first-hand the birth (and death) of these "boons" to music. Half of the floor space was taken up with electric keyboards purchased by a few young 'kids' who ordered every new model that came out (which was almost a monthly happening) only to very quickly become obsolete due to a newer, and much better model. During a conversation one day, one of these young geniuses said boastingly, "These will put steel guitar out of business because we can do it on keyboards same sound, same way" etc etc etc. I replied, "No, you can make it sound like you think a steel guitar sounds: which is gliss, gliss, gliss. If it can sound just like a steel, as you say, then tell it to play like Jerry Byrd." End of conversation.

The "fad" lasted a few years as all fads do; the "salesmen" left and there sat dozens of keyboards and amplifiers of all sizes, which were later shipped to an auction house in California for a very small fraction of what they cost.

Slide Guitar. Here is another one! "New and Improved" by the use of better "slides" - that ugly tube of metal that's placed over the fingers of the left hand that, I'm told, sounds "just like a steel guitar." (Where have I heard that before?) And what they do, typically so, is "scoop" into every position - by at least two frets, usually more - like shooting arrows at something. It drives me nuts!!! Zip, Zip, Zip and about as subtle as a bulldozer!!! Often, people come up to me and ask about or refer to my "slide" guitar. I hastily, and emphatically tell them that I play steel guitar and add that it was not born in the "southern" U.S. - it was born right here on this island in Hawaii.

Pedal Steel. I have never said that I dislike the use of pedals - I dislike what they do with them with only a very few exceptions.

Regardless of how many gadgets they invent, it all comes down to this: "Excellency" does not come easily and is not dependent upon "tools" - or even whether you have two hands and ten fingers.


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