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What is a crooner anyway?
I’ve been called a crooner my whole life. When I was a teenager, I hated the moniker. It made me think of men with slicked-back hair wearing white dinner jackets and singing in dimly lit rooms with velvet curtains. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But, my adolescent self wanted stadiums packed with screaming fans. Not a supper club.
As time passed, I grew more and more comfortable with the term.
What does being a crooner really mean? I’ve heard crooners defined as male singers of popular songs—“the standards.” But what are “the standards?” I’ve heard them called “song stylists.” But “stylist” sounded so...cosmetic. It still wasn’t clear to me, so I decided to define it myself.
For me, it’s the QUALITY of the singer’s voice. It’s the way the singer uses restraint and subtle nuances like dripping portamenti (think Judy Garland sliding from one note to the next at the end of Over the Rainbow). It’s the way the singer plays with the song’s dynamics (volume control) to really breathe life into the material. Crooning is sexy. It’s a style of singing that teases the listeners, taking them to the edge of sentimentality, but never letting them go over the top.
And it’s the MATERIAL, itself. A song that allows the singer to paint the lyrics in the listener’s mind. There are songs that beg for a crooner’s velvety delivery in the same way there are songs that beg to be belted out over heavy metal guitars. The crooner’s song haunts the listener long after the last note has been sung.
The crooner’s ancestor, the bel canto singer, was popular in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Like beautiful, florid script, these vocal masters sang with smooth, fluid grace and musical embellishments that were signatures of the time. Modern-day crooners rode waves of popularity, from the late 1920s through the late 1960s. Americans had their crooners (à la Mel Tormé). Europeans had their crooners like (à la Charles Aznavour).
I was delighted to find that Hawai‘i had its own legendary crooners, like Andy Cummings, Ed Kenney and the incomparable Alfred Aholo Apaka. These dapper men traded their white dinner jackets for smart-looking Aloha shirts. My favorite picture is of Alfred Aholo Apaka wearing a white Aloha shirt and red carnation lei – the epitome of class.
In Hawai‘i, crooners weren’t confined to the four walls of a dim nightclub. A banyan tree in Waikīkī could provide the perfect setting. Proof? The weekly live radio show “Hawai‘i Calls,” which was broadcast worldwide for over 40 years. These men (and women) left their audiences around the world breathless, pining for the magic of Hawai‘i.
Hawai‘i continues to be blessed with crooners who keep the torch burning. From the late Don Ho, whose tireless efforts made songs like Tiny Bubbles and I’ll Remember You famous worldwide, to men like Robert Uluwehi Cazimero, Keali‘i Reichel and Hoku Zuttermeister. They are among some of the finest velvet-voiced Hawaiian singers today. And while they may not consider themselves crooners in the classical sense, their style conjures up Waikīkī’s heyday and their forefathers’ golden voices.
I no longer yearn for packed stadiums filled with rabid rock ‘n roll fans. Just look at the legendary singers who made crooning an unforgettable art form, by singing romantic music from a tropical isle. Who wouldn’t want to follow in their footsteps?