Hana Hou Magazine - Hawaiian Airlines - Dec 2014/ Jan 2015
For the last thirty-five years Harry B. has kept the sound of Hawaii’s territorial era alive in the Islands and beyond
Story by Liza Simon Photos by Kyle Rothenborg
The longest-running vintage Hawaiian music radio show opens with a kitschy scene-setter: the hum and pop of static, snippets of old-time radio voices, jumpy little jingles from the past and, finally, words of welcome: “You’re in the Territory with Harry B. Soria, Jr.!” For the next hour host Harry B. pulls out all the stops on Territorial Airwaves to make us feel we are inside the period from 1898 to 1959, between the advent of Hawaii as a US territory and statehood. Hawaiians during this era continued expressing their love for the land and sea with soaring falsetto singing and ‘ukulele rhythms, but many also added English lyrics and American musical elements and soon found themselves in Waikiki showrooms fronting orchestras. The luxuriant musical blend they created – much of it dubbed “hapa haole music” – mesmerized audiences near and far thanks to the reach of radio.
Harry B. never tires of conjuring the spell of those days, using songs culled from his collection of over ten thousand records, some of them rare 78 rpms. Some of his shows focus on a single artist like hula master Maiki Aiu Lake, while others capture an entire decade – robust steel guitar of the roaring ‘20s, for example. In between tracks, Harry B. brims with trivia about territorial music makers.
Now in his sixties, Harry B. not only holds the record for the longest continuous stint in Hawaii radio – he’s been the host of Territorial Airwaves for thirty-five years – he has also extended the reach of the show far beyond the reef. Thanks to live streaming and Internet archiving, the fan base of Territorial Airwaves has grown exponentially; Harry B.’s email in-box is usually bursting with questions from listeners on every continent. No wonder then that he has been nicknamed “Your Source for the history of Hawaiian Music”. He stresses, though, that his sources should get all of the credit. To understand his insistence on this point, go back to that static-ridden opener; the actual sound of shortwave radio searching for stations in the 1930s. “Father used to turn that old-fashioned dial, and he made that acetate recording.” Harry B. chuckles. Father, as he is called in Harry B.’s somewhat archaic diction, wasn’t just the guy turning that dial. He was one of the original architects of Hawaii’s airwaves. So was the man Harry B. calls Grandfather. Harry B. credits his success to these two old-style radiomen whose mantle he wears as surely as their name.
Grandfather – Harry Gilman Soria – was a dapper marketing executive from the Mainland in 1919 when he disembarked from the SS Wilhelmina in Honolulu. A decade later he had found his place in the Islands as a radio solicitor (a.k.a. adman) for KGU, Hawaii’s first commercial radio station. Grandfather was thrilled when his son, Harry Browning Soria, learned to rig up radio transmissions while still in high school but not so happy when the boy took a job at Hawaii’s second commercial radio station, KGMB. “Typical son,” Harry B. says today of his father. “He didn’t want to ride on his father’s coattails.”
In 1935, the younger Soria pulled off Hawaii’s first remote call-in by using a payphone to contact the anchorman at the studio and describe aviator Amelia Earhart taking off from O’ahu’s Wheeler Army Airfield. “Flush with this success,” says Harry B., “Father created the first-ever remote broadcast of music. He and some buddies at the radio station stung some wires across downtown to an electronics shop, where they set up the Hawaiian Troubadours singing into a microphone, which took their melodies over the air.” The novelty drew a huge crowd, and there was buzzing for days about this big event. “As a result,” Harry B. recalls, “Grandfather said to Father, “If you come to KGU, I will package shows around you.”
The agreement was sealed. Soon the father-son team was all over North America; the pair had figured out a way to relay the signal for their Saturday evening show to an NBC network across the Pacific, which beamed it across the continent. Grandfather was dubbed the Dean of Hawaiian Radio, Father: the Voice of Hawaii.
For Harry B., coming of age among Hawaii’s broadcast titans had its perks, like the cocktail parties his parents threw at their ‘Aina Haina home attended by Hawaiian surf legend Duke Kahanamoku, from whom young Harry B. sought advice about surfing. But Harry B. the teenager felt his share of annoyances, too, particularly when his father focused on the glories of a past that seemed downright ancient. Harry B. was the child of his father’s second marriage, and, he says, his father was old enough to be his grandfather: “So while my peers listened to their fathers talk about World War II, my dad told me stories about Prohibition.”
Just as his father loved radio but rejected his own father’s ministrations to follow in his footsteps, Harry B., as a teen, loved music but wasn’t about to pick up an ‘ukulele. “I had to find my own identity, just like my father did,” he says. He joined a blues band and took off for San Francisco. Then one serendipitous day he went to a party on a Sausalito houseboat that belonged to Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. “This was a first-of-its-kind retro group. They wore silk Aloha shirts. They played 78 rpms and they sounded great,” he exclaims, slapping palm to forehead for emphasis. “I mean, boing! ‘Old is cool’, I realized. I couldn’t wait to get home.”
Harry B. says once he realized that his beloved blues drew from the same roots as his father’s hapa haole music, he saw the light. After they had reconciled, he couldn’t stop peppering Father with questions about Island radio and music. Father obliged by opening up a boarded-up trunk that was crammed with song sheets, recording contracts, advertisements, magazines, headphones, a record player, an acetate cutter, microphones…. “It was his radio life, and I studied it at his side as we went through it meticulously for the next eleven years until he died in 1990,” says Harry B. “He became my right hand, my mentor.” Father also critiqued his son’s every show, leaving comments on his answering machine while he was on the air. As Harry B. recalls, one of Father’s messages went like so: “I lost count of the number of times you said the word “classic”. Stop with the catchphrases. If you keep repeating something it loses its meaning. Be original.”
In the late 1970s Harry B. was hardly alone in wanting to revisit Hawaii’s musical past. Hawaii was in the midst of a renaissance of native culture, and traditional music was being aired by a new generation of disc jockeys on KCCN radio. Harry became a fan of Jacqueline Leilani Rossetti, “Honolulu Skylark”, who occasionally spun 78-rpm records and asked listeners to call in with anything they knew about them. Harry B would consult Father and share what he’d gleaned. It wasn’t long before Skylark suggested Harry B. team up with her to host a KCCN radio show.
When Territorial Airwaves launched, older listeners began calling with compliments. This gave Harry B. an idea: “I started passing out handbills in neighborhoods, looking for big trees and canvas awnings, which both suggested older people lived there. About every tenth door I knocked on, I would have luck with people telling e to take their stacks of old 78-rpm records – please!”
Harry B. also began to search for yesteryear’s music-makers to come on his show. He approached artists as well as composers, sound engineers and producers. Preservation was needed, Harry B. was convinced: Legendary recordings were fast going out of print, and some older artists who were famous for their live performances had hardly recorded. Soria feared that much unique Hawaiian artistry would be lost forever. Luckily, he says the Soria name opened doors. “The older artists knew me as a kid, and they had worked with my father, so I had this entrée to bring those people into the studio.”
Once there, musical guests were happy to relax and tell their stories. “One of the biggest joys I have had in all my years is helping these great talents finish their stories,” Harry B. says, again crediting Father for making this happen. “Inevitably, the older guest would be telling a great story and get to a point where the name of an old theater or a hotel long gone had slipped their mind. But with all of my father’s trivia swimming around in my head, I could fill in the blank.”
Musical legends who appeared on the show include Nina Keali’iwahamana and George Na’ope. Then there was Harry Owens, the composer of “Sweet Leilani”, who told the story of how the song came to win an Academy Award in 1938. Owens had penned the song for his daughter in 1934, but the composition made no money except for sales of its sheet music at 25 cents a pop. Then Bing Crosby, in town filming Waikiki Wedding, checked into the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where Owens conducted the orchestra. When Owens struck up the band with “Sweet Leilani,” the movie star and his wife were on the dance floor, and it was love at first listen. The next day Crosby asked Owens to make an acetate recording he could take to Paramount in Hollywood. In his interview with Soria, Owens switched to a swaggering tone to describe Crosby marching up to the studio heads saying, “Forget your songwriting team. This is our theme song for the movie.”
Harry B. preserved the interviews, transcribed them and has sprinkled them liberally through subsequent editions of Territorial Airwaves. “When I started in 1979, most listeners had lived through the era I was celebrating,” he says. “Now I am an older person, and the majority of my original listeners have passed on, but a younger audience is hearing me on the web.” He gets a thrill when young Hawaiian artists approach him to say that Territorial Airwaves is their inspiration for striking out in new musical directions.
Harry B. thinks Father may have envisioned something like cyberspace when he advised him to constantly reach beyond the Islands, as he himself did via his shortwave transmissions. Father’s strong suit, says Harry B., is that he was “a tinkerer. He kept fiddling with whatever tools he had.” Perhaps it was the tinkerer’s gene that drove Harry B. to master the computer techniques that have enabled him to remove surface damage from his 78 rpms, something he’s been doing since the 1990s. He was recently tapped to produce and annotate sets of restored re-releases of Hawaiian music on the Hana Ola label.
“When I got kicked off live radio, I thought that was it for Territorial Airwaves,” Harry B. says, referring to a 2006 station move that required him to prerecord his program. “Of course I was upset, but in my head I could hear my Father saying, “That’s how radio is. Do what you gotta do to survive.” The change has been for the better, says the ever optimistic Harry B., because rather than keep him behind a microphone on the weekend, it has freed him up to do more stage gigs as an emcee.
Talking about his many projects, Harry B. is diligent and down-to-earth, insisting that at the end of the day, he is just doing his duty by keeping something wonderful alive. He recalls having dinner with his parents at the Waikiki Sands when he was a child. “During their break, the musicians would come over to our table, and I would see this camaraderie and respect between them and Father,” he remembers. “I was just a little boy, but I was thinking, “This is something special.” HH
Harry B. Soria, Jr. has amassed a vast collection of recordings – over ten thousand, with the earliest dating from before World War I. Every week the devoted DJ draws from his treasure trove to create Territorial Airwaves. One the previous page he is seen recording the show in his Fort Street Mall studio of Hawaiian 105 KINE.
All in the family:
Both Harry B.’s father and grandfather were pioneering radiomen in Honolulu. Harry’s grandfather Harry G. (above) worked at Hawaii’s first commercial radio station and was dubbed the Dean of Hawaiian Radio. His father, Harry B., Sr., earned the moniker the Voice of Hawaii; he is seen at left doing a live remote broadcast from the dance floor of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 1939. Far left: Harry B.’s first publicity photo, circa 1980.
Territorial Airwaves can be heard on the radio in Hawaii every week on Fridays at noon and Sundays at 5 p.m. at AM 940 and it’s on the web at territorialairwaves.com.