Monday, July 18, 2005

Ukelele Bennie

By the time Benjamin Keakahiawa Nawahi was fifteen, he had taught himself how to play slack key guitar and was playing for tourists in the parks around Honolulu. Before he was twenty, Bennie had joined his brothers band – The Hawaiian Novelty Five – and was playing professionally on passenger ships traveling between Hawaii and California. The band impressed Sid Grauman, who booked them to tour the United States.

The successful tour led Bennie to go solo, calling himself the "King of the Ukulele". Nawahi, who could play also play mandolin and a one-string cigar-box fiddle, is reported to have been a great performer. He would play the ukelele behind his head and another of his tricks was playing steel guitar with his foot controlling the slide.

King Bennie recorded for numerous labels, including Columbia, Victor and live Grey Gull (what a great name). He had his own band, King Nawahi and The International Cowboys. Early in his career, Roy Rogers was one of those International Cowboys. Nawahi also recorded jazz, blues and country records.

In 1935, King Bennie Nawahi suddenly went blind and doctors never were able to find the cause. Blindness didn’t slow him down; Nawahi kept playing clubs and restaurants in California. In 1946, Nawahi became the first (only?) blind man to swim the 22 miles between San Pedro and Catalina Island. He used the sound of a bell hanging from the back of a boat as a guide.

King Bennie kept playing for the next forty years. He died in early 1985.


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