Don Ho: Why the ‘Tiny Bubbles’ singer was one of Hawaii’s first superstars in the ’60s

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Don Ho Tiny Bubbles singer Hawaii's first superstar 1960s

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Back in the 1960s & 1970s, if you asked someone on the mainland about Hawaiian music, chances are the first (and probably only) songs they’d know would be by Don Ho.

The singer’s smooth, laid-back style delighted millions. In the three vintage articles below, you can find out how it all began.

Don Ho: It still ain’t no big thing (1967)

By Wayne Harada – The Honolulu Advertiser (Hawaii) June 18, 1967

Entertainer Don Ho, who is 36, feels he can last another 10 years in the competitive, frantic show business whirl in Hawaii.

“If Frank Sinatra can make it at his age, I think I’m good for at least another 10 years,” he said.

Ho feels his success as a recording, night club and television star both locally and nationally will help pave the way for future performers from Hawaii. And that makes him particularly happy.

He’s struggled somewhat to get where he is — at the top of the heap — and as the highest-paid, most popular Hawaiian entertainer today, he feels there’s a lot to be learned from his story.

Don Ho - East Coast West Coast album cover looking up

“I think what we’ve done will help our kids here,” Ho said.

“I feel the kids know they can go to the Mainland to perform. But they’ve been scared for too long. After all, no one really has been able to travel extensively to the Mainland before.

“Someday, I’ll have to write a book so any kid following me won’t make the same mistakes.

“When I made my first appearance on the Mainland, at the Club Bora Bora (a now-defunct San Francisco nitery), I wasn’t afraid. But I was among friends, and we were sold out.

“Even without friends, though, you shouldn’t go if you’re afraid.”

Since 1960, when he entered showbiz, Ho has been on the go. It’s within the last five years, however, that he’s put a new note in Hawaiian music, with unprecedented success.

Spend an hour talking with Ho, trying to create a profile already familiar to thousands of fans, and one discovers that there still is a lot unknown about this Hawaiian phenomenon. Four things become obvious:

• Ho, the man, is an unpretentious Hawaiian-Chinese (full name Donald Tai Loy Ho), who means it when he says his heart is in Hawaii.

• Ho, the star, is a cool performer who knows what to give his fans, how much, and how

• Ho, the father, is a worried sort, mainly because he hasn’t been able to spend more time with his wife, four girls, and two boys. Too, unrest in the world both-ers him.

• Ho, the businessman, is a shrewd, knowledgeable success who recognizes where there is a buck, and collects it when he can.

Don Ho - Vintage Hawaii Ho song album

How Don Ho longs for home

“I don’t like to leave the Islands, but you have to go away for obvious reasons,” Ho said. “For me, it’s to renew acquaintances, to promote my record sales, and to get that income from concerts.

“No matter where I go, no matter how successful I become, it ain’t no big thing. Hawaii is the best place to live. I look forward to coming home — always.

“Yet in the business, you have to move. New York and Los Angeles, I’ve found, are the two key areas. You make it there, and you make it nationally.

“We did personal appearances in New York, and they paid off. ‘Tiny Bubbles’ is unprecedented in the history of Hawaiian recordings. We’ve sold 500,000 singles and albums, and I think that’s good.”

Ho is rather like a Johnny-come-lately. He never planned his career. It just happened.

“It’s a funny thing,” he said. “with me, it’s always been a matter of going out and doing something out of necessity.

“My whole career as it is today started out when I was 29. That’s quite old. Not knowing music, I taught myself.

“You’d be surprised how much you can do if you want to do it. Nothing’s impossible.

“I was an Air Force pilot because they needed young guys in the service. The captains, the majors were getting too old. So I moved up the scale. Maybe that’s the way it was when I started performing.

“What would I be doing today if I weren’t in show biz? I don’t know. I probably would have drifted into something accidentally. I was a Kamehameha graduate and took university courses.

“But I’ve worked as a truck driver, a taxi driver, I’ve laid asphalt, I’ve worked in the surplus business, and in the bar business. All of these experiences have helped me, I think.

ALSO SEE: About Gilligan’s Island – plus the TV show intro, theme song & lyrics (1964-67)

Singer Don Ho on stage with microphone

Family understands

“Unfortunately, with the success I now enjoy, I haven’t been able to spend more time with the family. But I’ve been lucky. My kids understand. My wife understands. The children have done well in school, all on their own, without my assistance. And that makes me proud.

“I’m on the Mainland about three months a year. So there’s no real time for my family. Of course, I work every night except Monday at Duke Kahanamoku’s, so I try to spend as much of my free time at home with the family.

ALSO SEE: A 1950s tour guide to Hawaii: See what the islands looked like before becoming the 50th state

“I can honestly tell you. I love three things. Number one is sleep. Number two is exercise. Number three is eating. In that order.

“I’m 180 pounds, just about the same as I was when I first started out in the business. But only because I’ve kept in shape. I think I’m a little bit more solid now. I used to be flabby around here (pointing to his belly).

“You’ve got to keep in shape in this business. I get my exercise swimming in our pool at home. My son also challenges me lifting weights.

“It really counts when you look good on TV and during public appearances. I don’t really drink a lot. In the show, I have apple cider in that cup. No big thing. I think it’s a nice game, you might say.

Vintage Don Ho in 1968 - On stage with pineapple drink

“I have a few sips of scotch between shows. You know it’s against the law to have booze on stage. I’m not a drunk. Dean Martin really doesn’t drink much either. No entertainer can stay in the biz that long and be a success if he’s a drunk.”

Ho has been at Duke’s for over four years. Last September, he signed a five-year, $2.5 million contract ($500,000 a year income). Any tourist will tell you Duke’s is the heartbeat of modern Hawaii.


First things first

When he has time, Ho conducts a radio show on KHVH. Is the day long enough for him to do whatever he has to?

Said Ho: “I think a 24-hour day is long enough. I have a philosophy. Forget about minor things. It’s not uncommon that I miss a meeting. I just don’t worry about such things.

“But I guess that’s not too good. A lot of people demand my time. I have to open up and spend time with more people, I suppose, just to make them happy.

“It takes an hour or two a day to get my correspondence off, my affairs settled. I really like to spend my time home sleeping.

“But you know, I spend a lot of time trying to break the few appointments that I have.

“I don’t have time to read all of my mail. You know, a lot of tourists who’ve seen me in Waikiki have been sending a wedding invitation. They say they met me at Duke’s, they liked me, all that jazz. They say I got them together. But I think if I checked further, they’d get divorced later, too.

“There is a good, competitive spirit among us entertainers here. I really think it’s healthy. It’s a kind of thing everybody suspects, so everybody tries harder.

“I think there is room for plenty of entertainers. Waikiki is swinging. I’m happy to see so many performers. I mean, there is enough room for all of us. Who the hell wants to come to my show every night, anyway? For its size, I think Hawaii is No. 1.

DON’T MISS: See Hawaii in the ’60s: How the tropical islands used to be, and how they changed

“My goal now is to get the local kids in it, too. Why bring over Mainland talent when the local people are just as good?

“That’s why I encourage the youngsters. Maybe it’s the fatherly image I have. The kids not only call me about jobs, but about boy-girl problems. I sometimes feel like a counselor.

“Sam Kapu Jr. (who sings at Queen’s Surf) could be the next Alfred Apaka. But not now. Give him time. That kid’s sweet. He’s got longevity. He’ll make it.

“I’ve just recorded the Phive Lads. a group of local kids who really are as good as The Beatles.

“And Robin Wilson — what a joy. She’s on top of the world at the moment, with ‘Henry Sweet Henry’ opening soon on roadway. Sure, she wants to sing with me, but she can be a star on her own.

“I’ve helped Al Lopaka, the Surfettes, and many others. All I want is for these kids to remember who got them started. That’s all I ask.”

Don Ho - On stage

Where Don Ho’s money goes

It’s believed that Ho’s earnings this year will put him in the $1 million bracket. What’s he doing with all that money?

Ho grinned, relaxed in his chair, and chuckled: “I make money. I spend it. Simple as that. I spend the dough on equipment, on all sorts of things. I buy a lot of things and hand them to my personnel and friends. Of course, my relatives are there, too.

“But I have enough put away, and I’ve invested a lot.

“After all these years, I’m finally able to pay cash for things. I have a Cadillac to ride in, and paid cash for that. If I’d go broke tomorrow, I’d still have the car.

“Spin-offs are important in this business. The royalties are like annuities. So I have a lot of spin-offs.

“For tax purposes, we picked up a shopping center in California. We’re putting out fan club merchandise, all tied up with the Singer Sewing Machine people.

“My pet spin-off project has involved putting together show combinations in Hawaii. The Hale Ho (the nightery on Lewers St.) is part of this project.

“When you reach a certain stature, you have to demand more money. If I weren’t getting the money I wanted, I’d move. I think this is basically true of any performer.

“I keep trying to educate the local people, to put a value on entertainers. The entertainer has a livelihood, too. He can’t get peanuts. It took me a long time to educate the people, to make them proud to pay the cover charge at our shows.

“When they started charging it at Duke’s, I knew I would lose 50 percent of my clientele. So I went to Queen’s Surf, and got the lanai there, so those who can’t afford the show at Duke’s can go to the lanai.

“That’s why I opened the Hale Ho. I’d gain the money in these operations, so these clubs aren’t competitors as far as I’m concerned.”

Vintage Don Ho headlines (1967)

Don Ho on Hawaii and TV

“Of course, the TV specials we plan to do — we start shooting in July — will be a good thing, not only for me, but for the whole state. We’ll tell the story of Hawaii, in music and images.

“Actually, you can have an overdose of music.

“I never regarded myself as a singer, anyway, so I find it disgusting to listen to my own records. You can always do it better, I feel. Only you know your own faults — and listening to my records, I hear my mistakes over and over.

“I’ll be honest with you. I’d be happy to just do a show and not sing at all. I’m an organizer. I lead the Aliis. But the people expect me to sing.

“I’d love to sing songs with a lot of personal meaning when I have to sing. But they’re not saleable. The people wouldn’t be interested in what I love to do. They expect ‘I’ll Remember You’ and ‘Tiny Bubbles.’ Songs like that.

“It’s commercial, I know. But I don’t ever want to be a slave to any audience. Pretty soon, I’d be a yes man. When it reaches that point, forget it.

“I find that this business has its frustrations. My long ambition has been to play Carnegie Hall. And that’s in the mill now.

“I guess I’ll start playing a few colleges, and of course, the big cities. But I hope to go to Europe, expand, even play before the Queen in London.

“I was approached to do something before the President at the White House, but I had to turn it down. Now I may never do it.

“I’m still learning, you know? I’m struggling. Some nights, I have so much trouble doing a show.

“And it gets to be depressing sometimes. What’s really depressing is the fact that while I’m trying to create a little happiness every night for the people, the whole damned world around me is all screwed up.

MORE: About the classic TV show Hawaii Five-O, plus hear that iconic theme song

Don Ho and the Aliis

A troubled world

“I’m getting concerned, not for myself, but for my kids. Every night. I see these guys who’ve come from Vietnam for a visit. What I’m doing is so unimportant when the whole damned world may go up in a puff of smoke anytime.

“What good is happiness when people in some countries just don’t understand each other? What good is happiness when people can’t get along? What good is happiness here when there is a war elsewhere?

“It just doesn’t make much sense. These GIs in Hawaii on leave, and me, making all kinds of dough.

“You know, there hasn’t been a time in my life when there hasn’t been a war. Ever since I was a kid, it’s been that way. That’s why I hardly read the papers anymore. There’s so much depressing news. That’s why I’m worried.”

Does he look forward to retiring? “I know it won’t last forever,” Ho said. “But I figure 10 years more is a good long run.”

He looked around his plush, comfortable office, at the Reprise Records album cover on the wall, at the montage of pictures and clippings — everything denoting his success — and shrugged.

“When I get out of this business, all of this comes down. The pictures come down. Everything.

“But it ain’t no big thing. You just start another life.”

Singer Don Ho - smiling


Singer Presents Hawaii-Ho! Starring Don Ho (1968)

See Hawaii and its most dynamic musical entertainer in their first TV special

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Singer Presents Hawaiian-Ho, Starring Don Ho (1968)


Hawaii Ho, Don Ho’s national TV special: How Mainland critics viewed it (1968)

By Cynthia Lowry in New York – Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Hawaii) May 28, 1968

“Hawaii Ho,” a musical special shot on location, was a very busy hour — so busy that it appeared to be a pilot show for a future series.

If it was not demonstrating what it could do, it bit off more than the audience could easily absorb in 60 minutes.

The star of last night’s NBC show, a smooth-voiced, attractive and professional Hawaiian performer named Don Ho, is obviously an institution in his home state, but a comparative stranger to the Mainland audience.

He acted as soloist, chief guide, and even lecturer on the brotherhood of man.

Hawaii Ho, Don Ho's national TV special (1968)

The hour was a strange and often awkward combination of show biz at its corniest. imaginative set design and that cozy, familiar atmosphere evoked by the Lawrence Welk Show.

The trouble was that it tried to do too many things — sell the beauties of the Islands, the warmth of the people, sell sewing machines and related equipment, and sneak in lots of song and even a little dance.

Obviously, in the short time, it could cover none of these bases except the sewing machines very effectively.

There were the usual color shots of Hawaii, which are always impressive. The opening was a visual smash even if it didn’t make much sense. Ho arrived on the scene in a little grass shack that was carried into the camera’s eye on the end of a tether below a helicopter.

There were the girls in the grass skirts and the flowers tucked in their hair. There were the waves dashing on the shore. There were lots of cute Hawaiian children darting in and out of camera range.

And there was Ho, with a voice as smooth as hot chocolate fudge, presenting an assortment of songs that ranged from the traditional music of the Island to “Born Free,” which somehow seemed out of place.

It was a busy jumble, but in the main, it added up to a rather pleasant hour. Ho, an interesting talent, should be seen more often on television.


Don Ho onstage in New York City: A lot of fun (1969)

Cashbox magazine – May 3, 1969

EMPIRE ROOM, N.Y. — “Fun is the one thing money can’t buy,” sing the Beatles, but if you have the money, you can buy a lot of fun at the Empire Room in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where Don Ho is currently entertaining.

Don Ho, a singer from Hawaii, does not perform traditional Hawaiian songs — although, at one point during opening night last week, he bowed to the inevitable and sang “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” jokingly saying to the audience, “I hate this song.”

Ho’s repertoire included such tunes as his opening number, “Welcome To My World,” “Husbands And Wives,” his hit single, “Tiny Bubbles,” and “My Way.”

But it is not so much Ho’s selection of material as it is his interpretation of that material that makes him so attractive an entertainer.

ALSO SEE: Hawaii in the ’70s: Look back at Honolulu & Waikiki

Don Ho in 1970

Singing in a relaxed, casual, seemingly effortless manner, Ho is able, nevertheless, to generate a great deal of excitement — an excitement that is the result of an artfully controlled showmanship.

Much of the evening resembled a family get-together. Ho’s musical supporters included a trio of sisters who sang prettily and breathlessly behind him.

A young man named Angel was introduced to the audience by Ho, and this gentleman proceeded to rattle the rafters with two songs, one of which was “The Impossible Dream.”

ALSO SEE: See what made Lawrence Welk into a multi-million selling bandleader of the ’50s & ’60s

The crowd cheered him lustily. Toby Allen, a Ho talent discovery, joined him in “Husbands And Wives,” displaying a graceful, winning style.

Another Ho find, Robin Wilson, sang a duet with him, “What Now My Love.” In this number, the songstress projected dramatic urgency and power. Ho counterbalanced her vivid delivery with gentle ease.

Miss Wilson performed a solo rendition of “For Once In My Life” with strength and vitality, and dueted once more with Ho in a soaring “Born Free.”

But the night belonged to Don Ho. Chatting comfortably and humorously about Hawaii and his experiences on the mainland, introducing the other performers, and singing and playing the organ, the Reprise artist created an evening of pure entertainment for an enthusiastic crowd of first-nighters.

In memory of Donald Tai Loy Ho: August 13, 1930 – April 14, 2007


Glen Campbell & Don Ho (1969)

The two singing stars have fun performing together on “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour”

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