Don Ho, the iconic Hawaiian entertainer whose signature song, “Tiny Bubbles,” and laid-back, aloha style made him as much an island tourist attraction as Diamond Head and hula dancers for more than four decades, died Saturday. He was 76. Ho, who had suffered from heart problems for several years and had a pacemaker implanted in 2005, died of heart failure.
During the peak of his career in the late 1960s and ‘70s, the casual but charismatic Ho showed up regularly on television talk and variety shows. He also hosted his own short-lived daily comedy-variety show on ABC from Honolulu in the mid ‘70s and made cameo appearances on “Batman,” “The Brady Bunch” and other TV series.
Originally signed to Reprise Records, Ho scored his biggest recording success in 1966 with “Tiny Bubbles.” His act, which traditionally opened and closed with that song, also included audience favorites such as “Pearly Shells,” “Ain’t No Big Thing,” “I’ll Remember You,” “With All My Love” and “Hawaiian Wedding Song.”
But while his fame burned most brightly for a decade or so, Ho never went away.
The “undisputed king of Waikiki entertainers,” as the Honolulu Advertiser has called him, continued to tour when he wasn’t performing at his longtime home base, the showroom of the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel.
“Singing is what keeps me young,” Ho, then 70, told the Los Angeles Times in 2001, not long after the trendy magazine Maxim recognized him as one of the “50 Coolest Guys Ever.”
A Hawaiian entertainment fixture since the early 1960s, Ho launched his career singing and playing an electric Hammond chord organ at his parents’ cocktail lounge in Kaneohe, a small town on the island of Oahu.
But it wasn’t until he was invited to headline at Duke Kahanamoku’s 700-seat Waikiki nightclub in 1962 that Ho began his rise to international fame.
It was at Duke’s that he perfected his laid-back performing style, often entertaining bare-chested with a lei around his neck, bare-footed and wearing tight jeans.
Backed by his five-piece combo, the Aliis, Ho would sit at his Hammond organ and sing in a mellow and seductive baritone. His show was lighthearted and fun, periodically punctuated by Ho holding up a glass of scotch and encouraging the mai-tai-swilling crowd of tourists to “Suck ‘em up!”
The audience was always part of his act. Ho would take requests from honeymooners, joking that they would be given priority because he knew they wanted to leave early and return to their hotel rooms. He’d ask birthday and anniversary celebrants to stand up and be acknowledged. And he’d invite sometimes-reluctant audience members on stage so he could joke with them.
With Ho packing them in for three shows a night – no cover and no minimum for the midnight show – Duke’s became the hottest nightspot in Waikiki.
Born in Honolulu on Aug. 13, 1930, Ho was one of nine children with a mixed ethnic heritage that included Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and German.
A high school football star, he attended Springfield College in Massachusetts but was homesick for Hawaii and returned home after a year. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Hawaii in 1954, then joined the Air Force and graduated from flight school as a fighter pilot. A crash landing at one point had an unexpected impact.
“I was a shy kid, quiet, well-behaved,” he once told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “The crash made me realize that life was to be enjoyed.”
After leaving the Air Force in 1959, Ho returned to Hawaii to run his parents’ cocktail lounge, Honey’s. A popular hangout for sailors during World War II, Honey’s had seen better days. To help boost business, Ho later recalled, his father suggested to him, “Son, why don’t you go make music.”
Ho, who had begun playing the Hammond organ for fun while in the Air Force, formed a small band and installed his organ under the bar. It did the trick.