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Later albums reveal a liberal mix of lounge-staple pleasers such as "Sweet Caroline," "I've Gotta Be Me," "That's Life," "Danny Boy," "The Impossible Dream," "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," and plenty of jokes. On record, at least, this stuff sounds like nothing to write home about. It's always the island numbers that get me, and apparently got those live audiences back then.
"I was booked into a club at the river bed [in Phoenix] when Waylon Jennings was there. On his day off, I'd go in there, we'd have Hawaiian night and we'd pack the house."
One of the clubs on Ernie's late-Sixties road itinerary was the Latitude 20 in Torrance, California, and that is where the future Waikiki Twins--one of whom would become Ernie's future wife--stepped into the picture. Beverly and sis were 18 when they joined in '68, just out of high school. They were seasoned performers, schooled in Hawaiian dance, as fate would have it. Bev's also done a bunch of TV shows--"a saloon girl, those were my parts"--and was in a Tucson-shot McCartney video a couple years ago.
Though they didn't get married until 1977, Bev and Ernie have pretty much the same stories, lots of them, to tell from the past 28 years. And when telling them, they talk in and out and all over each other in a comfortable way.
"Frank Sinatra used to come to see us at Caesars," says Beverly. "We always would know because here comes 17 guards first, they'd clear the area. . . ."
"Security would block off the area and set up a bar just for him. I used to do a medley of Charlie Rich's two hits. Sinatra sent up a security guard with a note and said he never did like those songs, but he said the way I phrased those songs, he was going to start using them. You know, he's the greatest phraser in the world, so that made my ego grow, I'll tell you. And we used to talk to him in the coffee shop. Very nice guy."
Bev: "We knew people like Buddy Hackett--I'll take Shecky Green over Don Rickles, and I'll take Buddy over both of them--and James Darren. He was Moon Doggy in those Gidget movies. He invited us to Tom Jones' birthday party."
Ernie: "Sonny was there, but he wasn't with Cher." Bev: "My outfit that I wore to that party still has his birthday cake all over it. It's hanging in back . . . My sister and I were Elvis fans like you wouldn't believe. When Elvis did his comeback show in '69, the manager at Caesars got us into Elvis even though it was sold out. He said, 'Just go to the gate and give the guy my card.' We walked right in. They started taking us to the booths, and I said no, I don't want to sit here. I want my elbow on the stage."
Ernie: "Oh, yeah! It was a good life!"
And sitting there at the Menehune Ranch, the sun obscured against a huge volcanicky mountain that I say looks like Hawaii, where I've never been, which Beverly scoffs at (she still misses the party life in Vegas, she'll tell you quietly with a smile while Ernie is grabbing more Cokes), life still seems pretty good.
The couple officially broke up the act in '85 to be at home when their son started kindergarten, but the gig potential lingers on, in one form or another.
Weeks later, I returned to a ranch luau to witness Ernie and his band onstage, telling ancient jokes that probably worked at Tropic Wishbone and singing beautifully. He does shows for the Shriners (he's a member) and at trailer parks; he sang the national anthem at a Tucson Toros game not too long ago and the crowd demanded an unheard-of encore of the same tune--"Can you believe that?"
He gets excited when I tell him that kids are embracing lounge and tiki music again; he wonders out loud why we shouldn't set up a show in Phoenix, have a good time, make some money for both of us.
At some point, the term "has-been" springs up; Ernie laughs, tells me how much his wife hates that term. He's not kidding.
"That's the part I don't like," clarifies Bev, who can turn on the force as easily as the charm. "To me, I grew up in show business. First time I was onstage was at age 3 and I'll tell you what a has-been is to me. A singer who has lost his voice and is still singing, or somebody who's an alcoholic and can't function onstage, that's a has-been. Somebody that can still do their job as good or better than ever, just because they're no longer doing it, to me that's not a has-been."
Says Ernie: "To me a has-been is a guy that's given up." Which does not seem to describe Arizona's Suntanned Irishman. The pipes are there, the spirit is there, and I'm sure those flaming machetes are packed away someplace.