Aloha Again, Naturally

The song begins almost imperceptibly, two notes of languid bass wafting in, back and forth on each other. Then, from somewhere off in the distance, comes a high tenor voice bearing a soft chant in some mysterious, romantic tongue. It's joined--just barely--by a native chorus and a steel guitar line that sound like a wave looks as it builds up before it breaks.

The voice gets louder, drawing each phrase out, then skips up about an octave and a half and just hangs there, vibrating in a serene space reserved for warm breezes and goose bumps. Then it sings in English: This is my night of love/this is the hour of the luau/My arms are open now/My heart has spoken now, aahh-ooooooo

The voice belongs to Hawaii's Suntanned Arizona Irishman, the voice belongs to Ernie Menehune, and it is ingrained in vinyl on a song called "Kalua," the fourth track on a record called Back to Aloha Land. On the Heath Productions label out of Safford.

On the back of the record is a group photograph of Menehune's "Polynesian Friends," against a tropical setting. Here are the people you could have seen performing this song in person when Kennedy was president: Four stunning women in grass skirts and bikini tops, two men holding island instruments, and a guitarist and a bassist, apparently Anglo friends, sporting Hawaiian shirts. Everybody is smiling, leis hang from necks, orchids peek out from cascading mounds of lava-black, hula-girl hair.

And at the center of this shot is the Golden Voice, the boss of the show, the Hawaiian Suntanned Irishman himself, offering a show-biz version of a Mona Lisa smile, a necklace of curved white fangs and two machetes crossed in front of his bare chest.

There were other records after that initial '64 release--'Round the Town, Showtime, My Way, Waikiki Jackpot, to name a few. All long unavailable, all sold at the live shows (if you can find one of these gems somewhere it's sure to be personally autographed) that were the bread and butter of the Suntanned man and his exotic revue for some three decades.

Starting in the early Fifties, Ernie played all the Southwestern hot spots, all the bars, supper clubs, resorts, nightclubs and lounges. The Tropic Wishbone, the Tahiti, the Gilded Cage, Guys and Dolls. The Camelback Inn, Mountain Shadows, the Spanish Trail in Tucson, the Latitude 20 in Torrance, California, Harrah's in Reno and Tahoe, the Tiki Kai in Albuquerque and its sister Tiki in Denver. And he hit Vegas, too--the Dunes, and five seasons in the Main Room at Caesars Palace.

Menehune knew and performed with the names that went with these swinging dens of hip: Tom Jones, Esquivel, Buddy Hackett, Shecky Green, Harry Belafonte, and, yes, ladies and gentlemen, let us not forget Mr. Sinatra.

Most of these gigs happened in the heyday of clubbing. People dressed up, looked like a million bucks, they drank highballs, and smoking was practically good for you. You got dinner, dancing and a floor show, and it didn't cost anywhere an arm and a leg. The current generation of lounge-music fanatics would trade its stacks of CD-reissue bachelor-pad music for just one night of this kind of entertainment.

But that was a long time ago. The clubs are a thing of the past, and many of the acts that worked them had hung it up by the time "(Lord, I Was Born a) Ramblin' Man" hit the charts.

So where is all of this going?
Back to the Hawaiian Boy with the Golden Voice! Back to the world of Enchanting Songs of the Islands! Back to Mr. Ernie Menehune, who did not burn out or fade away, but simply stopped being a professional Suntanned Hawaiian Irishman and settled down in a self-styled paradise hideaway outside Tucson, talent, warmth and an easy smile still intact.

Back to Aloha Land!

Here's where we begin: I went from wondering if Menehune was even still alive to getting his wife on the telephone in as long as it takes to dial information. I found myself speaking with Beverly, not only the woman wed to Ernie, but one-half of the Waikiki Twins, two identically lovely dancers sandwiching the man in a photo on the back of the late-Sixties My Way album.

I was ecstatic.
Even more so when Ernie took the line and invited me down to Menehune Ranch nestled at the foot of the Tucson mountains.

"You won't even think you're in Arizona," he told me, "people come here, and they think they're on the islands." I got in the car, and then I was there. Sitting beneath the setting sun in this huge backyard full of palm trees, beside a putting green, next to a waterfall that fed into a little pond full of flesh-and-blood ducks and a fiberglass shark. Other than the shark, Ernie built all of this, and he can turn the waterfall on and off whenever he wants. There was a corral containing a couple horses, a tiki-style band shell for intimate home performances, and great big, lazy dogs sleeping all over the place.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap