29 January 2006

Clayton Naluai and The Surfers

Tahiti

Hollywood Flavor . . . Hawaiian Spirit!
The Surfers
A Rock-A-Hula History
by Don Charles Hampton

"When people thought of Hawaiian music," remembers Clayton Naluai, "they always thought of hula girls." Seductive Polynesian beauties, naked or nearly so, swishing grass skirts back and forth . . . sending out, to the mainlander's eye at least, a wanton invitation. Suburban men in the 1950s would put Hawaiian music albums on their hi-fi sets and fantasize about the brown-skinned beauties pictured on the LP sleeves. To paraphrase a line from the popular novelty song "Keep Your Eyes On The Hands," he'd want to "mow the grass" . . . much to the consternation of his wife, to whom the subject of his fantasies was only too obvious. Hmmph!

Ah, but she could take her sweet revenge a little later. She could play her Surfers albums! The Surfers definitely weren't hula girls. They were tanned, brawny and buff Hawaiian men, appealingly young and exceedingly virile. More likely as not pictured shirtless on their album sleeves, The Surfers looked like the kind of men who'd sweep a woman off her feet and whisk her away to an exotic island . . . an adventure that promised of all manner of naughty, sweaty fun. Who needs a grass skirt when the cocoanut milk is so sweet? With their muscular appearance and a vocal style that could be either just as muscular or softer than satin, The Surfers were an act tailor-made for wooing women record buyers . . . as well as the occasional male Hawaiian music enthusiast, so long as he wasn't threatened by their bare-chested masculine appeal.

Although the group was almost entirely the creation of a West Coast record company, the talent that fueled it wasn't manufactured. It was born and bred in Hawaii, and it centered around the singing brothers Naluai. "We come from a very musical family," Clayton Naluai confirms. "My brothers and sisters always studied music. We were six children, and I am the oldest. Alan was the second youngest child." Clayton says he didn't devote himself to musical studies as vigorously as the others did, modestly referring to himself as "the least talented musically of all the siblings." Yet, his strong lead voice, alternating between tenor and baritone, appears on many Surfers records, and he was without question the driving force behind the group. Clayton Naluai could also strum a mean stand-up bass. For his part, Alan Naluai played guitar, an instrument he'd studied from a very early age, and sang in a sweet, pure tenor that belied his brawny frame. Youngest brother Buddy Naluai also sang; he would eventually join The Surfers, too, but not until after the original quartet had made a name for itself.

In 1957, Al and Clay were attending Glendale Junior College in Glendale, California. There they befriended two other native Hawaiians: Percussionist Bernie Ching and Pat Sylva, a multi-instrumentalist who could hold his own on piano, vibes, ukelele or trombone. Both Pat and Bernie sang as well. They all ended up joining the school choir, and traveling up and down the West Coast doing concerts. One day, the choir director asked the four friends to work up arrangements of some traditional Hawaiian tunes and perform them as specialty numbers. They did, and the boys' act went over big on stage. That's when, according to Clayton, "we started having fun with it."

Tropical island kitsch was a major suburban fad in the years following World War II, particularly anything that evoked Hawaii. North Americans' taste for Hawaiian music had been growing ever since Ray Kenney's band kicked off a hula craze in the 1920s. Now that the Hawaiian Islands were poised to become the 50th state, it was stronger than ever. Haoles (non-Hawaiians) dressed in grass skirts and staged bogus luaus in their backyards, sometimes complete with whole roasted pigs! Bernie, Pat, Al and Clay began performing at backyard luaus in southern California. They weren't paid for these appearances, but they got all the free food they could eat! Besides, it was good practice for their concert dates. Many people thought they sounded good enough to record. Eventually, one such person approached them.

"A friend of ours, that we were going to school with, asked us if we'd be interested in putting songs on a tape," Clay says. "He said, 'maybe when you have children and grandchildren, you can play it for them!' So we did, we put some songs on . . . reel-to-reel tape, that's how long ago this was." Using state-of-the-art stereo recording equipment (rare in the late '50s), the enterprising friend recorded the as-yet-unnamed group performing ten of their favorite Hawaiian tunes. The playback was fabulous! It sounded crystal clear, better than anyone had expected. He then dubbed a copy of the tape for the group, but kept the master. Little did the boys know that their recording engineer had ulterior motives. A part-time salesman for a company that sold stereo equipment, he reckoned that the tape would make an excellent sales tool. Subsequently, when prospective customers came into the audio store where he worked, they heard the melodic voices of Al, Clay, Bernie and Pat wafting out of a pair of display speakers. The idea was to demonstrate the clarity of two-channel separation, but one visitor heard something on those speakers that interested him more.

"A representative of Hi-Fi Records walked in," Clay says. "He was looking for some equipment and heard us(on tape). He asked (the salesman) who we were." After being told the tale of the tape, the Hi-Fi executive expressed interest in meeting the group. One thing led to another, and the next thing the boys knew, they were sitting in the Hi-Fi offices at 7803 Sunset Boulevard, discussing the terms of a contract. "Recording an album was the furthest thing from my mind," Clay confesses. But recording albums is generally what happens when you get an album deal, and that's exactly what the group got! In the process, they also acquired a name: "The daughter of the secretary at Hi-Fi Records (said:) 'Why don't you call yourselves The Surfers?"' The prevailing image of surfers as blond, freckle-faced teenagers from the Hollywood hills hadn't quite taken hold yet, and historically, the first people to surf had been native Hawaiians, so . . . why not?

The Hollywood-based Hi-Fi label was founded in 1956 by Richard Vaughn. An independent label that was among the pioneers of stereophonic recording on the West Coast, Hi-Fi was marketing multi-track singles and albums as early as 1958. Its output was mainly Jazz and Pop instrumentals; organist George Wright and Arthur Lyman's Hawaiian quartet emerged as its most commercial artists. Richard Vaughn headed the company and also handled A & R in its early years. Harold Chang, a member of the Arthur Lyman Group, spoke about Vaughn several years ago to interviewer Jeff Chenault. "He specialized in hi-fi recordings," Chang explained. "(Richard) used the best equipment . . . (from) magazines, people heard of his recordings, and when they bought (them), they became (fans) of Hi-Fi Records because of the quality." Vaughn preferred natural acoustics to those found in a recording studio, so many of his sessions were done on mobile equipment; for record dates, he frequently chose locales not specifically designed for music recording. Clayton Naluai recalls, "He would go find places where he liked the acoustics, and then he'd set up a recording studio (there)! He was always walking around, clapping his hands, trying to listen to the acoustics of a room." Accordingly, The Surfers' first album was recorded in, of all places, the gymnasium of Glendale Junior College!

On The Rocks

That album was titled The Surfers On The Rocks. A strictly acoustic affair, with nine of its fourteen selections performed in Hawaiian dialect, it strikes a heavy folkloric note. This is no Folkways album, though! There's definitely a Pop sensibility in the way The Surfers interpret their lightly swinging repertoire. Cuts like "Nani Wale Na Hula" and "Leahi" seem to radiate sunshine as they bounce merrily along to Pat Sylva's spirited ukelele rhythm. The humorous "Pidgin English Hula" and the somewhat risqué "I Got Hooked At A Hukilau" are perfect for the festive atmosphere of a backyard luau. "Papio" and "Tamure, Tamure" are the first examples of a type of number destined to become a Surfers specialty: The heartily-sung Polynesian chant, peppered with robust shouts and grunts. The latter song in particular shows off the boys' vocal prowess to fine effect; Alan Naluai soars overhead while Clay, Bernie and Pat stir up a whirlpool of sound down below.

The Surfers’ up tempo material never fails to entertain, but it's their ballads that tend to leave the strongest impression. The Surfers imbue "Blue Hawaii" with a beautiful sense of quiet drama. On "Ke Kale Nei Au," their yearning voices ebb and flow at intervals just like an ocean tide. "Leimomi" is another standout; when honey-voiced Al croons take me back to your island, you can almost hear the fluttering of feminine heartbeats! Likewise, Clay's bold romanticism on the sailor's lament "I Will Remember You" is so sensual, you can almost feel the sea spray on your skin. His performance doubtless left any number of women feeling quite . . . moist. In the mid-'60s, this early stereo album would be reissued under the name Hawaii A Go Go.

Clay remembers recording that first LP under Richard Vaughn's supervision: "I didn't find it intimidating at all. All we needed to do was (sing) over and over again until we got it the way we wanted it." Judging by sales, the way they wanted it was the way the public wanted it, too. On The Rocks became a local best-seller. Modest to a fault, Clay will only allow that "the album sold a few copies." But forty years after the fact, he still expresses amazement at what happened next. "(Vaughn's assistant) came back and asked us if we wanted to go into show business! He said if we wanted to . . . he would finance it, he would give us whatever we needed." The kind of opportunity that most singers chase for years fell into the laps of The Surfers almost overnight. It was like something out of a dream. "I was out of school and working, and my brother and the other two guys were still going to school. I was the only one married at that time, and so I told him: 'I've got to think about it.'" Over a weekend, the boys made the decision that would chart the course of their lives. "Monday morning, I went down and quit my job, just on the advice of that man," Clay reveals. "I quit my job, and we started. We didn't even have any musical instruments! We had no idea we'd be doing (music) for the next twenty-six years!"

Hi-Fi Records followed up On The Rocks with a superb seasonal album, Christmas From Hawaii with The Surfers. It's without question one of the most unique Christmas LPs ever recorded. On yuletide swingers like "Here Comes Santa In A Red Canoe," "Mele Kalikimaka" and "Hawaiian Santa," the boys were accompanied by veteran Hawaiian musicians, including legendary steel guitarist Jules Ah See and percussionist Harold Chang. Once again, the boys' balladry took center stage; you'd be hard-pressed to find more beautiful renditions of "Mary's Boy Child," "White Christmas" or "Oh, Holy Night." Christmas chimes, echoing crisply off a high aluminum ceiling, give the harmonies an ethereal, timeless feel. "We recorded our Christmas album in the Hawaiian Village Dome," Clay remembers. "We happened to be home at the time, so (Richard Vaughn) recorded it there, but we recorded most of our albums on the mainland. The pictures of us on the album covers were all taken in California."

Christmas From Hawaii

Richard Vaughn's preference for unusual recording locales wasn't the only thing about him that was unconventional. With The Surfers, he also proved himself capable of innovative marketing strategies. It's long been common knowledge inside the music business that women are the main consumers of recordings. However, you wouldn't know that from the way most albums were and continue to be marketed! Images of comely and often scantily clad females have dominated album sleeve art at least since the 1950s; such images are obviously aimed at a male sensibility. Richard Vaughn bucked this trend. When it was time to photograph The Surfers, he decided he wanted beefcake, and lots of it! Off to the beach with them, and off with their street clothes. On with tight-fitting white shorts and Hawaiian shirts open to the waist. He had them photographed in swimwear as they frolicked in the surf, splashed around in a swimming pool, and cooled themselves under a waterfall. For one photo shoot, he posed them in sarongs. For admirers of masculine physical culture, it was nothing less than a paradise of Polynesian pectorals!

Shirtless men in media are nothing unusual today, but in 1958, it was pretty daring. What's more, Clay, Al, Bernie and Pat were Asian-Americans. Beefcake publicity photos of Asian men are still rarely seen. This ahead-of-its-time marketing campaign turned The Surfers into sex symbols; they became the visual embodiment of Hawaiian male virility. "We weren't even aware of that," laughs Clay. "Everything was done by the record company. We didn’t know what was happening . . . we just went along with everything they said!" But surely they must have suspected something when adoring females began pursuing them with lustful ardor . . . waiting breathlessly at their dressing room door . . . and making their wives and girlfriends livid with jealousy! Asked how he and his bandmates dealt with the female attention, gentleman Clayton refuses to kiss and tell. "We dealt with it," he chuckles, and leaves the details to our imaginations.

Cutting albums and posing for photo shoots may have been a thrill, but the boys soon discovered that presenting themselves on stage was something altogether different. Sent out for a round of personal appearances, they weren't exactly ready for prime time! The Surfers were an unusual Pop vocal group for the '50s in that they accompanied themselves on instruments; this, as Clay points out, was the norm in Hawaii. Yet they lacked the panache of mainland singing ensembles, and that was also due to Hawaiian tradition. "Back then in Hawaii," he recalls, "a group of guys sang, or one person sang and didn't say one word. Didn't smile or anything! Just hanging their heads and singing, and nobody would care." Accordingly, as the boys performed their numbers, they were stiffer than wooden surfboards!

Their very first booking was at The Wagon Wheel Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada; Clay recalls the gig with amusement today, but at the time, it was no laughing matter. "After our first night, they wanted to fire us!," he says. "Ayre Gross was the owner at that time, and the general manager of the casino was (his) son-in-law." Feeling that the boys had promise, the casino manager pleaded their case to Gross. "He came up (later) and said we could meet him in his office the next morning, so we did. He said: 'You guys sing well, but you look like you're scared!' We said: 'We are!'" The sympathetic manager gave them some rudimentary lessons in stage presentation which they were able to practice for the next three weeks. It was hardly enough time to perfect a Las Vegas act, but believe it or not, that's where The Surfers were booked for their second job.

They were terrified! "On opening night, there was hardly any applause," Clay remembers. "We weren't ready for stage performance! I thought: What am I doing here?" By the time their show ended, he’d made up his mind to forget about show business and bolt for home. His heart filled with dread as he met the casino's entertainment director on the way upstairs to his dressing room. "We met halfway up the stairs, and he looked at me and said: 'Wonderful! Fantastic! You guys are great! We're gonna keep you around.'" Dumbfounded, Clay staggered to the dressing room and collapsed in a chair. He couldn't believe what he'd just heard. "We were bad . . . we were lousy!" But even at their worst, The Surfers seemed destined for a music career. "I thought: 'Clay, if you're gonna be in this business, you'd better go and learn it.'"

Determined to create an act that was worthy of a Vegas showroom, young Mr. Naluai gave himself and his group a crash course in star power and stage presence. Las Vegas was his classroom; Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and other '50s legends were his instructors. "I went from showroom to showroom on my break, on my day off, and watched the different performers perform. Then I went back, and we did our show." The boys used a tried-and-true method of self-improvement: Learning from older and more experienced professionals, who in this case were the best entertainers in the world. However, Clayton Naluai prefers to say it more bluntly: "We copied 'em!" By the time they left Vegas six months later, The Surfers had put together a polished act that could fill seats and draw big applause. "(Las Vegas) was my training ground," Clay enthuses, "and it was the greatest training program ever!"

Choice of material was never a problem. "Mostly (we did) songs that we liked to do, and that people enjoyed," Clay says. "Of course, pacing was important. We'd be on stage for an hour-and-a-half." The highlight of The Surfers' stage act were Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis-styled comedy routines that the Naluai brothers worked up nightly. "I was the straight man, and my brother was the comic. What happened between my brother and me, we never planned. Nobody sat down with us and said: 'Do this, do that.' If it was funny (for the audience), we just kept doing it over and over again. It just evolved as we were performing on stage." Clay reveals that the clown role didn't come naturally to Alan. "Many comics are not funny when they're not working, and he was one of those types that wasn't. But on stage, Alan was hilarious! I couldn't look at him! He would do things spontaneously, and I would just be cracking up!"

Reviewers raved about Alan's comedy turns, and also applauded what they came to describe as "Clayton's romantic, leading man posture." But the mainstay of Surfers shows was always their singing. Modest Clayton Naluai may be, but he isn't at all shy about expressing pride in the sound his group achieved. "Our harmony was great! We worked at it. We couldn't just get up on stage and sing. We had to be aware. We had to listen to one another. (When) we practiced singing, we'd go into a hall, and each one of us would stand in a corner . . . and we would sing a song. But we wouldn't sing it in parts. We'd all sing the melody! The goal was to have it sound like it was all coming from one voice." It was the same sound that made their recordings so special. "When the voices are like one," Clay believes, "there's a 'ring' to it. Many times we hit it, and sometimes we didn't . . . but we were always going for (that)'ring.' Audiences who heard them hit 'the ring' were delighted to discover that no studio trickery had been used to enhance The Surfers's natural singing abilities.

The boys may have been learning the ropes on stage in 1959, but they could do no wrong in the studio that year. They released a pair of albums that rank as the finest in their HiFi catalog: The Surfers At High Tide and Tahiti. On the former, the group delivers romance with a capital "R," wrapping their golden voices around a rare all-English language collection(with some of their trademark chanting sprinkled in, naturally). With Al often taking the lead, the boys display their tightest harmonies yet. Accompanying them is a small orchestra conducted by Hall Daniels, whose warm and colorful arrangements drape themselves like palm fronds over the album's twelve selections. Female fans were no doubt delighted to hear this sparkling set of picturesque standards. "Red Sails In The Sunset," "Beyond The Reef," "Canadian Sunset" and "Return To Paradise" hold forth alongside Latin favorites like "The Breeze And I" and "Perfidia." With its tropical sound effects, "Jungle Drums" sounds like it could've come from the same recording session that produced Martin Denny's smash hit "Quiet Village," also from '59. The album's standout track is "Legend Of The Rain," a dramatic story song. The Surfers' choral narrative is punctuated by crashing cymbals, trilling harps and a thundering kettledrum. Performed in its entirety with the right kind of staging, this album would've made one hell of a musical revue.

High Tide

If sailing At High Tide delighted women, they were surely beside themselves with joy when The Surfers then invited them to embark on an adventure to Tahiti . . . especially once they saw how little in the way of clothing the boys wore on the album sleeve! Is this really a studio album, or could it be the lost soundtrack of a 1930s South Sea island melodrama? Eddie Bush's curling steel guitar snakes in and out of swaying ukelele melodies one minute, and weaves through staccato rhythm sketches the next. The latter come courtesy of Bob Nichols' insistent tom toms, which beat a fiery tattoo into the imagination and conjure up images of ancient tribal ceremonies. Taboo! Grass skirts are swishing furiously as the "Drums Of Tahiti" sound in the distance. The boys pour lots of bravado into this number; in fact, their full-bodied singing raises the testosterone level so high, you half expect the stuff to come spurting out of your speakers! Male singing voices never sounded more virile than The Surfers' voices do on "Beauty Hula," which climaxes in a series of layered shouts that tumble one after another domino-style. This is definitely one of the boys' most exciting and elaborate chants. Their spirited vocal riffing here and on "Ulili E" and "Kau Kino Mambo" is guaranteed to revive even the most listless of luaus!

Robust Polynesian chanting abounds on this LP, but it wouldn't be a Surfers album without ballads. Tahiti contains some of the group's best. Like a sundown spreads shimmering colors over the evening surf, the boys spread their exquisite vocal blend over languorous love songs like "Kuu Lei," "Love Song Of Kalua" and the unforgettably tender "My Sweet Sweet." Then, Al and Clay share a jaunty lead on "My Wahine And Me," an unexpected but welcome detour into jazzier territory. The "South Sea Island Magic" that the group sings of so earnestly can be found in abundance within these grooves. The Surfers' final HiFi album was 1960's The Islands Call. Sounding like a collection of outtakes from their previous LPs, it breaks no new ground. Even so, the boys' swinging renditions of "Sophisticated Hula" and "Keep Your Eyes On The Hands," as well as their stunning version of the wanderlust ballad "Faraway Places" make it an album well worth having.

Islands Call

During the twenty-plus years of the group's existence, The Surfers worked with many well-known entertainers, but without a doubt, their most famous collaborator was Elvis Presley. The opportunity to work with him came through the intervention of executives at Decca Records; Decca signed them after their Hi-Fi Records contract ran out(and for some unknown reason, temporarily changed their name to "The Hawaiian Surfers"). The label's parent company was MCA Corporation, which also controlled Paramount Studios, and Paramount was the company that produced Blue Hawaii, Elvis's eighth movie. "On the (soundtrack) recording, they wanted to have an (authentic) Hawaiian sound," Clay recalls. "So they asked us if we'd be willing to do the soundtrack album with him." Were The Surfers up for cutting a record with the King of Rock 'n' Roll? You bet your wahini they were! On 21 March 1961, Al, Clay, Bernie and Pat made the scene at Radio Recorders in Hollywood, where they met Elvis, his regular backing vocal group The Jordanaires, and musicians including guitarist Scotty Moore, steel guitarist Alvino Rey, drummer DJ Fontana, pianist Floyd Cramer and sax player Boots Randolph. Under the supervision of Elvis and Paramount music director Joseph Lilley, they worked on both original songs and traditional material like "Blue Hawaii," "Aloha Oe" and "The Hawaiian Wedding Song."

Blue Hawaii

We spent three days in the studio. . . that's how long we spent working on that soundtrack. We had a great time doing it! (Elvis) was a nice, nice guy. He wasn't a prima donna." Immediately after the sessions were over, Elvis returned to Hawaii for location filming. With their muscular, tanned bodies and photogenic faces, The Surfers would've made ideal movie extras, but unfortunately, they weren't asked to appear in the film. However, their trademark sound enhanced both the film's production numbers and the blockbuster soundtrack album. It shot to number one around the world, holding the top position for 20 weeks in the United States alone! In fact, Blue Hawaii stayed on Billboard's Album Chart longer than any other Elvis album.

As if that weren't impressive enough, the single from the sessions earned a Gold Record almost instantly. "Can't Help Falling In Love With You" b/w "Rock-A-Hula, Baby" was a double-sided smash that went on to become a fixture on oldies radio. The Surfers' satin-smooth harmonies embellish both sides; Alan Naluai's frenzied chanting of rock! rock-a-hula! kicks off the latter, and provides the record's strongest hook. Ironically, as much fun as he had working with Elvis, Clayton Naluai's sharpest memory of him is how sad his life seemed. "He couldn't just go do what he wanted to do," Clay observed. "If he walked anywhere, he'd be mobbed! He had this entourage of guys that went around with him, just to keep him company. Otherwise, he'd have been a very, very lonely man."

Years later, the brothers Naluai did get the chance to appear on screen, supplementing their music careers with small roles on TV and in motion pictures. "'Hawaiian Eye' was the first TV show I appeared on, with Robert Conrad," Clay says. "And then I did some of 'Hawaii 5-0' with Jack Lord. My brother did more of that than I did. (Alan) was in the movies! He was in the movie Hawaii, and also The Hawaiians which was the follow-up. He was in about three or four movies. He did a lot of television, too . . . 'Magnum PI' and other shows." Had it been up to Clay, though, he would have left all the acting to his brother. "That's one part of entertaining that I really didn't enjoy. You may get an early call, or a late call, whatever, and when you get there, you can be sitting around for six hours before you get to shoot anything! If I could just go in and do it, and get out of there, that was fine with me!" His real passion was molding The Surfers’ stage act, and then giving his all in performance night after night. During his years as a performer, he studied aikido under Japanese sensei Koichi Tohei, and believes that the discipline he took from martial arts training helped him become a better musician. "The essence of who I am manifested itself (on stage)," Clay explains. "Because of that, I was more in touch with the other person's spirit, the essence of who they are. You forget yourself, and all your focus is on(the group). It's the concept of serving . . . my teacher called it 'toku,' serving without seeking attention or reward."

Throughout the 1960s, The Surfers served as ambassadors of Hawaiian music to mainland audiences. They regularly played upscale nightclubs in Hollywood and Las Vegas, such as the fabled Flamingo and Stardust clubs, and toured as far east as Chicago. However, during those years, Hawaii was just another touring destination for them. "Our base was in California," Clay says. "It was a lot easier to travel from California than it was to travel from Hawaii six or eight or nine months of the year. Our families, our wives and children, were all in California, and we would commute from our homes to wherever." Married life took drummer Bernie Ching out the group shortly after they recorded an album of motion-picture themes for Warner Brothers Records. At his wife's request, Bernie quit to spend more time at home. He was replaced by Joe Stevens, another native Hawaiian musician despite his English surname. By 1969, all of the boys were tired of touring, and ready to move back home. Yet according to Clay, their return was fraught with anxiety.

"When we first came back to Hawaii as a group, in 1969, we weren't sure if we were gonna be accepted! There were no "acts" (like us) in Hawaii . . . we started in California, and so we were unique. I guess we were accepted because we were so different." Their years on the mainland had given The Surfers a degree of professionalism that was new in Hawaiian music circles. They added Hollywood gloss and polish with what Clay liked to call "a Hawaiian spirit." The combination proved to be a potent one, and The Surfers were welcomed at the islands' top venues: Don The Beachcomber's, The Outrigger Waikiki, The Club C'Est Si Bon and the Imperial Hawaii Hotel, just to name a few. Buddy Naluai joined the group during this period. "He was just kinda hanging around in Waikiki," Clay recalls. I said: 'Hey Buddy! Come work with us.'" With brother Buddy on board, it was more of a family affair than ever, and for another decade, The Surfers sang and played and plied their unique brand of entertainment. They also continued to record albums for independent labels, winning critical acclaim with a 1974 collection called Shells.

Shells

When the ride finally ended for the group, family concerns were once again the catalyst. In January of 1980, the Naluai family patriarch was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. It was devastating news for the entire family, but Clayton Naluai was affected in a very profound way. "I was 43 years of age at that time. I thought, my father could've retired when he was 43 . . . he could've had at least 20 years of retirement!" Of course, Alzheimer's can be hereditary, and this fact obviously weighed heavily on his mind. Time became precious for Clay, and he decided that however much he had left would be better spent with his wife and children. "On January 16, 1980, I said to my brother Al: 'I'm stopping,'" he reveals. "And so I just stopped, and that's why the group broke up. When we broke up, Joe (Stevens) went and did things on his own, and my brother went and did things on his own." Pat Sylva soon founded his own group, and Clay settled into an early retirement. However, The Surfers had one more wave to ride.

One day, Clay and his wife Margaret ran into Hawaiian superstar Don Ho in the parking lot of a Honolulu movie theater. Unaware that The Surfers had broken up, Ho expressed interest in having the group open his new stage show for him. Clay explained that the group no longer existed, and when Ho suggested a reunion, he stated unequivocally that he "didn't want to be up at two or three o'clock in the morning, working!" But the Hawaiian music superstar was not easily dissuaded. He eventually talked Al and Clay into an opening act, but only on Clay’s terms. It had to last no longer than fifteen minutes! "I'd leave home about a quarter to eight, get there, park my car, walk backstage, and change my clothes just in time for the announcer to say: Ladies and gentlemen! The Surfers!" Clay chuckles. "And then we'd walk out (on stage), just Clay and Al. We'd perform, and fifteen minutes later, I'd go back, change my clothes again, and I'm home! That was fine with me. At that time, (Don Ho) was appearing at Duke Kahanamoku's club, in the International Marketplace. Then he went over to the Hilton Hawaiian Village Dome." As popular as ever with audiences, Al and Clay remained part of the Don Ho Show until the Hawaiian Village Dome closed, and then Clay promptly went back into retirement. On rare occasions, though, the two-man edition of The Surfers would reunite . . . for instance, to entertain aboard the cruise ship Independence in the year 2000, or to record duets like "You Gotta Feel Aloha," which became a local hit.

Al was recording an album and preparing to launch a solo career when tragedy struck. "One day, he asked me to bring him something," Clay remembers, "and I went to take it to him. I noticed he was very . . . he looked very drawn. He was still performing and recording. I actually said to him, you need to stop . . . you're killing yourself. Stop! (But) he didn't." On 10 March 2001, heart disease claimed Alan Naluai at age 62. Although he'd suffered an earlier heart attack, his death came as a complete shock to his family and friends. His funeral was held at Kawaiaha'o Church in Honolulu. "He was a very likeable person," Clay says, "but I'm prejudiced about that!" The three thousand mourners who crowded the church on 18 March proved that Al's likeability was much more than a matter of prejudice. Music from his solo CD, which was issued posthumously, was performed at the memorial service. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the ocean off Waikiki . . . an appropriate burial for a man who became famous as a Surfer. In March 2005, the surviving members of The Surfers (including Bernie Ching) reunited in Honolulu for a one-off benefit performance for the American Heart Association. Stepping to the microphone, Joe Stevens told the capacity crowd at Kapono’s Lounge that the group’s performance that night was in honor of Alan’s memory.

Today, forty-six years after his first aikido lesson from Sensei Tohei, Clayton Naluai is himself a sixth dan aikido sensei who runs his own school of instruction in Honolulu. He has a daughter who performs as a dancer, and a nephew, Alan Naluai, Jr., who carries on the family's musical tradition as an entertainer in Sweden. Clay looks back fondly on his years as an entertainer and (though he’s loath to admit it) an Asian-American sex symbol! "I enjoy entertaining now," he admits, "only I don't do it regularly anymore." With his rich, masculine speaking voice, burning bedroom eyes, and wavy white hair, it’s a sure bet that this silver fox can still get the cocoanut milk flowing when ladies are around!

The Surfers, along with their late contemporaries Don Ho and Alfred Apaka, brought a higher standard of musicianship to Hawaiian entertainment. Yet if you ask Clay what the most important element in the group's success was, he’d say it was their ability to have fun together. "Our act evolved from just singing, to singing and having fun! (It's) all right to get up on stage and enjoy yourself. That's why we were together for so long." Fun, sex appeal, Hollywood flavor and Hawaiian spirit. There you have it in a (cocoa)nut shell . . . the story of The Surfers.

Hawaiian Surfers

Special thanks to Clayton Naluai.

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