Don Ho forged a career out of his own blend of Hawaiian and hapa haole standards, the mainstream pop hits of the day, and the written songs by Kui Lee. His name will forever be associated with such songs as "Tiny Bubbles," Kui Lee's "I'll Remember You." and "Pearly Shells."
For 43 years, Ho could be found performing to a packed house in Waikiki, first at Duke Kahanamoku's, 1964-70; Cinerama Reef Towers' Polynesian Palace, 1970-81; his own Don Ho's Waikiki, 1981-91; Hilton Hawaiian Village Dome, 1992; Hula Hut, 1992-93; Outrigger Reef Towers' Polynesian Palace, 1992-94; and most recently at the Waikiki Beachcomber's Hoku Hale Showroom, 1994-2007.
Donald Tai Loy Ho was born Kaka'ako, Oahu on August 13, 1930. He was the embodiment of what it is to be Hawaiian in the 20th century, part Hawaiian, part Chinese, part Portugese, part German and part Dutch.
A Kamehameha schools graduate of 1949, Ho earned a bachelor of science degree in 1954 from the University of Hawaii. Following graduation he entered the U.S. Air Force where he served from 1954-1959 and attained the rank of first lieutenant.
Following his discharge he returned to manage his mother's bar Honey's in Kaneohe where he had grown up listening to Hawaiian music, jazz and popular swing on the juke box during the war years. That mixture of Hawaiian music and popular music would influence his own style and tastes for the rest of his life.
In a 1999 interview with Burl Burlingame for the Honolulu Star Bulletin, Ho stated, "It created a nice hybrid sound in my head," said Ho. "Everything was treated equally, and it went all day and all night long. Later, I realized I knew all these songs, hundreds of songs, and I don't know where they came from. I picked up music through osmosis."
Ho began playing an old chording organ and singing at the bar and there was no turning back. By 1964 his career had taken off, thanks largely to a song that Ho forever claimed he didn't really like, "Tiny Bubbles." While Ho may have disliked the song, millions of visitors to Hawaii loved it and it became his signature song for almost 50 years.
The last three years of Don's life have been marked by his battle with cardiomyopathy, a serious disease in which the heart muscle becomes inflamed and doesn't work as well as it should. Unable to find satisfactory treatment in the U.S., Ho traveled to Thailand where in November 2005, he underwent VesCell Adult Stem Cell surgery in Bangkok. As explained in the Honolulu Advertiser, "The procedure uses stem cells taken from the patient's own blood, which are multiplied in a laboratory and inserted back into the patient's heart to restore damaged tissue."
Ho showed some improvement following the surgery and even resumed his show at the Waikiki Beachcomber's Hoku Hale Showroom although on a reduced schedule. It is reported he had hoped to return to Thailand for further surgery. His last show was just two days before his death on Thursday evening.
It's easy for fans of today's Hawaiian music to see Don Ho as more of a pop singer or crooner with roots in the 1940's style of music and performance and not a true Hawaiian musician. It's impossible to know just how many middle aged haole ladies Ho brought up on stage to give a kiss and have their photo taken with Hawaii's big music star.
The fact, however, is that without Don Ho, there would likely never have been the renaissance of Hawaiian music of all styles that we've seen over the past 30 years. Ho paved the way for all of today’s superstars of Hawaiian music opening many doors that were previously shut.
Don Ho's legacy lives on with his amazingly talented 25-year-old daughter Hoku Ho, whose song "Perfect Day" was the title song to Reese Witherspoon's movie "Legally Blond." Her second album is scheduled for release this summer.