Hoopii, Sol (1902-1953)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 6/07/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20370

Solomon Ho'opi'i Ka'ai'ai, known as "King of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar," was an extremely gifted player, a great innovator, and an originator of the Sacred Steel movement. He sailed from Hawaii to California by ocean liner in 1919. Finding little work in San Francisco, he headed to Hollywood where -- under the simplified stage name "Sol Hoopii" (pronounced sawhl ho-ohh-pee-eee) -- he was quickly embraced by the entertainment biz. The Hawaiian music craze was in full swing and Hoopii soon formed a trio, performed on national radio broadcasts, began recording for major labels, appeared in numerous movies, and before long was nicknamed the "Hollywood Hawaiian" -- reputedly the most famous Hawaiian musician on earth. Then, in 1938, he found religion and turned away from fortune and fame to devote his life to performing sacred hymns. While touring the Pacific Northwest in 1942 he crossed paths with Seattle's steel-guitar teacher and manufacturer Paul Tutmarc Sr. (1896-1972), forging a steadfast friendship with the entire Tutmarc family. Hoopii later married Anna Hutchinson of Seattle and bought a home in the city, where he played numerous shows until his death, of complications from diabetes, at Virginia Mason Hospital in 1953.

Honolulu to Hollywood

Solomon Ho'opi'i Ka'ai'ai was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on December 19, 1902, and began showing a knack for music by age 3, when he took up the ukulele. By age 5 he was playing a Spanish-style guitar. As a teenager, inspired by the music of pioneering Hawaiian steel guitarists, including Joseph Kekuku (1897-1932), Ho'opi'i began "steeling" his guitar -- the technique in which one plays the guitar horizontally, picking the strings while sliding a steel bar laterally along the strings creating glissando effects to produce what became an instantly recognizable sound in not just Hawaiian music but also later in country/western music. After a period of honing his skills playing for tourists at Kapiolani Park in Honolulu, Ho'opi'i scored a regular gig with Johnny Noble and his Orchestra, which led to dreams of greater fame.

When he was 17, Ho'opi'i and a couple of pals committed themselves to going to the mainland to seek better opportunities. In October 1919 his buddies managed to get hired as waiters aboard the Matson Navigation Company's ocean liner the SS Sonoma, which was heading back to San Francisco from Oahu. Ho'opi'i evidently failed to get hired, and so snuck aboard as a stowaway -- although he was soon discovered and put to work, as the ship's manifest ultimately listed him as having "workaway" status (Rockwell, 8).

Upon arrival in San Francisco -- where the Hawaiian music craze had exploded during the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 -- Ho'opi'i struggled to find gigs and he reportedly even took up boxing to make a few bucks. In 1920 he headed south to Los Angeles, where he scored a modest gig playing at Chinese restaurants with Decker's Hawaiian Serenaders. The following year he married a fellow entertainer, the dancer and ukulele player Georgia Stiffler, who became deeply involved in Aimee Semple McPherson's (1890-1944) Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

In 1922 Ho'opi'i joined the trio Mackie's Queen's Hawaiians. The group was led by George M. Mackie, who had originally formed it back around 1918 before moving to Seattle in 1920. During his Northwest interlude, Mackie bought a house at 3608 Palatine Avenue N in the Wallingford neighborhood and taught ukulele and Hawaiian guitar at a downtown music studio well into 1922. Moving back to Los Angeles that same year, he re-formed Mackie's Queen's Hawaiians, playing ukulele alongside Lani McIntyre on Spanish guitar and Ho'opi'i on steel guitar, and they began to get their first taste of stardom. The popular trio began performing on pioneering L.A. radio station KHJ, and by 1923 they were being touted as "Radioland's most consistent Hawaiian Trio" (Rockwell, 9).

By that December Sol Hoopii, as he simplified his name, had formed a new band, the Hoopii Novelty Three, with McIntyre and a new ukulele man, Julian "Glenwood" Leslie. Hoopii's star was now ascending rapidly, in part because he was able to play a wide variety of musical genres, including pop hits and blues tunes -- often with a notably jazzy edge -- in addition to the expected Hawaiian favorites. In 1925 the trio began performing regularly on the Hollywood nightclub scene, as well as on Hollywood-based radio station KFWB. They also began cutting discs -- under the name Sol Hoopii and his Hawaiian Trio for one of the earliest West Coast labels, Sunset Records. Interestingly, this made future Washington resident Hoopii a label-mate of another early Hawaiian-guitar star with ties to Washington -- John Coppock (1899-1959), who grew up in Peshastin in Chelan County, was active around Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s, and also recorded with Sunset.

Next came Hoopii and his band's appearance in numerous movies, beginning with His Jazz Bride in 1926. That same year, the Sol Hoopii Trio signed with a major record label, Columbia. Their first songs on the label, "Farewell Blues"/"Stack o' Lee Blues" (Columbia No. 797-D), featured the debut recording of a brand-new invention: the National String Instrument Corporation's tri-cone ampliphonic resonator guitar. The Los Angeles-based manufacturer wanted to draw attention to its shiny metal-clad square-neck hollow-body guitar and chose Hollywood's most celebrated steeler to introduce its unique sound to the world. National gave Hoopii a prototype and, between the series of Columbia recordings up through 1931 and Hoopii's gigs at such prominent venues as Grauman's Million Dollar Theatre, accomplished this mission: Resonator guitars became a standard tool for legions of subsequent Hawaiian steelers as well as southern bluesmen.

Electrifying Music

It was also in 1931 that the Los Angeles-based Ro-Pat-In Company recruited the Sol Hoopii Trio to perform at a marathon three-day-long Hollywood bash at the home of a millionaire. The goal was to have the guitar-playing star publicly introduce the prototype of another new-fangled instrument -- the electrified "Frying Pan" lap steel guitar -- in an effort entice investors to fund its production. The cutting-edge sounds of the instrument astonished the guests and the host himself, Ted Kleinmeyer, stepped up with a check for $12,500. With additional funding, the firm was positioned to gear up and launch nationally -- and it was eventually recast as the famed electric-guitar maker Rickenbacker.

In 1933 Hoopii moved over to the Brunswick record label, where he recorded many more discs. Around 1935 he acquired Rickenbacker's latest guitar, a Bakelite plastic-bodied Electro String Model B, and he continued his career trajectory ever-upward, appearing in more movies -- including the 1937 smash hit Waikiki Wedding with Spokane's singing superstar, Bing Crosby (1903-1977). Then in 1938 Hoopii shifted to another major label, Decca Records, and also got one of Rickenbacker's improved units, a Model B6 Hawaiian Guitar -- his favored instrument for the remainder of his life.

Sacred Steel Music

It was on Easter Sunday 1938 that Hoopii attended a church service with his wife at the Church of the Foursquare Gospel and, inspired by the fervent testimony of a 12-year-old congregant, he felt the spirit and converted to Christianity on the spot. From then on he eschewed the glamorous Hollywood life and dedicated himself to performing sacred rather than secular music. Indeed he can justifiably be considered the pioneer of the sub-genre now called "Sacred Steel" music.

Years of touring the country playing for Christian audiences commenced. In November 1942 a meeting at one such concert in Washington -- at the Foursquare Church at 911 E. Fourth Street in Olympia -- had a significant impact on Hoopii's subsequent life and career. Among those in attendance that night was Seattle music teacher, radio singer, guitarist, inventor, and maker of Audiovox brand electric guitars Paul H. Tutmarc Sr. A longtime fan of Hoopii's records and radio broadcasts, Tutmarc drove down to Olympia, watched the performance, introduced himself, and then offered to drive the star back to Seattle, where a late-night jam session took place at the Tutmarc home at 8217 Eighth Avenue NE. That night Hoopii got his first chance to play one of Tutmarc's Audiovox electric lap steel guitars, while Tutmarc took a turn playing the master's beloved Rickenbacker Model B6.

Tutmarc's namesake teenage son, guitarist Paul H. "Bud" Tutmarc (1924-2006), also participated in that jam and he was as thrilled as his father was. He recalled:

"Sol Hoopii had always been my dad's idol ... My dad had every record ever made by Sol, and wore them out playing them so many times so that he could learn to play like Sol Hoopii. I was raised on Sol's music since I could remember and ... [w]hat a thrill it was for me to meet Sol Hoopii personally. ... We played together, traveled together and I consider him the greatest steel guitarist this world will ever know" ("Man or Myth").

The whole Tutmarc family bonded with Hoopii. Indeed, as the years went by, he often stayed with them when touring the Northwest circuit. Some years after Hoopii's death, Paul Tutmarc's second wife, Bonnie Guitar (b. 1923), even issued her own version of an early Hoopii hit, "Akaka Falls," in November 1959 on the Seattle-based label she cofounded, Dolton Records.

But it was Bud Tutmarc, in particular, who forged an abiding friendship with him, helping Hoopii book local shows, performing along with the star, and later welcoming him as a houseguest. Indeed, on the very day Bud and his new bride Opal Tutmarc (1926-2016) returned home from their honeymoon in October 1945 they discovered Hoopii patiently waiting for them on their front porch. He was welcomed inside and their friendship deepened. It was also in 1945 that Bud began following in his father's footsteps by founding his own guitar-making firm, the Bud-Electro Manufacturing Company. He began producing electric lap steels, and his new friend Hoopii helped support the enterprise by posing for promotional photos with a white Bud-Electro lap steel guitar.

As the 1940s progressed, Hoopii kept on gigging and the shows he did included many in and around Seattle, mostly in churches, although there was a November 15, 1942, date at the Moore Theatre in downtown Seattle. Hoopii appeared on July 21, 1946, at Queen Anne Christian Church, and on February 28, 1949, at the Union Gospel Mission, at 716 1/2 First Avenue in Seattle's Pioneer Square. That was followed by five performances in the first six days of March 1949, at Seattle's Capitol Hill Methodist, University Presbyterian, First Methodist, and First Presbyterian churches, and Bethel Baptist in Everett.

By the end of that year, Hoopii was residing in Seattle.

The Seattle Years

At some point Hoopii's first marriage crumbled -- and the saga of his getting into a second relationship is a tangled one. The young woman with whom he settled in Seattle was Anna Eleanor Hutchinson (1913-2003), who had grown up on Queen Anne Hill and attended Queen Anne High School. Hutchinson, whose father had given her a brand-new Martin 2-17 acoustic guitar in 1931, and her sister Mary both fell hard for the Hawaiian music craze, which happened to have an unusually strong profile in Seattle. Indeed, the town boasted a sizeable community of ex-pat Pacific Islanders and -- ever since Hawaiian music made its local debut at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYP) of 1909 -- a considerable fan base for that music.

(The Hutchinsons weren't the only Seattle sisters transfixed by Hawaiian music. Another Seattleite, Helen Greenus (1887?-1919), had much earlier joined forces with traveling musician Palakiko Ferreira (1885-1951) and the guitar-playing duo -- working as "Helen Louise and Frank Ferera" -- carved out a successful performing career. They cut their first of countless records in 1915 and, after being joined by Helen's singing sister, Irene Greenus, in 1917, went on to much further success as a trio on stage and with major-label recordings.)

Sol Hoopii's best friends in Seattle, the Tutmarcs, couldn't help but note the untidy manner in which their friend had ended his marriage with Georgia Stiffler and begun the relationship with Anna Hutchinson. Although kind and nonjudgmental people, the Tutmarcs' gentle speculating about the details later sifted down to Bud and Opel's eldest son, Greg Tutmarc (b. 1953), who eventually forged a lasting friendship with Anna Hutchinson. He learned about how, early on, the two Hutchinson sisters used to sneak out of their home in order to see touring Hawaiian musicians performing around town at various theaters and hotel ballrooms.

Beyond that, Greg recalled vaguely scandalized whispers that Anna had actually been dating another Hawaiian musician -- until, that is, Hoopii showed up, expressed an interest in her, and the first musician allegedly "gave" her to Hoopii as a "gift." Then there were the rumors that Hoopii had actually "forgotten" to get a divorce before marrying Anna. Regardless, Hoopii's second wife was evidently quite happy and the new couple eventually bought a home at 7012 10th Avenue NW in North Seattle.

Still, being a musician is no easy path in life and by this point Hoopii had been so long away from his big-bucks Hollywood glory days that he and Anna were struggling to make financial ends meet. Sadly, one live local recording actually includes a spoken appeal for the church congregation to contribute to a collection in order to help the couple meet their mortgage payment. No doubt this financial pressure is why Hoopii began alternating church performances with occasional Hawaiian/pop concerts -- shows that Bud Tutmarc sometimes dubbed "Monday Musicales."

And he kept performing right up until shortly before his death. On July 28, 1952, and again on May 23, 1953, he appeared at the Masonic Temple on Capitol Hill in "A Night in Hawaii" programs along with Bud Tutmarc's All-City Christian Orchestra and Chorus, and four days after the 1953 program he returned to the Masonic Temple for a show that included Hoopii and Bud Tutmarc in a steel-guitar duet medley showcasing "Mansion Over the Hilltop," "It Is No Secret," and "Aloha Oe." Other venues in 1952 included Calvary Temple at E 69th Street and Third Avenue NE, West Seattle Assembly of God, and Seattle Pacific College's McKinley Auditorium, and on June 8, 1953, Hoopii appeared at Chapel Auditorium at Second Avenue and Stewart Street.

Leaving the Stage

By the summer of 1953, Hoopii's diabetes was causing his eyesight to fail, which began having an impact on his ability to perform. However, he wanted to continue, and Bud Tutmarc (who, incidentally, would oversee the entire music program, including the youth choir, the senior choir, and an orchestra, at the Calvary Temple church for at least 25 years) stepped up once again, this time booking Seattle's Moore Theatre and organizing a major show featuring his friend for September 28, 1953. That evening, as the crowd settled in, and Tutmarc's orchestra opened the show, he was stunned when it became obvious that Hoopii would need a guiding hand to even find his way from backstage to his spot-lit center-stage chair. The concert went well, but Hoopii had a major realization: his days as a performer had probably come to a close.

Tutmarc hoped otherwise, and booked an even larger venue -- Seattle's Civic Auditorium at 225 Mercer Way -- for their next concert on November 16. But reality set in when, in October, Hoopii took the definitive step of presenting his friend with a gift: his beloved Model B6 Hawaiian Guitar. The King of Hawaiian Steel Guitar would be playing no more. On November 9, Hoopii was admitted to Seattle's Virginia Mason Hospital. A week later, just hours before the November 16 concert began, Solomon Ho'opi'i Ka'ai'ai died at age 51. Tutmarc went ahead with the show, dedicating it in his old friend's honor.

Hoopii's funeral was held on November 19, 1953, at the Calvary Temple, followed the next week by a memorial at the Masonic Temple on Capitol Hill. Sol Hoopii was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, California.

Aftermath and Legacy

Six years later, the president of Christian music company Sacred Records, Earle E. Williams, contacted Bud Tutmarc to explain that the label's final recording sessions with Hoopii had been shelved due to an audible electronic hum in the guitar tracks. Williams wondered whether Tutmarc -- who had "learned many of the Sol Hoopii techniques and today has emerged as the most renowned Hawaiian Steel Guitarist in Gospel Music" ("Bud Tutmarc: Hawaiian Steel Guitar") -- might want to come to Hollywood to help salvage the project by adding his own steel tracks as a replacement. In June 1959 Tutmarc went south to help out, cutting what would be his first of 25 LPs -- Sacred Hawaiian Melodies.

Meanwhile, as a widow, Anna Hoopii faced mounting debts and found it necessary to take on various jobs. In addition to a swing shift at Boeing, she acquired a real-estate broker's license and worked out of Bud Tutmarc's real-estate office. At some point in the 1950s she bought a new home at 2750 NE 92nd Street in Seattle's Wedgwood neighborhood, and along the way she built up a nice real-estate-investment portfolio. Then in 1961 she moved a few blocks to a new home at 2535 NE 91st Street, where in her later years she was carefully looked after by Bud and Greg Tutmarc and other friends until her passing on August 30, 2003.

A renewed marketplace interest in the work of Sol Hoopii began picking up momentum in the 1970s and he was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1979. In 1996 Lorene Ruymar's book The Hawaiian Guitar and its Great Hawaiian Musicians prominently featured an illustration (by Seattle artist Scott MacDougall) of Hoopii on its cover. Many reissues of his recordings have been produced, beginning around 1971 when Rounder Records issued the trail-blazing Hula Blues: Vintage Steel Guitar Instrumentals from the 30's and 40's compilation album (Rounder No. 1012), followed by the splendid 1977 compilation, Sol Hoopii: The Master of the Hawaiian Guitar, Vol. I (Rounder No. 1024). Then, in 1982, Bud Tutmarc's own Marc Records label marketed a 9-CD (130-song) set of performances featuring Hoopii and Tutmarc, Sol Hoopii: Private Recordings Collection, following up a bit later with a special 2-CD subset titled Sol Hoopii: Sacred Recordings Collection. Another notable release was Hana Ola Records 2006 compact disc, Sol Hoopii: Acoustic and Electric 1927-1936, and in 2007 Grass Skirt issued Sol Hoopii in Hollywood: His First Recordings 1925, a compact disc that finally made his debut recordings available after eight long decades.


Sources:

Peter Blecha interviews with Bud Tutmarc (1983-2002), Anna Hutchinson Hoopii (1997), and Greg Tutmarc (October 20, 2010), notes in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington; Greg Tutmarc, email to Peter Blecha, March 30, 2017, in possession of Peter Blecha; Richard R. Smith, email to Peter Blecha, October 26, 2010, copy in possession of Peter Blecha; "Bud Tutmarc: Hawaiian Steel Guitar," undated brochure, copy in possession of Peter Blecha; "Musical Rally to Climax Mission Week," The Seattle Times, March 5, 1949, p. 5; "Funeral Rites Set for Sol Hoopii," The Seattle Times, November 17, 1953, p. 5; "King County Deaths," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 6, 2003, p. B-4; Bob Brozman, The History & Artistry of National Resonator Instruments (Fullerton, CA: Centerstream Publishing, 1993), 27; Lorene Ruymar, The Hawaiian Guitar and its Great Hawaiian Musicians, (Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream Publishing, 1996), 90; Richard R. Smith, The Complete History of Rickenbacker Guitars, (Fullerton, CA: Centerstream Publishing, 1997), 11; John W. Troutman, Kīkā Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 131-132; Dave Stewart, "The Hollywood Record Company Story," liner note essay, Sol Hoopii in Hollywood: His First Recordings 1925, Grass Skirt Records, GSK 1002, 2007, pp. 5-6; T. Malcolm Rockwell, "Sol Hoopii: The Early Years," liner note essay, Sol Hoopii in Hollywood: His First Recordings 1925, pp. 8-9; Bud Tutmarc, "Man or Myth" (autobiographical essay), Bud Tutmarc website accessed October 21, 2010 (http://tutmarc.tripod.com/bud.html); Peter Blecha, "Seattle's Columbian Trio Plays Hawaiian Music (1920s)," Northwest Music Archives website accessed May 2, 2017 (http://nw-music-archives.blogspot.com/2013/10/seattles-columbian-trio-1920s.html).


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