Gabby “Pops” Pahinui
April 22, 1921 – October 13, 1980
The late Gabby “Pops” Pahinui is one of the great masters of Hawaiian vocal, slack key and steel guitar music.
A forefather of traditional modern day Hawaiian music, Gabby was a self-taught musician whose musical influences were the big band and jazz music that was brought to Hawaii to entertain tourists.
Gabby, Hawaiian Slack Key – Ki Ho’alu
Gabby was born in the Kaka’ako area of Honolulu, Oahu, Hawai’i in 1921 with the legal given name of Charles Kapono Kahahawai, Jr. His parents were struggling lei sellers. At the age of 6 (or 7) his parents gave him, his brother and one of his sisters away to be raised by another Hawaiian couple – Phillip and Emily Pahinui. In those days it was common and accepted to give children to another family who could provide and offer more, Hawaiian style, they call it hanai. Hanai was an ancient Hawaiian style “adoption” process which was sometimes formal but many times very informal with no paper trail. His hanai Pahinui family renamed him Phillip Kunia Pahinui, a name he was known by through his lifetime but he had to use his Kahahawai name on official documents until he legally changed it to Phillip Kunia Pahinui later in his life.
Gabby dropped out of school after the 5th grade selling newspapers and shining shoes to help his family. He also dived for coins which were thrown off docked ships by visiting tourist. He was only 10 years old when he taught himself to play bass fiddle. He also learned to play jazz music on a borrowed guitar. Gabby’s hanai mom bought him his first guitar for around $10, a lot of money back then.
All the musicians around Gabby played Hawaiian music, so he began learning Hawaiian. He started enjoying and loving Hawaiian music listening and learning from old timers Sol Ho’opi’i, Eddie Bush, Andy Iona, and the Biltmore Trio. By the age of 12 he was playing Hawaiian music earning extra money for cigarettes. The “infamous musician lifestyle”, At 13 Gabby started playing in bars, drinking, getting in trouble and going to jail. Gabby learned quickly from the old-timers, gaining experience playing guitar, base guitar, and steel guitar. He learned ki ho’alu – slack key from Herman Keawe.
Gabby was only 17 years old when he married his wife Emily in 1938. Together they had 13 children. Despite success in music, the Pahinui’s life was one of struggle. Rent was hard to pay, and with 13 mouths to feed food was something not easily put on the table. During the 50’s Gabby, Emily and the children moved to famous Pahinui home in Waimanalo.
In 1946, Gabby made his first recording, “Hi’ilawe,” for the Bell Records label. This may be the first record of a Hawaiian song with slack-key guitar and it inspired many local musicians. The following year came “Hula Medley,” the first record of a slack-key guitar instrumental. During this period he made two other influential sides for Bell, the vocal “Wai O Ke Aniani” and the instrumental “Key Koalu” (a misspelling of “Kī Hō’alu”), plus another version of “Hi’ilawe” for Aloha Records.
In 1946 under the Bell Records label, Gabby made his first recording, Hi’ilawe. This was the first recording of a Hawaiian song with slack-key guitar.
The Hawaiian Renaissance of the ’70s launched a cultural reawakening of all things Hawaiian. Gabby played a very important part in the rise of this Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance.
Gabby played professionally with many of the great bands and all of the great musicians of the time including such legends as Lena Machado, Alvin Isaacs, Barney Isaacs, Ray Kinney, George Kainapau, Peter Moon, Mahi Beamer, Sonny Chillingsworth, Eddie Kamae, Don Ho, and Kui Lee.
As for the name “Gabby”, there are two different stories…
1) When swimming, water would just roll off Gabby’s kinky hair. His friends started calling him “Gabardine Hair” – which evolved into the name “Gabby”.
2) In his early career, Gabby played steel guitar with an orchestra. The standard costume for the gig was gabardine pants—hence his name.
In 2002 Gabby “Pops” Pahinui was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame.