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Beyond 'Tiny Bubbles:' Don Ho, Hawaii's Favorite Son

Music | August 21, 2018

Left: Johnny Cash and Don Ho in 1969. Right: Don Ho on the cover of his album 'Hawaii's Greatest Hits.'Source: NBCU Photo Bank; Wikimedia Commons

Hawaiian singer Don Ho, of "Tiny Bubbles" fame, was a popular entertainer throughout the '60s and '70s. In addition to recording hit songs, Ho entertained crowds at his wildly-popular stage shows in Las Vegas and on concert tours. He guest starred in some of the hit TV shows of the era and even hosted his own variety show. There was a lot more to Don Ho than Hawaiian shirts, ukuleles, and tiny bubbles -- he and his large family were and continue to be a beloved and looming cultural presence in Hawaii.

Don Ho Didn’t Start Performing Until He Was In The Military

After Don Ho graduated from Kamehameha School then earned a football scholarship to Springfield College. He transferred to the University of Hawaii, where he earned a bachelor degree in sociology. Once his education was complete, Ho joined the United States Air Force…a full five years before Hawaii was even a state…and was sent to bases in Mississippi and California. It was in California that Ho bought his first electric keyboard. Although he had always been musically inclined, it was that keyboard that helped Ho realize his musical potential and passion. 

Don Ho Rode A Wave Of Hawaiian Popularity To Fame

Hawaii officially became the 50th state in the union in 1959 which launched a trend as people on the mainland clamored for everything Hawaiian. This trend peaked in the late 1960s. Hawaiian shirts, luau parties, surfing, hula dancing and leis had become popular as people across the United States embraced the exoticism of their new sister state. Don Ho, with his good looks, floral shirt and ukulele, was just the kind of Hawaiian celebrity they were looking for. 

Do Ho Grew Up Performing At 'Honey's,' His Mother's Saloon

Emily "Honey" Ho, mother of Don Ho

Don Ho's mother's real name was Emily Leimaile Silya, but everyone called her Honey. She married James Ah You Puao Ho and opened a bar called Honey’s in Kaneohe, near the Kaneohe Marine Base. In the early 1960s, Honey’s was a happening place for live, local entertainment. After his military service, Don Ho helped his ailing mother run the bar and often performed there. In 1963, he moved Honey’s from Kaneohe to Waikiki. 

Don Ho Loved To Honor His Fellow Veterans

Don Ho was proud of his military service and, throughout his entertainment career, he honored his fellow veterans whenever he could. During his stage shows, he would ask the audience members to raise their hands if any of them were World War II veterans. Then he would ask if any were Pearl Harbor survivors. He would invite veterans of the Pacific Theatre to join him on stage to dance with the beautiful hula dancers. He would joke to the veterans of the European Theatre, “You got your glory in the movies. Now watch as the Pacific Theatre veterans get their glory with the hula girls!”

Don Ho Became Popular Performing At A Night Club Owned By A Surfing Legend

Honey’s new location at Waikiki was still small, and crowds pushed in to hear Don Ho perform. He was invited to sing at a larger venue, Duke’s, a nightclub owned by Duke Kahanamoku, a legendary Hawaiian swimmer who helped bring surfing to the mainstream. It was Ho’s performances at Duke’s that helped him catch the attention of record producers. 

Other Hawaiian Performers Accused Don Ho Of Being A Sell-Out

Although it had a distinctive island flair, Don Ho’s music was typical of the light-instrumental, easy listening tunes of the early to mid-1960s. Part of its popularity was that it was similar enough to typical American pop music to make it relatable. But many other Hawaiian entertainers felt the Don Ho’s music was too commercialized and white-washed the traditional Hawaiian sound. They grimaced when tourists went to a Don Ho show to get a "traditional" Hawaiian experience. Toward the end of the 1960s, however, there was a trend in Hawaii to move back closer to the traditional style of island music. Despite this trend, Don Ho’s popularity never dipped. Tourists still flocked to his shows. And Ho's natural gift for showmanship made him an effective ambassador for Hawaii.

Don Ho Married Two Times And Fathered Ten Kids

Don Ho and his daughter, Hoku, in 2001

Well before his musical celebrity of the sixties, Don Ho married his high school sweetheart, Melva May Lolokea Wong. The couple remained married for 48 years until Melva’s death in 1999. With Melva, Ho had six children. Ho went on to have four more children from two new relationships. Ho introduced all of his children to the entertainment business. Three of them, Don Ho, Jr., Kea, and Hoku, became popular performers on their own. Don Ho married his second wife, Haumea Hebenstreit, in 2006. He had a heart attack a few days later and had a pacemaker put in. Their marriage was short lived. Don Ho died of a heart attack a little more than six months after their wedding. 

Don Ho Made Numerous TV Guest Appearances

Don Ho with Barbara Eden on the set of I Dream of Jeannie

The TV shows and sitcoms of the 1960s and 1970s also tried to capitalize on the Hawaiian craze and they found that inviting Don Ho to be a special guest on their show accomplished that goal. Don Ho appeared as himself in The Brady Bunch, Batman, Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, I Dream of Jeannie, Sanford and Son, and more. Even though Ho’s popularity was waning in the seventies, he still landed a gig hosting a television variety show on ABC called The Don Ho Show. It ran from 1976 to 1977. 

Tags: Don Ho | Famous Singers | Hawaii | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Trivia Questions And Answers

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.