Gabby Pahinui - Biography

By J Poet

Gabby Pahinui was perhaps the greatest slack key guitar player Hawaii ever produced, bridging the older traditional styles with a more expansive, modern take that he pioneered. He only had one album ever released on the American mainland, The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band, Volume 1 (1976 Pahinui) which was helped along by the presence of Ry Cooder who had invited Pahinui to play on his album Chicken Skin Music (1976 Warner). Pahinui recorded infrequently, but always was glad to help out up and coming younger musicians. He hosted a weekend jam session at his home for many years singing, playing, teaching and feeding generations of slack key guitarists. The Renaissance of interest in Hawaiian music in the 70s was in part due to Paine’s persistence in playing traditional music. He started his own label in the 70s and recorded four classical albums with The Gabby band before passing in 1980.


Charles Philip “Gabby” Pahinui was born in 1921 on Honolulu. He was part of a large, poor family and dropped out of school in the 5th grade to help support his brothers and sisters by shining shoes and other menial jobs. By the time he was 10 he could play stand up bass and guitar. While still in his teens, he got his first job as a professional musician in the band of Charley Tiny” Brown, where he learned to play steel guitar. He married his wife Emily at age 17 and together they had 10 children.


He learned slack key style guitar from a man he only remembers as “Herman,” and quickly mastered the style. He made his first single, “Hi’ilawe,” for Bell Records in 1946, and it may be the first time slack key guitar was ever recorded according to Hawaiian musical scholars. Two more hit singles for Bell followed - “Wai O Ke Aniani” and the instrumental “Key Koalu.” He also recoded for other labels, but mostly made his living playing in the bands of Andy Cummings, Lena Machado, and Ray Kinney, traveling throughout Hawaii and the American mainland. He also had a slot on Hawaii Calls, a popular radio show of the 1930s. He was also a session guitarist and appeared on many Hawaiian pop albums.


In 1961, Dave Guard, who had left the Kingston Trio and seen his post-Kingston project The Whiskeyhill Singers implode, fell in love with slack key guitar. He made recorded Pahinui’s first solo album in 1961. Despite Guard’s considerable clout, nobody was interested in putting out the album, one that might have changed the course of Hawaiian music (and Pahinui’s life.) That recording sat on a shelf until 1978 when Hula Records finally released it as Pure Gabby: I Just Play How I Feel (1995 Hula CD.) The album is considered on of the finest slack key recordings ever made.


In the 60s he played with Eddie Kamae’s Sons of Hawai’i and made several albums that sparked new interest in slack key guitar including Sons of Hawai’i (1961 Hula) and Music of Old Hawai`i (1964 Hula.) In the early 70s there was a Hawaiian Renaissance Movement, kicked off in part by the recordings of the Sons of Hawai’i. Pahinui recruited his sons Philip, Bla, Martin and Cyril, Leland “Atta” Isaacs and bass player Manuel Kuhapa for The Gabby Band. On record the band also included Ry Cooder and Sonny Chillingworth. They made four legendary albums Gabby (1972 Pahinui), Rabbit Island Music Festival (1973 Pahinui), Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band, Vol. 1 (1975 Pahinui), and Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band, Vol. 2


(1976 Pahinui). During the 70s he also hosted a weekend jam session at his home singing, playing, teaching and feeding any musician that showed up from Friday afternoon to early Monday morning.


Despite the success of his albums, Pahinui still keep his day job, working for The City and County road and refuse crews of Honolulu. A 1979 accident left him unable to do hard labor and he died in 1980 at the age of 59.

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