Sol Hoopii - Biography

Sol Hoopii is one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th Century. His own unique blend of Hawaiian music and jazz created a new genre and set of a Hawaiian music craze that briefly swept mainland America in 1925. The steel guitar techniques he invented are the foundation that dobro and pedal steel players still rely on. His open tunings inspired generations of pickers; his C# minor tuning is still used by most of today’s pedal steel players in Nashville.


Hoopii was born in Honolulu in 1902, the youngest of 21 children. He picked up the ukulele at three and was soon playing guitar and Hawaiian (steel) guitar. At 17, he stowed away on a liner bound for San Francisco to become a professional musician. Legend says he was discovered by the crew, but charmed them with his music. The other passengers on board allegedly chipped in to pay his way to San Francisco.


Hoopii settled in Los Angeles and formed a trio with guitarist Lani McIntire, Glenwood Leslie on ukelele and Hoopii on Hawaiian guitar (dobro). They performed jazz and blues tunes that featured Hoopii’s hot improvisations, sounding like a Hawaiian version of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France.  Hoopii began recording in 1925 and made over 200 78 RPM singles under names that included The Waikiki Hawaiian Trio, Hawaiian Syncopators, Hollywood Trio, Sol Hoopii and his Novelty Trio, Sol Hoopii and his Novelty Quartet, and Sol Hoopii and his Novelty Five. He recorded for Decca, Brunswick, Columbia and Sunset. His records kicked off a Hawaiian music craze and he appeared in movies, both as a musician and actor, appearing with Bing Crosby in Waikiki Wedding (1937) as well as parts in the Charlie Chan series. He was a much in demand musical director, session player and bandleader and wrote the soundtrack for the Betty Boop cartoon Betty’s Bamboo Isle (1932). In 1935 he started using an electric lap steel guitar in a C# minor tuning that allowed him to freely improvise. His lightening fast runs, syncopated rhythms, grace notes, comped chords and the sound effects he got out of the instrument were the essence of hot jazz and laid the groundwork for the burgeoning sound of country music. Jimmy Helms, the pedal steel player for Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys, played Hoopii solos note for note on early Williams’ recordings.


In 1938, Hoopii became a born again Christian and  traveled the Gospel circuit with evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson preaching and playing religious music, some of which he recorded for various small labels. He returned to secular music for a 1948 tour of Hawaii, but continued preaching until his death in 1953.


Despite his lasting influence, Hoopii’s music has never received the attention it deserves, but there are a few good collections available. Master of the Hawaiian Guitar (1977 Rounder) was compiled by Hoopii fan Bob Brozman and features sessions recorded from 1926 to 1930. His ability to mimic jazzy horn solos is especially impressive. Master of the Hawaiian Guitar, Vol. II (1987 Rounder) has tracks from Hoopii’s middle and late years and includes his innovative lap steel work. Sol Hoopii Acoustic and Electric 1927 — 1936 (2006 Hana Ola) is a generous 20 tune disc, Classic Hawaiian Steel Guitar Performances 1933-34 (2007 Original Jazz Library) draws on Hawaiian standards, but Hoopii’s playing is pure, jazzy and bluesy. Sol Hoopii in Hollywood, His First Recordings 1925 (2007 Beer) includes everything he cut for the small Sunset, Silver Screen and Hollywood labels, before signing with Columbia, 19 tracks including three out takes. The disc also includes music by his contemporaries Coppock's Hawaiian Quartet, Charles Frederick's Hawaiian Syncopators and Charles Diamond.

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