Bennie Nawahi
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

KingBenny-Yazoo

Of all the great Hawaiian musicians who came to mainland prominence in the 1920s–30s, none was more exciting than “KING” BENNIE NAWAHI (1899–1985). A Honolulu native, young Nawahi became an adept of so-called “steel” guitar, a style of playing where the instrument is held horizontally on one’s lap and fretted with a metal bar (thus “steel”) or other type of slide. In late 1919, Nawahi joined the Hawaii Novelty Five, performing aboard the ocean liner S.S. Matsonia between Honolulu and San Francisco. Vaudeville called next and found Nawahi zigzagging the Orpheum circuit — often as a “champion” ukulele player — before making his first records in New York in 1928. A supremely versatile virtuoso, Nawahi would, in various guises, make dozens of dazzling sides: jazz, Hawaiian, country, pop, more. That’s him leading the QRS Boys in 1929s’s “Dad Blame Blues”; showing the Georgia Jumpers, including pianist Socks Wilson, the “Big Feet Rag” of 1931; picking behind Slim Smith’s 1932 pre-New Deal protest song, “Bread Line Blues.” In 1935, Nawahi’s world darkened: though otherwise healthy, he’d inexplicably gone blind. Newahi remained active, playing Los Angeles-area nightclubs and devoting his extra-musical energy to another passion, open water swimming. At 9:51 PM on September 1, 1946, Nawahi entered the sea at Avalon on Catalina Island and, following his guide boat’s jangling bell, began swimming towards San Pedro, twenty-two miles away. Twenty-two hours, twenty minutes and two thermos bottles of soup later, Newahi, flanked by two lifeguards, walked ashore at Point Fermin, “dog tired but happy.”

King Nawahi’s Hawaiians “Tickling The Strings” (1929)

“Hwaiian Melody”

Georgia Jumpers “Big Feet Rag” (1931)

Slim Smith “Bread Line Blues” (1932)


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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Franz Kafka, MFK Fisher.

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.