(Pictured: Don Ho on ABC’s Hollywood Palace, January 21, 1967.)
The_60s_at_50 Twitter feed has it right, referring to “a decade of anniversary fatigue.” We’ve been drinking from that particular firehose for a long time now, and sometimes certain anniversaries slip through unnoticed. For example: 50 years ago this past weekend, Don Ho appeared on the TV show Hollywood Palace to perform his then-current hit, “Tiny Bubbles.”
You probably need to be at least somewhat elderly for “Tiny Bubbles” to resonate, or to find the name of Don Ho in your internal informational filing system. Neither he nor his song is as well-known today as it used to be. But for a long time, Don Ho was to Honolulu what Wayne Newton is to Las Vegas—the city’s unofficial official entertainer, the must-see act for tourists—and “Tiny Bubbles” was his theme song.
Ho was born in Honolulu in 1930, attended college on the mainland, and then spent six years in the Air Force flying cargo planes. In 1960, he started playing music in a bar owned by his parents. His Hawaiian fame grew during the first half of the 60s, and a series of gigs at the Coconut Grove in Hollywood in 1966 made him a mainland star. He eventually played big American nightclubs (including Las Vegas) and made lots of TV appearances, including cameos on Batman and The Brady Bunch. He had his own 30-minute daytime variety show on ABC between October 1976 and March 1977, taped in Hawaii. During the 1980s, Don Ho’s broader fame diminished, but not in Hawaii, where he remained a popular entertainer and restaurant owner until his death in 2007 at age 76. He fathered 10 children; one of them, Hoku, has a recording career of her own.
“Tiny Bubbles,” billed to Don Ho and the Aliis, hit the Billboard Hot 100 on November 26, 1966, rose to #57 during the week of March 25, 1967, and topped out at #14 on the Easy Listening chart. Seventeen weeks on the Hot 100 without making the Top 40 is the longest such run of any song released during the 1960s (according to Wikipedia, so who the hell knows). Fifty years ago this winter, “Tiny Bubbles” was a Top-10 hit in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Troy, New York; Des Moines, Iowa; Stevens Point, Wisconsin; Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Ho often said from the stage that he didn’t like the song, although he opened and closed his shows with it. “We sing it twice because people my age can’t remember if we did it or not,” he would joke, and “I sing it at the beginning in case some of you don’t make it to the end of the show.”
If you know anything else by Don Ho, it’s probably “Pearly Shells” (which was nicked for a C&H Sugar jingle at some point in the 70s), or maybe “I’ll Remember You.” But given that some amongst the readership may not even know “Tiny Bubbles,” that may be a moot point.
Listening to “Tiny Bubbles,” “Pearly Shells,” “I’ll Remember You,” and others, it’s easy to hear how Don Ho became a star. His voice is soft and expressive, and he’s just ethnic enough to seem exotic to mainlanders. His songs, “Tiny Bubbles” chief among them, are pleasant earworms. There may even be an argument that “Tiny Bubbles” benefited from appearing in an era when casual drinking, even in the workplace during the day (as on Mad Men) was never more popular. Ho himself was famous for sipping Chivas Regal onstage. But that’s more half-assed social history than I want to attempt today.
(Tip of the cap to The_60s_at_50, on Twitter and Blogspot, a fabulous work of ongoing scholarship, for posting periodic snippets from Billboard, one of which inspired a Twitter exchange that led to this post.)