Dressed in a bright Hawaiian shirt, raspberry-tinted glasses and his trademark white slacks and loafers, Don Ho creeps into a white rattan throne behind his electric organ and begins to sing “Tiny Bubbles.”
The crowd at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel enthusiastically sings along.
“I hate that song,” he tells them, mocking his signature tune. He’ll sing it again at the end of the show because “people my age can’t remember if we did it or not.”
The legendary Hawaiian crooner, who turns 74 on Friday, keeps tourists and locals laughing, singing and cheering three nights a week.
Ho’s soothing and seductive baritone voice, treasury of stories and warm island personality, have been entertaining generations of fans for four decades.
Few artists are more associated with one place than Ho, a Waikiki icon.
“Hawaii is my partner,” said Ho.
And Ho has no plans of stepping down from the stage anytime soon.
“I’ll be here for another 30 years,” he tells his audience. “I’m going to look like hell, but you’ll look like hell too. ... We’ll look like hell together.”
Schmoozing with fans keeps Ho’s spirit young. Keeping with a tradition he started during the height of his popularity in the 1960s and ’70s, he meets with every fan for pictures and autographs.
For Ho, it’s not like he’s actually working.
“I retired 30 years ago. I just come over and have fun,” Ho said. “And it’s not like I have to work seven days a week anymore. Like in the old days, I worked 24-7 because my fans would stay up to 3 in the morning. Now, lucky if they stay up until 10 o’clock.”
Stars such as Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra attended Ho’s shows. These days, Ho’s pop star daughter, Hoku Ho, is helping to introduce her father to a younger generation of stars and fans. Maxim magazine named the elder Ho one of “50 Coolest Guys Ever,” and younger musicians including Green Day, the Foo Fighters and No Doubt, have come to Waikiki to watch Ho perform.
Tom Moffatt, a Honolulu concert promoter who works with national groups, says Ho has a place in American music history, but it’s difficult to pinpoint where it is.
“In a way, he’s Hawaii’s contribution to American music,” Moffatt said, putting him on a par with Dean Martin and Jimmy Buffet as cool, relaxed entertainers. He’s also a “very good musician, very conscientious,” he said.
While the Don Juan looks that made him a star on stage and television may have diminished, Ho hasn’t lost his smile, charisma, bronze tan or his love for the islands.
His worldwide base of loyal fans keep returning to see his show — now with their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. And the women still swoon over The Don.
Nina Armstrong, 67, of Orange, Calif., who sat in the front row for a recent show, has seen Ho perform about 20 times since the 1970s. She gushed about a smooch she got from Ho about 30 years ago.
“Years ago, he was always kissing somebody,” she said.
Her son, Ray Armstrong, of Sumner, Wash., brought his three teenage daughters to see a living legend.
“My kids will see them as a piece of history of the Hawaiian Islands,” he said. “It won’t necessarily be their style of music, but he’s part of the flavor of Hawaii. When you think of Hawaii, you think of Don Ho.”
In addition to “Tiny Bubbles,” his other hits include “I’ll Remember You,” “With All My Love” and the “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” which was sung by Elvis Presley in the movie “Blue Hawaii.”
During his nearly two-hour show, Ho reminisces about everything from the old charm of Hawaii and the attack on Pearl Harbor to marijuana and how many children he’s fathered.
Ho was a high school football star and Air Force pilot before appearing on countless television shows, including “The Don Ho Show” on ABC from 1976-77. One of Ho’s most memorable TV appearances was a 1972 cameo on an episode of “The Brady Bunch.”
Ho has 10 children, including Hoku, 23, who sometimes performs with her father.
“When my daughter sings with me, I’m really proud,” Ho said. “People can tell on my face and my smile. I cannot hide it. It just automatically lights up. I really love my children. The minute they walk on stage and sing with me, the audience knows it’s a different me, and I try to be cool, but you can’t hide some stuff.”