By Wayne Harada
Buddy Fo had a heart problem he didn’t know about; it’s a condition he discovered about five years ago, when he had first heart attack, but didn’t tend to the issue.
Then he suffered a second attack, a third, and a fourth.
“He barely survived the third one,” his wife Sammi told me after Buddy died April 30 at age 78.
The fifth attack happened April 29, when Sammi rushed him to the ER in Kona, on the Big Island. But he needed to be air-ambulanced to Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu.
“I begged him not to ‘go’ (die),” she recalled about the last attack and the airlift.
“I remember him smiling. I kissed him,” she said. “I didn’t go with him (to the hospital). I turned back one more time and told him, ‘Call me first thing in the morning.’”
His call never came; the one that came brought the dreadful news: Buddy had died at 2:30 a.m. the next morning in his sleep.
“At least he didn’t have to suffer,” said Sammi. “No coma, no paralysis. And he gave me five years in the end.”
Buddy (real name, Allen Newton Keaweleiohawaii Fo) was the beloved leader of The Invitations, the Island group launched by Fo and his partner-in-music Sonny Kamaka in the post-Statehood Hawaii of the 1960s. The sound was the thing — the rich four-part harmonies emulating The Four Freshmen, the Four Aces, and the Hi-Los — and Buddy also admired the delicate falsetto of Hawaii’s jazz fave, Richard Kauahi.
The Invitations sound was a mixture of Island sensibilities with Mainland romance and nostalgia, and the repertoire was an equal blend of haole hits and local ditties that were by-products of a national surge fueled by the “exotica” music launched by the late Martin Denny.
Now Fo and Denny must be pumping out joyous music in the great tavern in the sky. Must be with Don Ho humming at his organ, too.
Known for tempoed, danceable hits like “Malia My Tita” and “Goin’ Out of My Head,” Buddy Fo and The Invitations were among the first local vocal-instrumental groups to record an album for a Mainland label, Liberty Records, on the Mainland. Remember, Denny and his prime era colleague, Arthur Lyman, were instrumentalists, painting pictures of an exotic paradise with riffs, notes, chimes and gongs — no lyrics.
At one time in Waikiki, Buddy Fo, Don Ho and Kui Lee were perking up and shaping the musical profile for local troupers, thanks to exposure via the Mainland labels — Ho was on Reprise, Lee on Columbia. Ho, of course, was the central figure to lure throngs of visitors to Hawaii because of Statehood, because of filmed-in-Hawaii shows like the Jack Lord “Hawaii Five-0” vehicle.
And Las Vegas had a role in the emergence of Buddy and Sammi Fo.
“He was the love of my life,” said Sammi, who met Buddy in Vegas when he was there performing at the Sands Hotel with Mr. Exotica Denny and she was performing in “Flower Drum Song.”
Denny was the keyboarder with assorted gongs and exotic percussion instruments, with some bird calls for atmosphere, accentuated on his national hit, “Quiet Village,” and Buddy played with Denny along with such local musicians as Frankie Kim and Augie Colon.
Though music was a large part of his life as an adult, on Oahu, on Maui and on the Big Island, Buddy wasn’t keen on a musical career as a youth. He was good in sports; he was a beachboy; he excelled in high school football; he might have had disdain for show biz because his dad put him luau shows when he was 5.
“He didn’t like music as a kid,” said Sammi. “He was an outstanding football player and athlete, and very active in sports. “But when he entertained, he was so much fun to watch.”
Married for 47 years, Buddy and Sammi were like Spam and eggs — an inseparable combination.
While he was skilled in vocals, he initially played congas; when the couple relocated to Montana, after “retiring” from Waikiki, he learned to play ukulele and taught her how to man the congas.
The couple briefly relocated in Montana to be close to their son; they lived and traveled in an RV for five years.
By the time they returned to Maui, where they lived and worked for the next 30 years, they had the elements of an act. Buddy and Sammi both sang and played instruments; and she was also a hula stylist, known to interpret and explain the story behind her chosen hula, an uncommon art.
So they found residency and success at the Maui Tropical Plantation, where their audience included a mix of locals and tourists, young and old alike for a decade. Buddy also had a Maui radio show.
They learned some of their show biz creds during their Vegas tenure; Sammi said Buddy earned some of his stripes watching the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra on the legendary Sin City strip.
For a spell, Buddy worked with Don Ho at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel. Buddy and Sammi also played at the Mai Tai at the Royal Hawaiian.
But the high cost of living in Honolulu prompted them to relocate to Ocean View, Big Island, where Sammi still resides.
Buddy earned a Lifetime Achievement Na Hoku Hanohano Award from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts in 2003.
“He was strict in music; everybody had to sing in key, every instrument had to be in key. He had a good ear for music,” said Sammi about Buddy’s work ethics.
Few knew that Buddy was proficient on a 4-string Martin guitar, an instrument like an ukulele, but larger and with a narrow neck. “Buddy picked up an inexpensive one on the Mainland and acquired another one here,” said Sammi.
At the time of his death, he was in the midst of securing a custom-made Buddy Fo Martin ukulele with larger neck, made by a Big Islander. “He was so looking forward to having a Buddy Fo ukulele instrument made especially for him,” said Sammi.
Because his dad called him “my little Buddy,” the name stuck.
Earlier services were held May 21 at the Ocean View Community Center.
“Buddy was a party guy,” said Sammi. “He loved to have a good time, and he loved to drink. So we’ll hold a celebration of life to remember him, not a funeral service.”
The gathering will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday (May 26) at the Elks Club.
A service, with music, will be from 10 to 11 a.m.
The house band will include his buddies from the music community: Imaikalani Young, Greg Kaneaiakala, Gordon Alafapada, Brickwood Galueria and Benny Chong.
Besides wife Sammi, survivors include sons Allen, Derek “Ricky” and Kanai; daughters U‘ilani Roberts, Mikilani Wykes and Aloha Fo; brothers Henry “Chubby,” Talbot and Nolan George, and Teddy Imbleau; sister Sally Crowell; seven grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
BUDDY FO CELEBRATION OF LIFE
From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday (May 26)
Service, with music, from 10 to 11 a.m.