By Wayne Harada
It was one of those special moments in Rowles’ first return engagement here in more than 30 years. He was in his 20s at the time.
Rowles, of course, performed at Ho’s hangout, Duke Kahanamoku’s, in the heyday of Waikiki celebrityhood.
Now 67, Rowles, the Maori sensation who also gigged at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s Monarch Room and the Outrigger Hotel Main Showroom, has matred gracefully. He sports white hair now, just like the snows of Mauna Kea at wintertime; his baritone has the essence of aged wine at its best.
He still has vigor and versatility and he revisited his Waikiki days with a clutch of songs associated with his then-budding career. Of course, “Cheryl Moana Marie,” penned for the youngest of his five sisters, became his signature and the tune, with Rowles’ still-powerful pipes, earned hurrahs and cheers when he sang it.
Rowles, happily, has not forgotten his island ties. He credited composer-poet Jay Larrin for one of his other popular adopted tunes, “The Snows of Mauna Kea,” bringing his deep baritone notes to new altitudes of bliss.
Backed by the Elvis Presley TCB (Taking Care of Business) Band, much of Rowles’ repertoire included a string of Presley hits, but he often put his own vocal imprint on the tune. Like, “Love Me Tender” was perfectly delivered in a subdued, unflashy mode, with Rowles accompanying himself on guitar. With the right exposure at the right moment, it’s a version that could easily connect with today’s younger audience, who many not (yikes, there are many of ‘em) know the EP original.
The TCB Band is comprised of James Burton, guitar; Ronnie Tutt, drums; Glen D. Hardin, piano; and Norbert “Put” Putnam; they backed The King in the historic “Aloha From Hawaii” concert at Blaisdell Arena (then the Hawaii International Center), and they’ve been an essential and under-appreciated combo in the annals of rock music.
So it was a no-brainer that the group provided the Presley-quality backup on titles such as “Hound Dog,” “In the Ghetto,” “The Wonder of You,” “That’s All Right” and “Heartbreak Hotel.”
In a touching moment, “How Great Thou Art,” a secular favorite from the Presley library, Rowles mixed in Maori lyrics without sacrificing sentiment, projecting the universality of the hymn.
No, his was not a tribute –to-Elvis show. It was accentuating the bandsmanship of a historic backup band, with the vocalry of a prevailing Kiwi star, in an out-of-town “opening” preceding a planned tour of New Zealand and Australia in the months ahead.
Rowles was relaxed and playful with the sparse but loyal audience. And happily, he didn’t forget the fabulous formative years of his launch in the islands. He dropped a few names, like Coronado Aquino, who was the longtime maître d’ at the Monarch Room; he acknowledge his then-peers in the house, from Melveen Leed to Al Harrington; he even shared an original composition, “The Girl in White,” about a fan he regularly spotted in the Pink Palace showroom. And yes, he remembered Kimo McVay, the late entrepreneur who was a mover-and-shaker in Rowles’ Hawaii presence.
Of course, his homage to Ho was expected. After all, he guested in Ho’s palace in the International Market Place. The invitation for Haumea, the entertainer’s wife, was a natural link to the past — and a passage to the present.
He said he’ll never forget his Hawaii ties; he even did a quick haka move, complete with tongue action and staccato body moves.
Clearly, he and his fans mutually had a grand time. Rowles was sure to widen his appeal with potent ballads like “If I Only Had Time” and “My Way.”
It sounded like if he had his way, he’d return to his island paradise someday.