Jerry Byrd & Neil Flanz 1957.
Freddy Tavares & les South Sea Islanders
2éme a gauche Freddie Tavares - en 3 Leo Fender chez Fender en Calif
Freddie Tavares, Alvino Rey & Don Randall chez Fender :
Freddie Tavares a la guitare & son frere Ernie a la steel
Born on Maui Island, Hawaii, February 18th 1913, Frederick Theodore Tavares was of Portuguese, Hawaiian, Chinese, English, Tahitian-Samoan lineage of which he would later wittingly say "the Portuguese makes me stubborn; Chinese makes me smart; English makes me high-class; Hawaiian gives me the music; Tahitian gives me the beat - I couldn't ask for more.”
Freddie learnt to sing and harmonize whilst briefly attending Kamehameha Boys School as a boarding student from age 5, his love of music probably being born through this schools emphasis on music and singing.
When his eldest brother Nils left Maui to study law at Michigan University, he gave 12 year old Freddie his guitar with the brotherly advice that if he could play guitar he would never be lonely, nor would he lack friends. Freddie mastered the instrument, applying his own theory and techniques and at age 15 became rhythm guitarist in Mary Kunewa's orchestra on Maui. On completing his schooling he moved to O'ahu, playing guitar in Larry Bellis’ dance orchestra at the Alexander Young hotel three nights weekly whilst working as a jobber for American Factors during the day.
When Harry Owens took over leadership of the dance orchestra of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Waikiki in 1934 and sought an electric steel guitar player, he interviewed Freddie Tavares on the recommendation of Bob Cutter - one of the orchestra's soloists who had previously been Larry Bellis’ vocalist. Owens, very impressed by the 21 year old’s serious attitude to music and his confident “I could easily learn to play one” answer to Owen's question "can you play steel guitar?" gave Freddie the orchestrated arrangements for two songs, with two weeks to learn to play the steel guitar parts.
Freddie declined all opportunities to record as a solo artist, saying he was a team member striving to be the best possible sideman.
Freddie purchased a Rickenbacker 'Fry Pan’ also some piano and violin studies - using the exercises from these as his foundation for learning to play steel guitar. (Freddie would continue to play Bach piano inventions on steel guitar for an hour daily throughout his musical career, to give him dexterity and flexibility in his playing and be a consummate sight reader of music).
On his first night with Harry Owens Royal Hawaiians, Freddie played the steel guitar parts on two songs 'Song of the Islands’ and ‘Imi Au la Oe’ after which Owens and the other orchestra members gave him a standing ovation. Thus Freddie’s professional career was established and his smooth, lyrical steel guitar playing with perfect pitch, timing and rhythm quickly earned him the stage name Freddie ‘Kaulana’ (meaning 'famous’) Tavares from Harry Owens. During his 13 years with the Royal Hawaiians he was one of the most important members, his steel guitar being the backbone of most of the musical arrangements.
The orchestra travelled throughout the States, playing engagements at the Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and Beverly Wilshire hotel in the L.A. area, and on tour in New York, Memphis, Chicago, Colorado, Texas, Seattle and Vancouver B.C. Many of their Hotel St. Francis shows were broadcast live on coast to coast radio. They made movies; radio transcriptions for C.P. McGregor's transcription service and for A.F.R.S; recorded for Decca, Columbia and Capitol Records. In the two month period February 1st through March 1938, the orchestra worked on the Paramount movie 'Cocoanut Grove’; played the Beverly Wilshire Hotel at nights; recorded 150 selections for Decca; made a batch of electric transcriptions for C.P. McGregor; guested on Bing Crosby's radio-show 'Kraft Music Hall’ and appeared with Claudette Colbert on the 'Hollywood Hotel’ radio-show.
According to his wife, Freddie Tavares bought a 6 string Black & White bakelite Rickenbacker steel guitar as soon as the model came on the market in July 1935, (serial number 003) removing the left front white cover to store his bar and picks (thumb and 3 finger) inside between dance sets. He used C6th tuning for Hapa-Haole and more modern Hawaiian songs, raising the A to B flat for a C 7th tuning when playing older Hawaiian songs. He also designed and built his own tube amplifiers and casings, building a second amp into each enclosure as a spare in case the main unit blew during a set.
Wives and children accompanied musicians of the Royal Hawaiians to San Francisco for their annual summer residencies at Hotel St. Francis. Deeming transferring his two growing sons from their Anaheim home and school to school in San Francisco each summer too disruptive for the boys, Freddie tended his notice to Owens in 1945. Loath to lose him, Owens upped his pay. Freddie capitulated to pay increases for a further two years then said “no more” recommending Eddie Bush as his replacement and thoroughly familiarizing Eddie with the orchestra's steel guitar and vocal arrangements.
To further his music career, Freddie had moved from Hawaii to Anaheim, near Hollywood, in 1942 to freelance as a session musician - one of his '42 sessions being to play the zippy steel guitar glissando on the famed Looney Tunes logo which still heralds cartoon time on TV and cinema screens worldwide. His experience of playing steel guitar in an orchestra and his ability to sight read music and orchestral arrangements unhesitatingly, made him highly sought after by movie musical arrangers and record producers, also for radio and TV work.
From 1949 through '53 Freddie played steel guitar almost nightly with country singer/ fiddle player Wade Ray and his Ozark Mountain Boys at the club Cowtown in LA. Wade Ray recollects, "Fiddle is the awfullest darned instrument to amplify, but Freddie figured out a way to do it and he made me an amplifier that I treasured, and he also made amplifiers for the rest of the band. That five years at Cowtown has to be the highlight of my whole career and Freddie Tavares was a very, very big part of the whole thing. He wrote all the music arrangements and did all the electric work. We were only a four piece band but with Freddie's harmonies on steel guitar we sounded like a nine piece orchestra. He played so pretty, so smooth and sweet. At intermissions, instead of having something to eat and drink he would go out back and run scales. He was a very clever man and completely self taught in everything he did". Freddie also played on radio broadcasts with this group and on their early records for Victor.
The Magnatone Guitar Company presented Freddie with a custom made steel guitar in a promotional deal in '49. Made to Freddie's specifications, this instrument had 9 strings to increase chord variations. This was the only steel guitar that Freddie ever stood at to play. He had large hands and would control the swell with his little finger curled around the volume control - continuing to use this method when he later played pedal steel.
Freddie's steel bars were specially made for him, cut straight across at both ends to give a better sight line for accurate positioning. When playing novelty numbers such as 'Put Another Nickel In ' and 'Old Piano Roll Blues' at Cow town, Freddie used a bar that he had carved out of a solid piece of wood to emulate perfectly the sound of a honky-tonk piano.
In early 1953 Noel Boggs introduced Freddie to Leo Fender who, at that time, was interested in building amplifiers. Fender realized he had found a man of exceptional abilities in Freddie Tavares. He understood electronics, could make technical drawings and was a consummate musician, playing acoustic, bass and steel guitars as well as ukulele. He hired Freddie as assistant engineer to himself and on Freddie’s second day of employment he started to create, with Leo Fender, a product that was to become the leading and most wanted instrument in guitar history - the Stratocaster. Until his retirement from the Fender Guitar Company in 1985, Freddie Tavares participated in the design and development of every guitar and amplifier made by the company and field tested the proto types before they hit the production line. He was renowned as the world's leading technical authority of the Jazz Bass and collaborated with Leo Fender to invent the split-finger mechanism for the Fender 1000 pedal steel guitar - later playing this model pedal steel.
Freddie continued his music career and session work whilst with Fenders. He was a founding member and long time treasurer of the Polynesian Society in California and derived great pleasure and satisfaction from playing rhythm, Stratocaster and steel guitars, also ukulele, on recordings of Hawaiian songs and Island medleys with his fellow Hawaiian musicians Danny Stewart, Sam Koki, Joe Keawe, Sammy Kaapuni, Harry Baty, Bernie Kaai Lewis, Vince Akina, his brother Ernest Tavares and other prominent West Coast based Hawaiians.
When a talented young bass player, Vince Akina was forming a group to perform Hawaiian and Tahitian songs with dancers on a casual basis in '54, Freddie and Ernest Tavares made up the trio. The South Sea Islanders performed all over Southern California for 15 years - mostly on the country-club circuit and for luaus - and were renowned for their professionalism and the versatility of their interesting and fascinating programmes. For 5 years they played once weekly at the Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel, LA - on the Hawaiian night, when they played through the dinner hour as opening act for Freddy Martin's Big Band, and other big names.
Freddies radio and TV work included shows with Red Skelton, Roy Rogers and Spike Jones, and the series ‘I Love Irma' and 'Hawaiian Eye’.
He played steel guitar with Foy Willing & Riders Of The Purple Sage on their weekly radio show 'All Star Western Theatre’ which was broadcast on all major networks in the late '40s, and featured such notable guests as Tex Ritter, Jimmy Wakely, Eddie Dean and Eddy Arnold. Douglas Green, historian for the Country Music Foundation, wrote of Riders Of The Purple Sage, "mainstay of the instrumental group was Johnny Paul, a New Yorker who played spectacular swing fiddle. The other instrumental standout was a superb Hawaiian steel guitar player, Freddie Tavares. His rich toned, harmonic and romantic style was far more Hawaiian than swing (although he took a few ‘hot’ solos,) but it blended beautifully with the vocals which were, of course, the mainstay of the 'Riders sound."
Freddie Tavares’ recording credits read like a Who's Who and included Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, The Andrew Sisters, Deanna Durban, Gordon McCrae, Sue Thompson, Jimmy Dalton, Elvis Presley, Spike Jones& The City Slickers, Tennessee Ernie Ford (on Mule Train) Tex Williams, Margaret Whiting & Jimmy Wakely, Andy Parker & The Plainsmen, Sons Of The Pioneers, The Polynesians, Paradise Islanders, The Outriggers, South Sea Islanders, The Bonaires, Martin Denny ,Wade Ray and Dick Kestner.
He recorded with the orchestras of Henri Mancini, Bud Dant, Steve Lawrence, Ray Andrade, Lawrence Welk, George Liberace, Axel Stordahl, William Kealoha, Ray Conniff, George Poole, 101 Strings and also Juan Garcia Esquivel's Big Band.
Some movies for which he played on the soundtrack or made sound effects on steel guitar for, were: 'The Perils Of Pauline’ 'Devil At 4 O'clock’ 'Diamond Head’ 'Gidget Goes Hawaiian’ 'Three Stooges Go Around’ 'Move Over Darling’ 'Tora Tora Tora’ 'Donovans Reef ‘ 'In Harms Way’ 'Irma La Douce’ 'It's A Date’ 'None But The Brave' 'Blue Hawaii’ 'Cocoanut Grove’ 'Tahiti Nights’ ‘Mr. Roberts’ and 'Song Of The islands’.
Freddie Tavares was an uncompromising perfectionist and this was reflected in the standard of excellence he achieved in his music career. He was also a friendly, compassionate, kind and generous man with a keen sense of humour, who enjoyed surprising and delighting family and friends with very witty songs he had written especially for and often about them.
During his retirement, Freddie would take backing tapes he had made, a small amplifier, his Fender pedal steel guitar, Stratocaster and a ukulele to entertain those in nursing and retirement homes, and the veterans hospital, with his beautiful singing and music. Likewise, he entertained family and friends with Hawaiian melodies and songs when he and his wife spent each Christmas holiday in their native Hawaii. When Freddie played at Jerry Byrd's 1985 Ho'olaule'a in Hawaii, he jokingly told the audience he had had to retire in order to practise for the event, but his faultless playing and eloquent oration, at age 72, earned him the respect of everyone, and an invitation to return in '86.
Freddie Tavares passed away in Anaheim, California on July 24th 1990, age 77 years. During his funeral service in Hawaii, his brother-in-law Walter Mo'okini sang and Jerry Byrd, Barney Isaacs and Alan Akaka played steel guitar tributes. Freddie was laid to rest in Nuuana cemetery, Oahu.
So many friends attended his beautiful memorial service in Anaheim, there was standing room only.
Freddie Tavares will go down in the annals of steel guitar history as one of the great masters. His highly individual, hauntingly beautiful lyrical style perfectly encapsulated the spirit of his beloved Hawaii - Isles of Paradise.