Steel Trappings

On the Playlist

On the Playlist: Sam Ku West

November 1, 2022 • Geronimo "Geri" ValdrizSteel Guitar History

"HAWAIIAN STEEL" is a weekly radio program that spotlights the Hawaiian steel guitar masters from the past to the present. "ON THE PLAYLIST" features the musicians heard on the program's playlist. This month we feature steel guitarist Sam Ku West!

Among the early pioneering acoustic steel guitarist of the 1920s are the names Sol Ho‘opi‘i, Benny Nawahi, and Sam Ku West. They were each other's contemporary, playing the acoustic resonator Hawaiian guitar in an exciting "hot" style with jazz, blues and Hawaiian influence. Sadly, Sam Ku's musical journey was short lived and his career ended too early.

Sam Ku West

Samuel Kuanoni Jr. was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on July 22, 1907. At some point in time the family name was shortened from Kuanoni to Ku and he became known as Sam Ku.

Sam came from a musical family, and his brothers Dan and John were Hawaiian musicians as well. As a teenager, Sam was swept away with the popularity of kika kila, a new style of playing the slack key tuned guitar. He practiced with his steel bar and became proficient in his playing.

In 1926 Sam became a professional musician when he joined Amie Maynard and her Royal Hawaiians under the direction of music promoter Irene West. The group left Hawai‘i for a tour of the Far East, including Singapore, Malaysia, Penang, Java, India, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Sam was billed as the "Kriesler of the steel guitar," referring to the famous violinist of the time. This title was given to him by Prince George of England who saw him play kika kila in Singapore. Irene West would make much use of this name in her promotion of Sam's career.

During the tour, Sam's steel guitar playing was singled out by local newspapers. "He could at will bring out the sweet trill of a nightingale or the plaintive note that only a steel guitar in skilled hands can give." By August, 1926 the Far East tour was over and Irene West and Sam Ku sailed for San Francisco to record with Victor Records.

In California Irene West began planning the career of her young star, making arrangements to tour the East Coast. It was during this period that Sam's professional name was changed to "Sam Ku West."

In Early 1927 Sam began to study the harp with Kajetan Atti, solo harpist with the San Francisco Orchestra, and he was proving to be a fast learner. By June, 1927 Sam was proficient enough to start appearing on the Vaudeville Circuits on the East Coast, performing on the steel guitar and the harp. He played in cities such as Boston, New York, Chicago, and Reading, Pennsylvania. Later, the Tour also took him to perform in shows on the West Coast as well. During this busy schedule Sam completed several recording sessions in various studios around the country.

After two years away, Sam returned home to Hawai‘i in 1928. He was just 21 years old. He spent time with friends, family, and a growing fan base, and gave concerts in Honolulu, Hilo, Wailuku, Kahului, and Kaua‘i. Judging from the newspaper press coverage at the time, his performances were successful and well received!

From Honolulu, the Irene West Royal Hawaiians featuring Sam Ku West, went back on the road again to Asia for a Second Tour. They performed in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sumatra, and India. Again, the tour was a success and Sam's steel guitar playing was the highlight of each performance. The Tour lasted 10 months and concluded in August, 1929.

In September 1929, Irene West and Sam Ku arrived in France. A European tour was scheduled and Sam played in concert in Paris and Rome. Sadly, Sam's deteriorating health prevented him from further performing. On September 7, 1930 Sam Ku died in a hospital just outside of Paris, France. He died from an abscess of the liver and was just 23 years old.

All of Sam's studio recordings were made in a nine month period between June, 1927 and March, 1928. His recorded legacy was 27 sides — mainly steel guitar instrumental pieces. He recorded for the Banner, Vocalion and Victor labels. There were plans for him to record during the European Tour with the Odeon label in Germany, but illness prevented that. And although he to learned to play the concert harp and added solos on this instrument to his live act, he never recorded with the harp. Sam is most known for playing an early 1920s National tricone resonator Hawaiian steel guitar in the A tuning.

Today fans seek out the early recordings of Sam Ku West. He continues to inspire steel guitarist seeking to emulate his soulful jazzy Hawaiian style played on the acoustic National resonator steel guitar. His music is now available on CD and online to a new generation of fans who can appreciate this innovative and unique Hawaiian musician!

On the Playlist of Hawaiian Steel: Sam Ku West

Song CD Album
Palolo Hawaiian Hula Blues / Grass Skirt Records
Strange Isle Medley Hawaiian Hula Blues / Grass Skirt Records
Lepe Ula Ula Hawaiian Hula Blues / Grass Skirt Records
Honolulu Blues Hawaiian Hula Blues / Grass Skirt Records

"Hawaiian Steel" with Geri Valdriz is broadcast live every Tuesday from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm (HST) on Mana‘o Radio, Wailuku, Maui, Hawai‘i, KMNO, 91.7FM on the radio dial.

You can catch it on the air, or streaming live at Listeners can also access our online archives to enjoy previously recorded programs at your convenience. Just search "Listen on Demand" for past shows.


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