Steel Trappings

On the Playlist

On the Playlist: Bernie Ka‘ai Lewis

February 1, 2023 • 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 Bernie Ka‘ai Lewis!

Bernie Ka‘ai Lewis was a composer, arranger, conductor, vocalist and all-around musician. From the 1940's to the 1970s he played the Hawaiian steel guitar with many of the leading West Coast Hawaiian musicians.

Bernal Keoki Kala‘auokalani Ka‘ai was born at Hakalau, near Hilo, Hawai‘i on September 14, 1921. He was hanai and adopted by the Lewis family of Kona, Hawai‘i Island.

Bernie Ka‘ai Lewis

Bernie attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music at the University of Chicago and received a BA in 1939. In 1942 he graduated with a Master of Arts degree from UCLA and became a staff composer and conductor for NBC in San Francisco. At the time he was the youngest person hired in that position, but Bernie had been composing musical scores and arrangements since a young age.

After military service in World War II, Bernie moved to Los Angeles in 1947. Here he started a long career composing and arranging musical scores for radio, television, short films, movies, and studio recordings. He also played the steel guitar with his own band "Bernie Ka‘ai's Hawaiians."

In 1959 Bernie joined ASCAP and collaborated with other song writers. He wrote and arranged over 300 songs including "My Hawaiian Home," "Hilo by the Bay," and "In the Evening by the Sea." He was a member of the Society of American Composers, Authors and Publishers and the Hawaiian Professional Songwriters Society.

In 1961 Bernie played the ukulele for the Elvis Presley movie Blue Hawaii (Paramount). He was a session player along with Freddie Tavares, who contributed vocals and musical arrangement to the movie soundtrack. In 1964 Bernie also did the audio soundtrack for the movie "The Naked Flame" (Sinister Cinema).

In the 1970s Bernie was the musical arranger for the Flip Wilson Show on NBC. He also did the movie scores for "Cat Murkil and the Silks" (1975) and "Cruisin High" (1976).

As well as being a talented composer, he was a gifted vocalist and musician. He recorded over 600 sessions as a vocalist, arranger and steel guitarist on numerous labels including Majestic, Crystal, Columbia, and Capitol records.

In Los Angeles Bernie played with the top West Coast Hawaiian musicians. After Dick McIntire stepped down as steel guitarist for the Harmony Hawaiians, Bernie Ka‘ai was his replacement. He also recorded and played the steel guitar with Danny Kua‘ana and the Islanders, with the Tavares Brothers (Ernie and Freddie), with Paul Page and his Orchestra, with Lena Machado, with The Island-Aires, and others.

Bernie also played with an aggregation of musicians in L.A. studios called "The Polynesians." They included Sam Ka‘apuni, Harry Baty, Freddie Tavares, Lani Sang, Bobby Nichols, Sam Koki, and others. These "first call" session musicians played the soundtrack for much of the Hawaiian themed movies that came out of Hollywood at the time. A variety of LP recordings were also made by the Polynesians for Crown Records, with its members trading the steel guitar duties.

Bernie was truly a "musician's musician," playing whatever was needed in any given musical setting. From composing songs to writing musical arrangements, to conducting, playing the ukulele, singing background vocals or playing the steel guitar. He was well liked by other musicians and was constantly in demand for his musical skills. In 1984 Bernie Ka‘ai Lewis died.

Today fans seek out the recordings of Bernie Ka‘ai Lewis. He continues to inspire steel guitarist seeking to emulate his soulful Hawaiian style. 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: Bernie Ka‘ai Lewis

Song CD Album Publisher
E Ku‘u Lei My Darling Danny Kua‘ana and his Hawaiians / Holiday in Hawaii Capitol
Moanalua Hula Hula Lady / Harmony Hawaiians Cumquat
Ku‘u Wa Li‘i Li‘i Hawaiian Songbird / Lena Machado Cord International / Hana Ola Records
Ku‘u Aina Aloha Bernie Ka‘ai Lewis and his Hawaiians / Polynesian Rhythm Varsity
Hula Hula Hula Lady / Harmony Hawaiians Cumquat
Ho‘onanea Hawaiian Songbird / Lena Machado Cord International / Hana Ola 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 www.manaoradio.com. 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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