“King” Bennie Nawahi
(July 3, 1899 - January 29, 1985)
Benjamin Keakahiawa Nawahi was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, one of 12 children. While not of royal birth, Nawahi came by the title “King” in the way many show business personalities do for their particular genre.
He was a steel guitar master, well-known throughout the country in the 1920s and 30s. Celebrated as a virtuoso during his lifetime, his body of work has not garnered the accolades as have other Hawaiian musical stars of the era.
Nawahi learned to play in the parks of Honolulu for pennies, often teaming with Sol Hoʻopiʻi, who would become his rival for the title “King of the Hawaiian Guitar”, along with that of Sam Ku West. Bennie was also known as “King of the Ukulele”.
In 1919, Bennie played with his brother Joe’s band, the Hawaiian Novelty Five, on the Matsonia passenger liner that sailed between Honolulu and San Francisco. The group eventually became a staple on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit’s North America tour.
Bennie separated from the group and embarked on a solo career as a singing ukulele player. Master showman Sid Grauman proclaimed Bennie “King of the Ukulele”.
In 1920, an act of the United States Congress established Hawaii National Park, shining a spotlight on the islands. The Roaring Twenties was an era for shedding the sacrifices of a recent world war to celebrate life. The 1920s became a heydey for all things Hawaiian, and novelty acts of the vaudeville genre. Among Nawahi’s stunts was playing Turkey in the Straw on Hawaiian guitar with his feet. Tin Pan Alley went with the craze and between 1915 and 1929 produced such ditties as Hello Hawaii How Are You?(1915) (when many pronounced the state’s name as How-Wah-Yah), Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wiki Wacki Woo(1916), Hula Hula Dream Girl(1924) and That Aloha Waltz(1928).
There is evidence Bennie also used the name “J. Nawahi”, as the Victor Library lists the tune Hula Blues by “J. Nawahi (instrumentalist : steel guitar)”.
By 1928, Nawahi had begun recording for multiple record labels, including Columbia, Victor, Q.R.S. and Grey Gull, under multiple names (including Red Devils, Q.R.S. Boys, Slim Smith, Hawaiian Beach Combers, Georgia Jumpers, Four Hawaiian Guitars and King Nawahi & the International Cowboys), with band mates that included future star Roy Rogers.
One night in 1935 while driving home from a performance, Bennie was suddenly struck blind. No medical cause was ever found. The loss of vision was permanent, but Bennie never allowed it to impede his life as he continued performing and touring through the 1970s when he was partially paralyzed by a stroke.
Nawahi set a remarkable swimming record for blind people in 1946. He swam the 22 miles of choppy Pacific Ocean waters from San Pedro, California to Santa Catalina Island in just over 22 hours, guided only by coach John Sonnichson and a bell on a lead boat.
Kawahi appeared briefly in the 1985 Academy Award-nominated documentary film on Roy Smeck, Wizard of the Strings.