The Liner Notes Chronicles — Don Ho

I’ve worked for many record labels in my life, but I have no trouble naming my biggest “high” — that was freelancing for Warner Bros. Records at the time they were redefining the way a label presented itself to the public.

With Mike Maitland running the company, and Mo Ostin and Joe Smith reporting to him, Warner Bros. and Reprise Records were the epitome of “hip” — their artist roster included Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Jimi Hendrix — as well as moneymakers like Peter, Paul & Mary; Frank Sinatra; Dean Martin; and Frank’s daughter, Nancy.

Frank Zappa’s label was handled by Warner Bros., as was The Beach Boys’. And The Youngloods’.

The marketing department rose to the task, under the direction of Stan Cornyn. Warner Bros. sold two-disc samplers of fine material for $2; published a monthly magazine, Circular, that was mailed to anybody who asked for it (and promoted company product; but, edited by Pete Johnson, in the most low-key manner imaginable). Advertising tended to an irreverence unprecedented by major labels — I remember the “Win a date with [Grateful Dead keyboardist] Pigpen” contest as typical.

I didn’t meet Cornyn until decades later, and even then had to hold back an urge to genuflect. When I worked there, in 1969, I was hired by Stan’s deputy, the wonderful Hal Halverstadt. Hal put me to work, writing ads and liner notes.

I can’t remember any of the ads. Let it be enough to say that when Dick Hendler interviewed me for a job in Liberty/UA’s advertising department, his first words were “So you write those ads for Warner Brothers, eh?” (I got the job. Ironically, Dick was an art director at heart; and, like most art directors, believed that the main function of copy was to fill space between the pictures. He was a great guy, but I was the wrong person for the department).

I’d written some liner notes before going to work for Hal, but the one I’d like to talk about here was for Don Ho.

Don was one of the label’s big-money acts. A long-time favorite in Honolulu lounges, Don made records inexpensively, and sold a lot of them — most famously, his signature “Tiny Bubbles.” So, getting the assignment to write notes for his Greatest Hits album was something of a coup. I blew it.

Trying to emulate Cornyn’s style and breezy attitude, and with Ho for some reason unavailable for an interview, I fantasized a bit about how, had the tide turned a different way, he might have wound up selling blowfish lamps on the beach. I was not only unduly disrespectful, I was talking out of my exhaust — while I’d seen beach boys (if not Beach Boys) selling blowfish lamps in Mexico, I had no idea whether they were similarly peddled in Hawaii. Still, the label printed the (mercifully brief) notes, and — no thanks to them —the album remained a best-seller for years. (Please don’t tell Stan that I’d been trying to affect his style; he’s entitled to a pain-free retirement.)

About four years ago, I got a call from Rhino Records, by then a Warner Bros. subsidiary. (Virtually all of the people I had known and respected at Warners were by then long gone after some “improvements” by the parent corporation, though Rhino was something they could be proud of). They were initiating a new series of hits albums (“Essentials”), and was I interested in writing the notes for one of them?

I’d written several notes for Rhino, but none in a number of years. And of course I’d be interested. Who was the artist?

You guessed it: Don Ho.

I was thrilled. At last I’d get to make up for my earlier lapse, and do right by the man. I wasn’t allowed to speak with Don (labels often discourage dealing with the artist when they don’t have to), but I found some good background information; and interviewed the widow of “Tiny Bubbles” composer Leon Pober, and Lee Hershberg, who’d engineered virtually all of Don’s hits. Proudly, I turned in the notes. They were accepted.

For whatever reason, though, the “Essentials” series died a quick death. The Ho album was released, but soon withdrawn. The first Greatest Hits, though — the one on which I’d embarrassed myself and Don Ho — remains in the Warner Bros. catalog. You can buy it today.

I recommend that you do, in fact; the music’s great. But please — don’t read the liner notes!

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