Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photos by Dana Edmunds
Antone and Julia settled their family on a grassy bluff overlooking one of Ku‘au’s prettiest coves. Antone built a two-story house replete with a water pump and a windmill to generate electricity. Besides a horse and buggy, he possessed an automobile (christened “Babylon”) and a chauffer —quite a triumph for an immigrant with just three years of formal schooling.
The Tavares home was full of noisy activity. Cyrus, one of the older boys, showed his younger brother Freddie the way around a guitar, while the other kids banged away on the piano in the parlor. Ernest, the seventh child, was a proficient pianist by age nine and busied himself next with clarinet. One day, shrieks of excitement came from Ernest’s room upstairs. “I got New York!” he crowed, hunched over his ham radio. The enterprising 15- year-old had built a transceiver out of lead pipes and antennas stretching the length of the house. It was 1926; radio was still in its infancy. But Ernest already had a class A ham radio operator’s license, the highest level available.
On another occasion, Freddie joined Ernest—the most kolohe (mischievous) of the clan—in sneaking some dynamite from a nearby construction site and blowing up the giant underwater boulders in the cove that fronted their house: The teens were intent on perfecting their home surf break. All was working according to plan —until Antone came home for lunch unexpectedly. The self-appointed engineering corps caught quite a licking.
If his boys’ precociousness surprised Antone, it shouldn’t have. He had, after all, named each of them after warriors: Cyrus the Great, Frederick the Great, William the Conqueror. Ernest’s middle name was Arriaga, after Portugal’s first president. Cyrus brought honor to the family by becoming a federal judge; Bill spent twenty-two years as the stern and beloved principal of Makawao Elementary School. Freddie and Ernest … Well, they followed the beat of a different, distinctly Hawaiian drum. Engineers, musicians and performers, they became pioneers of the new age of electric music. Both inventive geniuses, they were constantly finding things to perfect, and they had the tenacity to follow through with their brainstorms. They performed with the top stars of their day, popularized the sound of Hawai‘i across the globe and built instruments that changed the course of music history.
Hawaiian music was a hot commodity at the dawn of the twentieth century. Lilting songs promised warm weather as smiling hula dancers seduced careworn Mainlanders. The newly invented Hawaiian steel guitar, with its dreamy, angelic swoops and harp-like vibrations, ignited visions of a paradise found. Ernest and Freddie, born in 1911 and 1913 respectively, were perfectly suited to capitalize on this craze for the sound of the Islands.
They got their start in 1934, playing with Harry Owens at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. Originally a big-band man, Owens had succumbed to the lure of Hawaiian music and decided to add a steel guitarist to his orchestra. Freddie, who played acoustic guitar, convinced Owens that he could learn the instrument in two weeks’ time. Freddie got the job—and so too did his virtuoso brother Ernest, who signed on to play sax, flute and clarinet. Soon after, Harry Owens and His Royal Hawaiians were hired to help launch Hawaii Calls, a new radio program to be broadcast from the Moana Hotel in Waikiki. Backed by the sound of the crashing surf, Freddie’s mesmerizing steel guitar opened each show for the first few years of the program’s thirty-seven-year run. At its peak the wildly popular Hawaii Calls played on 450 stations across several continents, introducing the world to hapa-haole music —Hawaiian tunes with English lyrics that all could understand.
The Royal Hawaiians toured throughout North America, too, taking up residence at the Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco and traveling from city to city. Out on the road, Ernest connected with ham radio enthusiasts he’d met over the airwaves. When World War II broke out, the band permanently relocated to the West Coast. Freddie and Ernest, who had both married Maui girls, settled in Southern California, where they met plenty of Hawaiians who’d left the Islands to make it big.
In those days you could hardly walk through Hollywood without bumping into a famous Hawaiian artist. Freddie and Ernest helped found the Polynesian Society of Southern California, an informal performers’ union, and recorded with many of the greats, including Sam Koki, Sol Ho‘opi‘i and Joe Keawe. They joined Harry Owens on “Sweet Leilani,” and after the song won an Oscar in Waikiki Wedding, everyone wanted Hawaiian music on their albums. The Tavares brothers found themselves in great demand. They accompanied Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, Dean Martin, Doris Day and many others. They joined Spike Jones’ orchestra on the famous recording of the “Hawaiian War Chant.” Their numerous movie credits included Song of the Islands,Donovan’s Reef, Gidget Goes Hawaiian and Tora! Tora! Tora! Freddie even strummed ‘ukulele alongside Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii—though ironically it was one of his shortest (and first) recordings that became his most famous: That’s Freddie playing the steel guitar riff that opens the Looney Tunes theme. To achieve the exact acceleration Warner Brothers wanted, Freddie recorded the glissando and then reversed the tape. Bingo. Anyone who’s ever watched a Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck cartoon has heard Freddie’s steel guitar.
Ever the innovator, Freddie swapped out his steel guitar’s metal slide when he played ragtime numbers; by using a wooden slide he could mimic the sound of a honkytonk piano. From 1949 to 1953, Freddie played with the Ozark Mountain Boys at a Western club in Los Angeles called Cowtown. He wrote all of the band’s musical arrangements and built their amplifiers. Wade Ray, the Ozark’s fiddler, was quoted as saying, “Fiddle is the awfulest darned instrument to amplify, but Freddie figured out a way to do it. … 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.”
It was one of Freddie’s homemade amplifiers that landed him a job at Fender Musical Instrument Co. After a Cowtown show one night, a friend introduced Freddie to Leo Fender, who was then the biggest name in the guitar and amplifier business. Freddie proceeded to point out to Leo all of the problems with Fender’s amps. When Leo learned that Freddie had built his own steel guitar and amp, he whipped out a screwdriver and pried open Freddie’s amp right there in the club. After he’d examined its circuitry, he offered his critic a job as assistant engineer.
It was to be an auspicious pairing. Freddie’s first task in 1953 was to help create what became one of the greatest guitars ever made: the Fender Stratocaster. A company memo sent out after Freddie’s passing decades later describes the scene: “On his first day [Freddie] drew two lines, twenty-five and one-half inches apart and about two inches wide. Over the next several months those two lines would become the single most powerful force in modern music … the Stratocaster.”
The Strat, as it’s known to thousands of would-be and bona fide rock stars, was among the first solid-body electric guitars. It’s been called foxy, sleek as a rocket ship, a work of modern art. Eric Clapton called it “as close to perfect as any electric guitar can be.” Tom Wheeler, author of American Guitars, likened its arrival on the musical scene to Dolly Parton entering an Amish church.
Unlike its plank-like predecessors, the shapely Stratocaster fit comfortably against a musician’s body. Its distinctive horns, where the body was cut away, enabled players to reach frets farther up the guitar’s neck. It included three pickups and something called a tremolo action lever (later nicknamed the whammy bar), a magical lever that allowed guitarists to imitate the coveted bend effects of Hawaiian steel guitars.
The Strat’s wasn’t the first tremolo on the market, but it was the best—so good, in fact, its design hasn’t changed much in sixty years. It ushered in a new era of music where guitar was king. In the hands of musical giants like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Edge, the Strat has been a launchpad to stardom.
Considerable debate surrounds who really invented the Stratocaster. Freddie credited his boss, Leo. Fender engineer George Fullerton and Western swing musician Bill Carson both played roles. But there is no doubt that it was Freddie who perfected the troublesome tremolo and brought each inspired element together into a functioning whole. For three decades Freddie designed and personally tested prototypes of every instrument Fender produced. He showed up for work, often six days a week, wearing an aloha shirt and a smile.
His coworkers revered his integrity and humor. “Freddie Tavares, without question, was the most humble man I have ever known,” remembers Dan Smith, former vice president of R&D at Fender. “And by humility I don’t mean someone who was shy and retiring, because he certainly was not shy and retiring. He was outgoing by nature, funny and entertaining, articulate to a fault, continually in search of knowledge and unbelievably caring.”
Freddie’s congeniality was tested in the ’60s when rock ’n’ rollers began intentionally distorting the machinery he’d spent years perfecting. His son, Terry Tavares, remembers Freddie complaining, “I’ve put my integrity and heart into the design of Fender amps, and they produce crystal-clear sound. These snot-nosed three-chord wonders now want them to sound like $39.95 Sears catalog amps. One of these days I’m going to design a ten-thousand-watt amp and not tell them. When they turn the volume up to max and play their first chord, poof! They’ll just disappear.”
As always, Freddie’s generous nature won out; he continued answering the needs of musicians—snot-nosed or not—until his retirement at age 72. For his contributions to the industry, he was inducted into two hallowed institutions: the Fender Hall of Fame and the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.
Ernest, while not as well known as his older brother, was certainly as accomplished. He could play any instrument he picked up, be it ‘ukulele, saxophone, flute, Tahitian drum or Hawaiian gourd. During one recording session he borrowed a harp —an instrument he’d never played before —and showed its frustrated owner how to strum it correctly.
He had particular taste and, like his brother, was a born perfectionist. He loved jazz and regularly played sax and clarinet in a jazz band at the Hollywood Palladium. Rock ’n’ roll was another story. After Hollywood composer Dimitri Tiomkin asked Ernest to play “sloppier” on a rock song, he refused future jobs.
Though Ernest played Hawaiian steel guitar, he didn’t much care for the instrument, so true to form he set about improving it. He puzzled over how to get a broader range of chords that could handle the diversity of the music he liked to play. In 1943 he drafted plans for his ideal instrument, but wartime restrictions on metal prevented him from building it until 1946. That year he constructed an oddlooking contraption with a steel guitar’s fretboard mounted on legs and connected by pulleys to wooden pedals. Ernest’s wife Lydia thought it looked hideous— but said she’d never heard anything more beautiful. Ernest had created a steel guitar with a full chordal range, one that could sound as lavish as a full string section or as singular as a banjo.
Over the years, Ernest wrote hundreds of his own compositions and collaborated on countless albums. He continued to play his pedal steel guitar invention throughout his career. In 1952 he developed a second pedal steel guitar, but he couldn’t perfect it to his exacting standards. He handed the plans to Freddie, who went on to produce it at Fender. Ernest’s design ultimately became the Fender 1000 Pedal Guitar— which to this day continues to set the standard for instruments of its type.
Ernest patented some of his numerous inventions: loudspeaker enclosures, improvements to radio instruments. Radio, in fact, remained a lifelong passion. For years he worked as an engineer at KFI, a California AM radio station. At home Lydia must have thrown up her arms in despair when he tore up the yard to build a fifty-foot-tall ham radio tower. He wired the house with speakers, inside and out, to accommodate Sunday afternoon parties.
He was a born entertainer and tireless. In 1965, while Freddie was at Fender, Ernest launched a twelve-piece stage show, Hawaiian Hullabaloo. It toured the West Coast for eight years, with long-term engagements at top casinos in Reno and Las Vegas. Equally impressive were the show’s dancers: Ernest hired six-foot-tall women who towered over audiences because he felt their Amazon-like stature gave the show an even greater element of the spectacular.
The Tavares brothers definitely did not lack for personality. “The two of them were kind of zany characters,” recalls Ernest’s son, Jan Tavares. “They were a lot of fun to be around, especially when together.” The brothers liked to challenge one another to word games, priding themselves on their exhaustive vocabularies. Once while on tour, they were so intent on their competition that after a brief pit stop at a café, they drove off, leaving Freddie’s wife, Tamar, behind. Used to the brothers’ ways, she ordered a coffee, settled into a book and waited for them to come back for her —which in due time they sheepishly did.
Ernest and Freddie continued to entertain around California well past their retirement. Holiday parties at their homes were huge affairs, attended by extended family and the occasional movie star, such as Johnny Weissmuller—better known as Tarzan. Martin Denny, Jerry Byrd and other musical celebrities attended Freddie and Tamar’s fiftieth wedding anniversary and regaled the couple with celebratory serenades. But Freddie’s connection to high society didn’t prevent him from packing up a small amplifier, pedal steel guitar and ‘ukulele to perform for delighted nursing home residents.
Ernest passed away in 1986, followed four years later by Freddie. In 1994, on the Stratocaster’s fortieth anniversary, Fender honored Freddie by releasing 150 limited-edition guitars, the “Freddie Tavares Aloha Stratocaster.” The guitar is shiny silver, with etchings of Freddie playing guitar and Tamar dancing hula. Over the years, these prized guitars have fetched as much as $15,000.
In 2011, at the prestigious Na Hoku awards ceremony, Ernest and Freddie received the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts’ Lifetime Achievement Award. In the last year, members of Congress, Hawai‘i’s governor, Maui’s mayor and its county council have each issued resolutions praising the profound talents of these sons of Ku‘au. Even posthumously the brothers are still contributing to the silver screen. The recent film The Descendants closes with the brothers’ rendition of “Hi‘ilawe.” True Renaissance men, Ernest and Freddie Tavares left a lasting and lovely mark on music.
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