ARTHUR LYMAN...sounds of my childhood

There was a background music for growing up in Hawaii in the late 1950s and early '60s: Exotica. Of course I didn't know at the time it had such an exotic name, it was just the music I heard all the time. It was the music that had me dancing in the living room. It was the music I used to teach my best friend how to dance. No Arthur Murray dance lessons for us; it had to be Arthur Lyman. Think seven year old Isadora Duncan's in the jungles of our imagination.

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From left to right: Allen Soares, John Kramer, Arthur Lyman, Harold Chang
Arthur Lyman was born on the island of Kauai in the U.S. territory of Hawaii, on 2 February 1934. He was the youngest of eight children of a Hawaiian mother and a father of Hawaiian, French, Belgian and Chinese extraction. When Arthur's father, a land surveyor, lost his eyesight in an accident on Kauai, the family moved to the island of Oahu and settled in Makiki, a section of Honolulu. Arthur's father was very strict with him, each day after school locking him in a room with orders to play along to a stack of Benny Goodman records "to learn what good music is." "I had a little toy marimba," Lyman later recalled, "a sort of bass xylophone, and from those old 78 rpm disks I learned every note Lionel Hampton recorded with the Goodman group." He became adept at the 4-mallet style of playing which offers a greater range of chord-forming options. He became good enough to turn professional at age 14 when he joined a group called the Gadabouts, playing vibes in the cool-jazz style then in vogue. "I was working at Leroy's, a little nightclub down by Kakaako. I was making about $60 a week, working Monday to Saturday, from 9 to 2 in the morning, and then I'd go to school. So it was kind of tough."

Exotica Music
After graduating from McKinley High School in 1951, he put music on hold to work as a desk clerk at the Halekulani hotel. It was there in 1954 that he met pianist Martin Denny, who, after hearing him play, offered the 21-year old a spot in his band. Initially wary, Lyman was persuaded by the numbers: he was making $280 a month as a clerk, and Denny promised more than $100 a week. Denny had been brought to Hawaii in January on contract by Don the Beachcomber, and stayed in Hawaii to play nightly in the Shell Bar at the Hawaiian Village. Other members of his band were Augie Colon on percussion and John Kramer on string bass. Denny, who had traveled widely, had collected numerous exotic instruments from all over the world and liked to use them to spice up his jazz arrangements of popular songs. The stage of the Shell Bar was very exotic, with a little pool of water right outside the bandstand, and rocks and palm trees growing around. One night Lyman had had "a little to drink," and when they began playing the theme from Vera Cruz, Lyman tried a few bird calls. "The next thing you know, the audience started to answer me back with all kinds of weird cries. It was great." These bird calls became a trademark of Lyman's sound.

When Denny's "Quiet Village" was released on record in 1957 it became a smash hit, igniting a national mania for all things Hawaiian, including tiki idols, exotic drinks, aloha shirts, luaus, straw hats and Polynesian-themed restaurants like Trader Vic's.

That same year, Lyman split off from Denny to form his own group, continuing in much the same style but even more flamboyant. For the rest of their careers they remained friendly rivals, even appearing together (with many of their former bandmates) on Denny's 1990 CD Exotica '90. Although the Polynesian craze faded as music trends changed, Lyman's combo continued to play to tourists nearly every Friday and Saturday night at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel in Honolulu throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. He also performed for years at Don the Beachcomber's Polynesian Village, The Shell Bar, the Waialae Country Club and the Canoe House at the Ilikai Hotel at Waikiki, the Bali Hai in Southern California and at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. During the peak of his popularity Lyman recorded more than 30 albums and almost 400 singles, earning three gold albums. Taboo peaked at number 6 on Billboard's album chart and stayed on the chart for over a year, eventually selling more than two million copies. The title song peaked at number 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1959. Lyman's biggest pop single was "Yellow Bird," originally a Haitian song, which peaked at #4 in July 1961. His last charting single was "Love For Sale" (reaching number 43 in March 1963), but his music enjoyed a new burst of popularity in the 1990s with the lounge music revival and CD reissues.

Lyman died from thoracic cancer in February 2002.

Recording Details
Most of Lyman's albums were recorded in the aluminum Kaiser geodesic dome auditorium on the grounds of the Kaiser Hawaiian Village Hotel on Waikiki in Honolulu. This space provided unparalleled acoustics and a natural 3-second reverberation. His recordings also benefited from being recorded on a one-of-kind Ampex 3-track 1/2" tape recorder designed and built by engineer Richard Vaughn. All of Lyman's albums were recorded live, without overdubbing. He recorded after midnight, to avoid the sounds of traffic and tourists, and occasionally you can hear the aluminum dome creaking as it settles in the cool night air. The quality of these recordings became even more evident with the advent of CD reissues, when the digital mastering engineer found he didn't have to do anything to them but transfer the original 3-track stereo masters to digital. The recordings remain state-of-the-art nearly 50 years later. (SOURCE: Wikipedia)
On a trip back to Oahu, after once again living on the Mainland, we went with friends to a lounge where the Arthur Lyman group was appearing. One of their good friends was Arthur's percussionist, Harold Chang. In between sets Harold came over and sat down at our table, Arthur dropped by too. I kept thinking how cool it all was. I was actually meeting Arthur Lyman and the man who did the percussion and bird calls. If only my friend had been there we'd have been dancing on the tables. It wouldn't have been pretty, but it would have been lively.

The Kaiser Dome at the Kaiser Hawaiian Village Hotel also has special meaning to me. I performed (badly) on the stage twice. One show was with my ballet troupe. We performed Sleepy Beauty. I was the purple fairy and the fairy before me stole my lines leaving me standing at the microphone speechless. I was so popular I was brought back years later to appear in a Hawaiian variety show. I performed several numbers with my hula troupe. I then retired from the stage except for one truly horrendous performance as a mother in a Christmas play in the 7th grade.

Another piece of info about the Hawaiian Village is that it was where the headquarters for the detective agency was located on the tv show "Hawaiian Eye." I was a big fan of "Hawaiian Eye" and had a crush on Poncie Ponce. I had my Poncie hat and record and was a happy keiki. A few years ago I found out a friend's dad played poker with Poncie each week. As a surprise she called me one time and told me there was someone who wanted to speak to me; she put Poncie on the phone. Oh I was all giggles and 10 years old again. She sent me a signed photo from Poncie. It's a keeper!

Now everybody, kick your shoes off and go native!


  1. Anonymous12/10/2011

    Thanx for all this about Atta and the KDome/ These were special people, places, and times that will never be seen again. During his last week of performing I enjoyed recording his solo playing (including bird calls, of which he said "I hate that":) and conversation, a momento that I appreciate more every day.

  2. Felix0912/07/2012

    I have been a Martin Denny fan for most of my adult life and still listen to his music several times a month. Since your post reminded me of Mr. Denny, I decided to put one of his LPs on the stereo. Ah, Mr. Denny's music sounds as good as ever!