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The Tragic Life & Death of Don Ho, Hawaii’s Superstar

Don Ho was an American pop musician, singer, and entertainer. He was perhaps known for his song ‘Tiny Bubbles’ which was featured on the album of the same name. But he wasn’t exactly just handed fame, fortune, and success. No, he earned it.

Five evenings a week, Don Hot performed onstage with his Hammond chord organ, singing a melody of his favorite songs and telling stories to the audience. He taught the crowd how to make a ‘shaka’ hand sign, holding up his right hand while extending his thumb and pinky.

He would tell the visitors that this gesture meant ‘family’ in Hawaii – or at least it did when he was a kid. He then would proceed to lament about how the kids these days just think it means ‘hang loose’.

What Don Ho accomplished is a lot easier to describe than how he managed to do so. He tenderly embraced his organ, caressing its keys. He sang his songs in a sleepy, intimate voice. He could get the audience singing and clapping along to his music until eventually audience members would be up there on stage with him only to be kissed, hugged, and teased. While his shtick might not be that difficult to recount, his magic was a lot harder to pin down.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to take a stab at it. Keep watching to see how Don Ho became Hawaii’s first real superstar.

From Lounge Singer To Superstar

Donald Tai Loy Ho was born in the little Honolulu neighborhood of Kaka’ako. He was the second of eight children and hailed from Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, and German-Dutch heritage. Don Ho’s mother, Emily ‘Honey’ Leimalle Silva Ho Kaneohe, and his father James ‘Jimmy’ Ah You Ho soon moved their family to Kaneohe.

Don’s meteoric rise to fame began in a cocktail lounge named after his mother in the town of Windward Oahu. After returning from his tour of duty as an Air Force pilot, Don came home to manage Honey’s. The lounge was packed every night of the week during the years of World War II. When he took it over, however, it was pretty much a ghost town. That’s when his father suggested that he start playing music to attract patrons.

Heeding his dad’s advice, Don Ho gathered up a couple of friends who he knew played instruments and started a band. According to him, he was a fairly lousy musician at the time so he tried his best just to play softly, but to his surprise, business started booming.

Learning from his talented musician friends and putting in a lot of practice playing at the lounge, Don Ho started incorporating the local style of calling upon the audience to sing and dance on stage with him. While doing so, he slowly started developing his own unique musical style.

In 1962, Do Ho began playing in Waikiki. Eventually, this led to him landing a multi-year performance gig at Duke Kahanamoku’s in the International Marketplace. That’s when Don Ho and his band started catching the attention of record labels and TV show talent scouts. It was during this period that he grew the most as an entertainer and rising star.

Backing him was his band, The Allis, comprised of Jo Mundo on piano, Al Akana on drums, Benny Chong on Guitar, Manny Lagodlagod on bass, and Rudy Aquino on Xylophone, percussion and a handful of other instruments.

Don took center stage at his organ with a glass of Chivas Regal in his hand and a lit cigarette smoldering in the ashtray. The music that these men produced was incredible and Don Ho’s humor was quick and witty. Tourists came to his shows but so did some locals and eventually even some Hollywood stars were in attendance. Don Ho and his band would play three shows a night, seven days a week, and would routinely raise his glass of scotch to the audience urging them to ‘suck ’em up’. And of course, they would.

Those raw, unbridled years turned Don Ho into a star and made Duke Kahanamoku’s club the most popular hangout in Hawaii. The Allis, Duke Kahanamoku, Robin Wilson, Vickie Burton, Kimo McVay, and Angel Pablo as well as everyone else that would appear on that stage had a great time playing for the eager audience every evening. One couldn’t help but come back for more after visiting the club just once.

During his years there, Don Ho quite literally blew up on the national show business scene. In 1966, he performed at a two-week event at Hollywood’s super-posh Coconut Grove. The opening night was enormously successful, breaking all previous attendance records, and Ho and his band went on to play sold-out shows every night for the remainder of the engagement.

With such a triumphant debut, other more prestigious opportunities inevitably came flooding his way. The Coconut Grove, for one, invited him back for more of that money-making magic. He was also given featured spots at the Sands In Las Vegas, Harrah’s at Lake Tahoe, the Palmer House in Chicago, and at The American Hotel’s Royal Box in New York.

Before he knew it, Don Ho was sitting down talking to the late-great Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. He followed that up by making television appearances alongside stars like Art Linkletter, Johnny Cash, and Andy Williams just to name a few. He was also given his own hour-long TV specials sponsored by Singer and Kraft. All the while, Don Ho was pumping out chart-topping records on Reprise Records.

He went from playing modest shows at his family’s lounge back in Hawaii to winning over fans all over the United States and beyond. It was a success story that no one saw coming, but Don Ho earned each and every bit of recognition that he received.

Don Ho’s Declining Health And Death

Don Ho lived at his Diamond Head estate, raising his family when In 1995, at the age of 65, he suffered a mild stroke. From then on, his health began to steadily deteriorate.

In 2002, he learned that he had developed cardiomegaly or in layman’s terms, an enlarged heart, leaving him with approximately just 30% of normal cardiac capacity.

Despite his health problems, Ho remained optimistic about the future and continued to perform nightly shows while making a few concessions when it came to his personal habits. For one, he swapped out that glass of Scotch that he always kept on top of his piano for a cup of pineapple juice.

In 2005, Don Ho received a diagnosis of cardiomyopathy and subsequently had a pacemaker implanted. But that unfortunately wasn’t the end of his heart problems. On one occasion, his pacemaker malfunctioned while he playing a show. On another, while he was making repairs on his roof his heart suddenly started racing.

He then got in touch with a biotechnology company that specializes in treating heart conditions with stem cells working in tandem with Dr. Shoa, a cardiac surgeon and pioneer of stem cells for heart disease. On December 6, 2005, Don Ho had his own adult stem cells cultivated from his blood injected into his heart by a world-renowned surgeon named Amit Patel and his associates in Thailand.

It was reported that Ho’s treatment was a success and that his heart would be restored back to 75% capacity. A month later, Ho announced that he was feeling much better and was grateful for having the chance to have the procedure done.

In September 2006, Ho Married Haumea Hebenstreit, a production assistant for his show at the Waikiki Beachcomber. Just a few days later, he went into cardiac arrest. While he had a new pacemaker installed on September 16, 2006, he collapsed and died of heart failure in his Waikiki apartment on April 14, 2007. He was then cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea.

The Death Of Don Ho’s Daughter

Dayna Ho-Henry, Don Ho’s daughter was found dead on May 11, 2007, less than a week after she helped scatter her dad’s ashes off the coast of Waikiki during his memorial service. While at first, her death appeared to be quite mysterious, the police quickly assured the public that no foul play was involved.

It was eventually determined that her death was the result of an accidental methamphetamine overdose.

The 52-year old was found unresponsive laying at her friend’s home in Waialua on Oahu’s North Shore on the morning of May 11. She was declared dead as soon as paramedics arrived on the scene.

Lab tests confirmed that she had died of the ‘toxic effects of methamphetamine’ and thus her overdose was deemed to be accidental. The police case was classified as an unattended death and was promptly closed.

Ho-Henry was the third of Ho’s 10 children. Her Brother said that it deepened the family’s grief to learn how she died.

Don Ho may have passed away more than a decade ago, but his legacy lives on. His music not only resonated with his fellow Hawaiians but it had a profound effect on American culture as a whole. His biggest hit song, ‘Tiny Bubbles’, peaked at #57 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #14 on the Easy Listening Charts. By 1968, ‘Tiny Bubbles’ had been covered 34 times. Since then it has been performed by countless artists who found Don Ho to be an inspirational musical figure.

Unfortunately, we’re just about out of time for this video but before you move on to watching something else, show your respects to the late-great songwriter by sharing your favorite memory of him in the comments section below.

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