Frank Ferera -- Hawaiian Guitar Pioneer

By Tim Gracyk

Excerpt from POPULAR AMERICAN RECORDING PIONEERS: 1895-1925, by Tim Gracyk.

Frank Ferera introduced steel guitar and slide guitar playing to an audience that was literally worldwide since many of his recordings were issued outside the United States. He was not the first Hawaiian guitarist to record. That was probably Joseph Kekuku, the steel guitar's reputed inventor (credit has also been given to James Hoa and Gabriel Davion), who performed with Toots Paka's Hawaiian troupe on Edison cylinders, both two- and four-minute, announced in the December 1909 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly. Another predecessor was W.K. Kolomku, whose guitar solo of "Hawaiian Melodies" was issued on Victor 65341. But Ferera was the first guitarist to enjoy success as a recording artist, his name a familiar one in the catalogs of virtually all record companies of the World War I era and 1920s. His style of playing was a forerunner of bottleneck playing on blues records and "steel" playing on country records, and his popular records must have influenced many guitarists of his generation.

Hawaiian music had been recorded as early as the 1890s but was not especially popular or influential until the World War I era. The most complete examination of pioneer Hawaiian recordings is L.E. Andersen's "Hawaiian Recordings: The Early Years" in Victrola and 78 Journal (Issue 7, Winter 1996). Andersen writes, "The recording industry at first paid little attention to authentic Hawaiian repertoire...The first major offering of Hawaiian repertoire appears to have been made by the American Record Co. of Springfield, Massachusetts and New York City. These are on 10-5/8 inch blue single-sided 'Indian label' discs. By 1904 several Hawaiian troupes were performing in various mainland cities including New York, where American's Hawaiian recordings apparently were made late in that year or early in 1905."

Shortly before World War I, keen interest in Hawaiian music had been sparked by the success of Richard Walton Tully's 1912 Broadway play Bird Of Paradise, starring Laurette Taylor. The Hawaiian Quintette even recorded for Victor the play's incidental music. Also significant was the appearance in 1915 of Keoki Awai's Royal Hawaiian Quartette at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. In late 1915 Victor began issuing Hawaiian discs on a monthly basis, recording such artists as Pale K. Lua and David Kaili (members of the Irene West Royal Hawaiians), and the Toots Paka Hawaiian Troupe. By 1916 all companies recorded Hawaiian or pseudo-Hawaiian numbers.

An article titled "Hawaiian Music Universally Popular," included in the September 1916 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly, asks, "Two years ago what did the public know about Hawaiian Music, Ukuleles, Hula Hula Dances? Since then Hawaiian music and American versions of it have taken the United States by storm....For years travelers who returned from Hawaii brought stories of the strange and beautiful music that the natives played on their Ukuleles, but it was not until Tully's opera 'The Bird of Paradise' was produced that musicians gave any serious attention to the instrument and its music. This opera, with its wonderful setting of exotic music, however, brought the Hawaiian instrument into prominence...A few months ago its music was translated to the American public through the medium of Hawaiian-American ragtime and since then it has sprung into universal popularity."

The jacket of Diamond Disc 50392, which features Louise and Ferera, points to another source for the interest in Hawaiian music: "Many music lovers have searched in vain for the cause of sudden passion for Hawaiian music, which struck the United States about 1915 and '16. Perhaps the cause may be found in the Panama-Pacific Exposition at San Francisco, where many Hawaiian singers and dances were heard by thousands of tourists who visited the fair...The Hawaiian Guitar is rather similar to our own instrument of the same name, except that it is played by running a steel crosspiece over the strings instead of pressing them down."

Steel guitar virtuoso Frank Ferera--called Palakiko Ferreira on early Edison recordings (some of his Edison records were credited to Palakiko's Hawaiian Orchestra)--was born on June 12, 1885 in Honolulu to Mary and Frank Ferreira. He left for the mainland around the turn of the century. It has been said that he never returned to the islands, but there is evidence he visited them in the 1918-1919 period.

Frank Ferera was featured on the cover of the December 1916 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly, and an article states, "Frank Ferera...has the distinction of being the one who first introduced the Hawaiian style of playing the guitar into the United States. It was in 1900 that he brought the first ukelele [sic] here and commenced to charm vaudeville audiences with the weird and plaintive effects he produced. For quite a while he had the field to himself....It is said that the Hawaiian style of playing the guitar was originated by a Portuguese sailor. Perhaps this has something to do with the tendency that Mr. Ferera had toward the ukelele for he, although of Hawaiian birth, is of Portuguese descent. He was musical even in his childhood."

His first wife was named Eva Perkins, but they divorced. He married a young woman from Seattle named Helen Greenus, who played ukulele as well as guitar. The two performed widely in vaudeville as Helen Louise and Frank Ferera. When Hawaiian records became incredibly popular in 1916 and 1917, Louise and Ferera recorded prolifically, benefitting from the sudden craze for Hawaiian records but also providing fuel for the craze with their many records featuring charming, always polished but never flashy performances.

Delivery was at times staid but contemporary steel guitarist Robert Armstrong has stated that their "intonation is clean and accurate, which is important in steel guitar playing since the performer has to rely on a good sense of pitch when sliding the bar or steel along the strings." About Ferera's playing during the acoustic recording era, Armstrong states, "His sliding gussandos punctuated by staccato melody lines were mostly played on the high melody string to achieve the greatest volume his instrument was capable of. This was typical of other steel guitar players of the time. Acoustic guitarists accustomed to performing for large audiences before the days of microphones had to forfeit all subtlety and delicate nuances."

More than any other artists, they supplied what the record-buying public wanted at the time in the way of Hawaiian music. The public was excited by the novelty of steel guitar, especially in combination with ukulele--there was no special demand for songs that originated in Hawaii or songs performed in an authentic Hawaiian manner. Ferera was a crossover artist from the beginning. In fact, the debut record of Louise and Ferera featured a Stephen Foster song. The duo often recorded songs that had originated in Hawaii but other times recorded songs by Tin Pan Alley composers, only some of which include "Hawaii" in the song title, others being hits of the day such as "Missouri Waltz" (Pathe 20344).

Louise and Ferera made their recording debut in New York City for Columbia in late July 1915. The four songs recorded were "My Old Kentucky Home," "Medley of Hawaiian Waltzes," "Honolulu Rag," and "Kaiwa Waltz." The first two songs were issued as Columbia A1814, which remained in the catalog until 1929.

For Edison, Frank Ferera made his recording debut as a solo artist. Blue Amberol 2685 was issued in September 1915: "a) Ua Like No Alike; b) Medley of Hawaiian Hulas." The record is credited to Palakiko Ferreira. Edison literature states, "The crying, haunting quality of Hawaiian music is the leading feature of this record...The artist plays on the Hawaiian guitar. His first selection was composed by the former Queen of the Hawaiians, next he plays a medley of Hawaiian Hula Dances." Edison Phonograph Monthly did not use the name Frank Ferera until its November 1916 issue. Edison released no further recordings of him in the remaining months of 1915, instead issuing in October 1915 the work of Hawaiian guitarists William Smith and Walter K. Kolomoku.

The first Victor disc of Louise and Ferera was issued in November 1915: "On The Beach At Waikiki--Medley" backed by "Moe Uhane Waltz" (17880). Releases that soon followed include Victor 17892 ("My Bird of Paradise" and "Kawaihau Waltz") and 18087 ("Maui Aloha--One Step" and "Pua Carnation"). Their Victor records sold well though they competed with releases of another Victor duo, Pale K. Lua and David Kaili.

For a vaudeville team of singers--tenor Horace Wright and soprano Rene Dietrich--the team of Louise and Ferera provided guitar and ukulele accompaniment on Victor recordings, such as on Wright and Dietrich's vocal versions of "On The Beach At Waikiki" (18132), "Song to Hawaii" (18159), and "My Own Iona" (18171). On a few records they provided accompaniment for the popular Sterling Trio, such as for "On The South Sea Isle" (18113), composed by Harry Von Tilzer, and "My Lonely Lola Lo (In Hawaii)" (18171). They often provided accompaniment for popular singers when they recorded songs with "Hawaii" in the title, including Sam Ash, Joseph Phillips, William Wheeler, and the Peerless Quartet.

Victor issued in April 1917 Louise and Ferera performing a number that is pure Tin Pan Alley: "Yaddie Kaddie Kiddie Kaddie Koo," backed by the duo performing Sonny Cunha's "Everybody Hula" (18240). They recorded "Yaddie Kaddie Kiddie Kaddie Koo" for Pathe around this time. It was issued as Pathe 20158 in June 1917, the same time "Palakiko Blues" was issued as Columbia A2214. In 1917 they made recordings for virtually every company, including Victor, Columbia, Edison, Gennett, Pathe, and Imperial.

Around 1917 Pathe issued a demonstration record, and the narrator states in the middle of his sales pitch, "The Pathe repertoire of recording is acknowledged to be the finest in the world. Pathe reproduces each and every tone faithfully. Hark to the delicate tones of the Hawaiian guitar and ukelele, played by Louise and Ferera." At that point the two musicians play briefly.

Their Edison recording debut, as Helen Louise and Palakiko Ferreira, was "Medley of Hawaiian Airs--No. 1," issued on Blue Amberol 2917 in July 1916. This was followed in August by the release of "Hilo March" on Blue Amberol 2927. The two songs were then issued back-to-back on Diamond Disc 50354. Within the year Edison issued on Blue Amberol several recordings of Ferera, usually accompanied by Helen Louise. In September Edison issued two Blue Amberols featuring the team: "Hapa Haole Hula Girl" (2956), composed by Sonny Cunha, and "Medley of Hawaiian Airs--No. 2" (2941).

Ferera managed the Waikiki Hawaiian Orchestra, which often recorded for Edison, but neither Edison literature nor labels credit Ferera for leading the orchestra.

With Sam Kainoa on ukulele, the team of Louise and Ferera recorded "Waiu Lulilui," issued on Columbia A2077 in November 1916, soon followed by "Hawaiian-Portuguese Tango" on Columbia A2119. Dubbing the duo Helena and Palakiko, Emerson in December 1916 issued these recordings: "Li-ke No Li-ke" (796), "Kalima Waltz" (5137), and "Hawaiian Hula Medley" (5138). Emerson continued issuing Helena and Palakiko discs in 1917. Par-o-ket records made in late 1916 were issued in February 1917: "Kilima Waltz" (52) and "Ukulele Blues" (54).

The popular "Along the Way to Waikiki," written by Gus Kahn and Richard Whiting, was issued on Columbia A2362 in November 1917. Several PathÅ discs issued in 1917 have the Louise and Ferera Waikiki Orchestra on one side, the Louise and Ferera Hawaiian Troupe on the other.

On Imperial 5483, "Sweet Lei Lehua," issued in September 1917, they are joined by Irene Greenus, misspelled "Greenis" in the August issue of Talking Machine World ("Introducing Hawaiian singer and whistler"). In June 1917 Irene had joined the two for a Pathe recording of Alau's "One Two Three Four," which was finally issued in February 1918 (20285). Irene Greenus was one of Helen Louise's three sisters from Seattle, the other two being Grace and Cecelia. The duo's use of Irene for vocalist instead of a Hawaiian is one indication that they were, as recording artists, not committed to preserving on record an authentic Hawaiian sound. Another is their readiness to record instrumental versions, arranged for Hawaiian guitars, of Tin Pan Alley hits. On Columbia A2509, the team of Louise, Ferera and Greenus even perform the Neapolitan standard "O Sole Mio."

Records of Louise, Ferera, and Greenus were issued for the next few months on Imperial discs. Imperial 5493, "Maui Waltz," was issued in October. Imperial 5505, "One, Two, Three, Four," was issued in November 1917.

On Pathe 20215, also issued in November 1917, Irene Greenus provides vocal for the famous "Aloha Oe." Several more Pathe discs would be issued, many credited to vocalist Irene Greenus, with accompaniment by the Louise and Ferera Hawaiian Orchestra (sometimes called the Louise and Ferera Waikiki Orchestra) noted in smaller type on the label.

On Empire 5529, issued in January 1918, Irene Greenus provides a vocal for "Moana Girl." The team of Frank Ferera, Helen Louise, and Irene Greenus is called the Hawaiian Trio on some labels. Louise, Ferera, and Greenus recorded several titles for Columbia around this time, including A2916, "In The Heart Of Hawaii," for which Greenus played banjo. Irene evidently stopped performing around 1918 though recordings would be issued for a few more years. According to an article in the December 19, 1919 edition of Seattle Daily Times, Irene Greenus lived in Seattle at that time as Mrs. Irene Lilliam Johnstone.

Louise and Ferera did not record as often in 1918 as they had in 1917, perhaps partly due to touring engagements, perhaps also due to the demand for war songs far exceeding that for any other type of music. Their final Victor recording was issued in November 1917: "Aloha Land" backed by "Hawaii I'm Lonesome For You" (18380). For these two numbers Louise and Ferera are joined by the Athenian Mandolin Quartet. In December 1918, Edison released a Blue Amberol featuring the Waikiki Hawaiian Orchestra, "with Louise and Ferera," performing the song "Hawaiian Breezes Waltz" (3616).

In 1919 Louise and Ferera recordings were issued mainly by Empire, Gennett, Paramount, Columbia and Lyric. Numbers recorded for Gennett in mid-1919 include "Hilo March" and "Kilima Waltz." Empire 61101, featuring Margis's "Valse Bleue" and Pestalozza's "Ciribiribin," was issued in May 1919. These were probably taken from Pathe or Operaphone masters. Aeolian issued the team of Louise, Ferera and Greenus performing "Wailana Waltz" (12147) in July. Two distinctly non-Hawaiian numbers--"Christmas Waltz" and "La Paloma"--were issued on Empire 61104 in August. Empire 61105, with "whistling and singing by Irene Greenus," was issued in September. Empire 61106 was issued in October. Performances by the Louise and Ferera Waikiki Orchestra of the songs "Ciribiribin" and "La Paloma" would later be issued in 1921 on Olympic 16103, with "Ciribiribin" also appearing on Supertone 16103.

According to the December 19, 1919 issue of The Seattle Daily Times, Helen Louise Ferera disappeared from a ship during a voyage: "Mystery veils the disappearance of Mrs. Helen Louise Ferera, 32 years old, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Albert E. Greenus, 1616 Summit Ave., from the steamship President of the Pacific Steamship Company last Friday while the vessel was steaming from Los Angeles for San Francisco. Mrs. Ferera had taken passage in Los Angeles with her husband bound for Seattle. She left the stateroom they occupied at 4 o'clock in the morning and as she did not return, thorough search of the vessel was made, but she could not be found."

The ship's captain reported that the ship was sailing in "fine weather with the sea as smooth as a mill pond." But her father reported to the newspaper, "There was a strong wind blowing Friday morning when my daughter left her stateroom and we believe she was washed overboard." He also stated, "My daughter had been in Honolulu, with her husband, for about a year for her health...She had been wanting to come home for some time, but was not able to obtain passage until recently. She arrived in San Francisco last month and I met her there. Then she decided to go to Los Angeles to spend the holidays when she disappeared."

Her father's statement that she was in Honolulu "for about a year" accounts for a gap in recording from July 1918 (a Columbia session) to mid-1919 (a Gennett session). His chronology is curious since the duo did make Gennett recordings in New York City in mid- 1919. His statement that she "was not able to obtain passage" could refer to a shortage of ships traveling between Hawaii and the mainland during America's fighting in World War I. Such an interpretation would put them in Hawaii in late 1918 or early 1919, not late 1919.

Frank Ferera recorded for most companies in the 1920s, and his new partner in early 1920 was Anthony Franchini. Victor 18669 featuring this duo was issued in June 1920, with "Wild Flower" on one side, "Alabama Moon" on the other (this is credited to the Hawaiian Trio--George Hamilton Green joins the two guitarists). Aeolian 14055 was issued in June 1920, with Frank Ferera and Anthony Franchini performing "Wild Flower" on one side, Ferera and David Kaile performing "Hawaiian Smiles" on the other. The team of Ferera and Franchini appeared on one side of Columbia A2916, issued in June 1920, the team of Louise, Ferera and Greenus on the other (Greenus plays banjo--the matrix number, 77886, indicates it had been recorded years earlier).

Okeh 4107 featuring the team of Frank Ferera and Dave Kaili was issued in July 1920, as was Okeh 4116, which featured Ferera and Franchini performing "Wailana Waltz" and "Beautiful Hawaii" (4116). In August, Ferera and Franchini's "Hawaiian Twilight" and "Drifting" were issued on PathÅ 22391. Their recording of a Ferera composition, "Honolulu Bay," followed on Pathe 22398. In September, Columbia issued the duo on A2950 and Gennett issued the duo on 9055. In the early 1920s they also recorded for Emerson, Regal, Paramount, Brunswick, Mandel, Globe and Lyric.

Olympic 16103, issued in July 1921, is credited to Louise and Ferera though Helen Louise had been dead for a year and a half. Olympic, a company formed in 1921, perhaps was able to issue recordings made several years earlier by using PathÅ masters. As late as November 1923, with A3522, Columbia issued a Louise and Ferera recording ("My Sweet Sweeting"), backed by a Ferera and Franchini number ("My Hawaiian Melody"). In the same month Columbia issued a dozen other titles performed by Ferera, mostly as leader of Ferera's Hawaiian Instrumental Quartet. A3560 featured the team of Ferera, Franchini, and Green (probably George Hamilton Green).

In the 1920s Ferera continued to be a featured soloist on other artists' records. In 1920 and 1921 he contributed to records made by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (Victor 18721, 18801 and 18826). Along with whistler Margaret McKee on "Honolulu Eyes" (18721), it appears he was the first non-Whiteman musician to be included on Whiteman recordings.

Ferera and Al Bernard made a single Edison Diamond Disc (51299) and they recorded in the mid 1920s for other companies. On both sides of Aeolian 14744--"Twenty-Five Years From Now" and "De Ducks Done Got Me," issued in April 1924--he not only accompanies vocalist Bernard but shares composer credit with Bernard. The two recorded "It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo'" for Cameo and Paramount.

He made several recordings with Vernon Dalhart joining on vocal refrain. One Edison recording made in May 1924 and issued on Diamond Disc 51361 in August (then issued as Blue Amberol 4898 in September) helped popularize "hillbilly" music: Frank Ferera accompanied Vernon Dalhart as he sang and played harmonica on "The Wreck On The Southern Old 97." Dalhart was sufficiently encouraged by the recording's success to record it again for Victor--but without Ferera. The Edison recording was successful and Victor 19427 was even more so, becoming one of the decade's most popular discs.

He made a few records on which he plays only ukulele, such as "Hawaiian Medley" and "Maui Waltz" on Pathe 020833, issued in December 1922.

One of the most unusual artists that Ferera and Franchini accompanied was Virginia Burt, who made her recording debut with Okeh discs in early 1922. Page 103 of the February 1922 issue of Talking Machine World states, "Miss Burt is well known to theatre-goers throughout the country, and she possesses the unusual gift of being able to produce in her throat tones resembling with marvelous accuracy the notes of a steel guitar string. When producing her melodies of the guitar in combination with the famous Hawaiian guitar artists Ferera and Franchini, it is almost impossible for the hearer to believe that it is not a third guitar playing."

By the mid-1920s Ferera recorded less often with Franchini, instead working with John K. Paaluhi (Franchini had begun working with a guitarist named Dettborn). One of the first Harmony discs (17-H), introduced to the trade in September 1925, features Ferera and Franchini on one side ("Dreamy Hawaii"), Ferera and Paaluhi on the other ("Dark Hawaiian Eyes"). The team of Ferera and Paaluhi made a single Diamond Disc, "St. Louis Blues" on one side, "Southern Blues" on the other (51616). Around this time, in 1925, Ferera and Paaluhi recorded "St. Louis Blues" for Gennett. The two recorded for many companies from 1925 to 1933.

Ferera, working alone, cut "St. Louis Blues" and "In the Heart of Hawaii" for Columbia 339-D. Issued in June 1925, these were among the first performances recorded with Columbia's new electric recording process. Two Columbia discs made with the electric process (326-D and 328-D, both featuring Art Gillham) have lower catalog numbers.

Robert Armstrong observes in a letter to the author, "With the advent of electrical recording, Ferera's later work reflects more harmonic complexity and dexterous work with his picking hand and use of the steel. For example, on Brunswick 4731 Ferera, using the pseudonym Palakiko, performs the steel guitar standard 'Maui Chimes,' issued simply as 'Maui.' Ferera's playing flows with a relaxed confidence as he performs the chimes interlude using finger harmonics."

From 1928 to 1930 Annette Hanshaw sang refrains for numbers recorded by Frank Ferera's Hawaiian Trio (these were issued on Cameo, Perfect, Harmony, Clarion and other labels), and "Maui Chimes" cut on January 11, 1929 sold well. Ferera recorded often in the 1920s as leader of Frank Ferera's Hawaiians. Representative is "Honolulu Home Sweet Home," issued on Banner 2156. On Gennett he was leader of Frank Ferera's Hawaiian Quartette, which featured guitars, cello, and flute.

In the mid 1920s he recorded for Victor and other companies with guitarist Paaluhi, the last Victor session being held on May 20, 1926, during which they recorded "Kilima Waltz" (20131). They are given equal credit on the Victor label but they no not share equal billing on all records. For example, Columbia 492-D, featuring the Ferera composition "Drowsy Moon" backed by Sheridan's "My Hawaiian Evenin' Star," is credited to Frank Ferera, with smaller type citing Paaluhi for guitar accompaniment.

On July 24, 1931, Frank Ferera's Hawaiian Trio recorded, with Jack Miller as vocalist, two titles that were issued on Harmony, Velvet Tone, and Clarion: "When The Moon Comes Over The Mountain" and "Beautiful Love." He continued to record into late 1933, around which time he recorded "Dreaming," issued on Crown 3533 and Montgomery-Ward M-1019, credited to Frank Ferera and His Hawaiian Trio.

By the late 1920s a new generation of steel guitarists with more dazzling performing techniques--they include Sam Ku West, Sol Hoopii, M.K. Moke and Ben Nawahi--made Ferera's guitar work seem simple and perhaps dated.

Ferera died on June 26, 1951. He was survived by his third wife, Ruth, and two children, Frank Ferreira III and Mary Ferreira.