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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 20, 2003

It's one last 'Dance' for longtime island musician

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

'Let's Dance'

Featuring the final appearance by Willie Barton, orchestra conductor

6-9 p.m. Sunday

Monarch Room, Royal Hawaiian Hotel

931-7194, 538-1522

$15 (plus one-drink minimum)

With: Jan Brenner, George Chun, Al Waterson

After a prolific 34-year career in island music — as a trombonist, keyboarder, arranger, conductor and performer — Willie Barton, 62, is tossing in his baton to move to Starkville, Miss., to be close to his mom, who's 89.

Oh, he's not giving up music — "there's Mississippi State University in town, and I want to get involved there," he said — but he's calling it quits after one more "Let's Dance" concert Sunday at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel's Monarch Room. "It's my last hurrah," Barton said.

We caught up with him a few days back and posed several questions. Here's how it all went:

Q. You've had a colorful career in Hawai'i. What precise memories will you take with you back to Mississippi?

A. I think all the good friends I made over here. Just wonderful people, especially the John Rowles days. The first day I got to town in 1969, I walked all the way down Kalakaua Avenue, from the Ala Wai to the zoo, and I never heard so much music in my life, from Hawaiian to salsa. Who knew?

I worked with Harvey Ragsdale (an orchestra leader) for 12 years, but my first job was with Martin Denny at the Royal Hawaiian, where I also played in the band for Kay Starr, Roberta Sherwood, a lot of people. Those memories are unforgettable.

Q. You've focused on the big-band sounds of the past — nostalgic music from the 1930s and '40s, for instance. What has been the lure?

A. It's the music. I love to play jazz, but it doesn't afford audience participation that the '40s music does. It's a great genre; I think it's necessary for an audience to contribute, and jazz often is a one-way street.

Q. What's your take, now, on the show-biz climate in Waikiki? Are you concerned that present and future musicians aren't going to experience the joys that you have?

A. It's sad but true. There's a positive side: A lot of young Hawaiian groups are getting more chances to play now than the past. But the groups are much smaller; two, three, four members, tops. And there are fewer shows. It's all changed, with economics and technology, and it's frightening.

Q. How did you connect with the "Let's Dance" series?

A. George Chun and I got together. We felt there was a need, a niche there, to provide an outlet for dance fans. Del Courtney started it here originally; Del and Jimmy Borges still do dance things at Blue Tropix. But the Monarch Room has been a special place for dancing.

Q. So what's immediately ahead?

A. Packing; I have a whole wall of music stacked up, charts for Charo, John Rowles, Zulu. I'm filing and shipping things off. I don't leave till September.

But going through old things, I'm reliving the past memories. Like the time I was fortunate to play trombone for Elvis Presley in that live worldwide telecast that also resulted in a record and a video. Best-paying job I ever had; I got a check for it for years. Nothing to complain about the way Col. Parker did business.