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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 30, 2003

Disco fever

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Yvonne Elliman's biggest hit — "If I Can't Have You" — appeared on the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack and remains a disco anthem. "I guess disco never died," said Elliman, a Roosevelt High graduate who also scored with "I Don't Know How to Love Him."

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

'Disco Fever'

A dance concert recalling the disco era

7:30 p.m. today; doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Hawaii Ballroom, Sheraton Waikiki Hotel

$45, $35 (additional $10 at the door)

526-4400, ticketmaster.com

Featuring: Yvonne Elliman and the J Michaels Band, Aura, Phase 7, Asian Blend, Power Point, Tino & the Rhythm Klub, Infusion with Allison Maldanado and Tracy Smith, eightOeight

Yvonne Elliman, Hawai'i's singing diva from the 1970s, has never been infatuated with disco music. Yet she is making a guest appearance — starring — in tonight's "Disco Fever," which revisits the era of sequined tops, platform shoes, mirror balls and throbbing tempos.


Because Elliman's biggest hit — "If I Can't Have You" — helped galvanize the disco era when it was chosen for the 1977 "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack.

As John Travolta was "Staying Alive," dancing to the Bee Gees' soulful falsetto sound — Elliman's big hit became (and remains) a disco anthem.

Back then, her hit was so big her record label, RSO (Robert Stigwood Organization), forced her to become a hottie for the dancing queens and kings by jumping on the disco wagon.

She was not thrilled.

At the time her single was rising, she was singing backup for Eric Clapton, with whom she toured from 1974 to 1978.

"I was told I had to quit his band to get my own act together," said Elliman, now 51, who's once again a Honolulu resident and periodically prepping for a spotlight moment.

"It was devastating; in retrospect, I really was (angry). They had Raquel Welch's husband dressing me in satins and silks — I'm a blue-jeans and T-shirt kind of girl — and I felt I was thrown together, having to learn certain dance steps. Heck, I'm a free-form dancer and a free spirit; I like to be nonconformist. That's been my life."

She couldn't resist the opportunity, however, to add her name to a roster of disco-era local bands performing in "Disco Fever" tonight at the Hawaii Ballroom of the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel.

She never visited the discos here in the heyday of the dance phenomenon, because she was in the midst of a career high on the Mainland.

Though she often visited home later on, most of the discos were long gone by then, except in the memories of club-goers. She has never seen or heard local bands perform.

"I thought it would be fun to catch up," said Elliman.

Not that she hates dancing. "I think it's fun to do, but I tended to stay away from fads, from group things, from the whole (original) movement. I didn't buy a single disco album, and in retrospect, it looked like my heart wasn't in it (the music scene) at all."

She frowned at the notion that her name was tossed into the disco blender. "I always felt like the disco deviate. I stayed away."

"Disco" described both a sound (soul-stirring, foot-stomping, body-gyrating riffs) and a place (a discotheque had a dance floor outfitted with a rotating mirror ball and flashing lights, jammed with boogieing folks). It emerged in the mid-'70s, often with live bands pumping out dance covers of the day.

Clubs with deejays spinning vinyl discs were fashionable, too, though in Waikiki, live musicians prevailed at the height of disco fever.

"It was a time when everyone had a lot of fun," said Mitchell Hazama, of the local band Asian Blend. The combo emerged at the height of disco fever and has remained active, now mostly doing special private gigs.

Tony Ibach, 31, was in grade school when disco was hot and happening. So he never experienced first-hand the pulse that influenced a culture and a lifestyle for a good part of a decade.

While disco still prevails today as dance-hall music, Ibach, who is a former member of The Krush and now the vocal focus of Tino & the Rhythm Klub, said television had a lot to do with helping disco, or dance music, stay alive.

"I think one big reason a lot of the younger generation are watching MTV and VH-1 is that the stations do a lot of focus and theme shows, like the 'One-Hit Wonder' or '70s tribute shows, that look at music and performers from the past," said Ibach.

"They just throw in futuristic hot graphics and a young, hip host, and play these specials over and over, in rotation."

Notable stars of the disco era included the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, and the Village People. They sang about how deep love can be, hot women, and YMCAs. Dancers responded by bouncing all over the dance floor.

"I guess disco never died," said Elliman, who also starred as Mary Magdalene in the rock opera, "Jesus Christ Superstar," in the definitive concept album, the Broadway stage musical, and then the film version.

From that Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice vehicle, she had another hit, "I Don't Know How To Love Him," which made her an across-the-board pop music star, expanding her fan base.

With disco interest still out there, she has had occasional offers to appear at disco festivals, including one last year in Los Angeles ("I had time constraints, and couldn't do"), which is being repeated June 28 at the Hollywood Bowl ("they asked me again and I'm checking it out").

Aura, a family band, has been instrumental in keeping the heartbeat of disco going here.

"The disco era was a great time," said Dennis Mendoza, whose brothers and sisters (and variations in later years, including some musician friends), helped put disco on the map at the Point After at the old Hawaiian Regent Hotel. "Just watching the kids grow up and leave the Point was part of our joy. We were doing live music for about 10 years, from 1976 to '86.

"I guess it all ended as part of an economical move — deejays went into high gear, lowering overhead of live bands, not just at our club, but all over Waikiki.

"But in our time ... we showed a lot of technique, and maybe I'm partial, but the music then had a lot of substance. I feel sorry for kids nowadays; they don't know what good music is all about. They're recycling some disco music now, but it was a culture that had a lot of energy and originality."

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com, 525-8067 or fax 525-8055.

• • •

Disco ditties for your night musings

Here's a baker's dozen of hot disco tracks that will set your feet adancing. Faves by the Bee Gees, Village People and Donna Summer are excluded here in favor of tracks you may have forgotten. Match the titles with the artists (answers below):

The tunes

  1. "Caribbean Queen"
  2. "Funky Town"
  3. "I Will Survive"
  4. "The Hustle"
  5. "Turn the Beat Around"
  6. "We Are Family"
  7. "Le Freak"
  8. "Don't Leave Me This Way"
  9. "Celebration"
  10. "I Love the Nightlife"
  11. "You Sexy Thing"
  12. "Flashdance ... What a Feeling"
  13. "That's the Way (I Like It)"

The artists

  1. Sister Sledge
  2. K.C. & the Sunshine Band
  3. Billy Ocean
  4. Hot Chocolate
  5. Chic
  6. Vicki Sue Robinson
  7. Gloria Gaynor
  8. Alicia Bridges
  9. Lipps Inc
  10. Van McCoy
  11. Kool & the Bang
  12. Thelma Houston
  13. Irene Cara

• • •

Who's who among the bands performing ...


Members: Del Mendoza, Vince Mendoza, Christine Mendoza, Dennis Mendoza, G.G. Orbello, Brian Mendoza, Beverly Mendoza Orbello.

Heyday: 1976-'86; earlier known as Beverly & the Young Lads and the Nomads; record producer Gary Shimabukuro suggested the name.

Hung out at: Point After at the Hawaiian Regent, where it was ensconced for 10 years.

Known for: Being a family band (brothers and sisters originally, other relatives in later years), with the ability to do covers with marked similarity to the originals. "We really covered 'em to a T; people thought they were hearing records," said Christine Mendoza.

Recollection of the era: "Long lines at the Point; we played till 3:30 a.m. six days a week, so we watched the sun come out," said Christine Mendoza.

Breakout performers: Brothers Michael and Cliffton Mendoza are part of 650 (which stands for six members from the 50th state, which include members from the disbanded Honolulu group), doing the Las Vegas club circuit; earlier members now play with Tino & the Rhythm Klub.

Look for: Periodic reunion gigs.

Tino & the Rhythm Klub

 •  Answers to quiz: 1 C, 2 I, 3 G, 4 J, 5 F, 6 A, 7 E, 8 L, 9 K, 10 H, 11 D, 12 M, 13 B.
Members: Elmo Custodia, Lucky Salvador, Adney Atabay, Hemingway Jasmin, Tino Ibach, Dave Toma, Ricky Ricardo.

Heyday: Show and dance group now; includes former members of the Krush, Phase 7, and Aura, with vintage dating back to the 1970s.

Hangs out at: Esprit at the Sheraton Waikiki.

Known for: "I think for being a hot, live concert band; people know they will see an exciting visual performance and solid musical experience," said Ibach.

Recollection of the era: "I remember being in elementary school, watching Danny Terio on 'Disco Fever' on TV, and being excited. The beat had a pulse, made you want to dance. ... I realize now how much impact disco has had," said Ibach.

Breakout performers: Ibach pitched a solo sound-alike act, performing as Stevie Wonder in a TV talent show.

Look for: Fourth of July appearance at Schofield Barracks, new CD by year's end.

Asian Blend

Members: William Popaka, Pam Peterson, Mitchell Hazama, Dave Toma, Jay Molina, David Choi.

Heyday: Mid-'70s to '80s.

Hung out at: Hawaiian Hut, Foxy Lady II at Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel, Duke Kahanamoku's at the International Marketplace, Infinity at the Sheraton Waikiki, C'est Si Bon at the Pagoda, the Black Orchid at Restaurant Row and Trappers at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki. Now on the convention circuit.

Known for: A variety of music; "we tried to do all types," said Hazama.

Recollection of the era: "Live music was the thing, no deejays; so competition was keen, since there were many good bands. Music was more diverse and more challenging to play then," said Hazama.

Breakout performers: Dave Toma became a member of Toma/Natto; former band singer Sonya Mendez performs on the club circuit; David Choi remains an active sax soloist/performer.

Look for: First CD (after 30-year career) due later this year.


Members: Tom Chun, Terry Lum, Brad Choi, Alison Maldonado, Tracy Smith, Mike Smith.

Heyday: Mid- to late '70s. Still on the circuit (Kapono's, Brew Moon, Waterfront Cafe).

Hung out at: Hula Hut, Waikiki Beef 'n' Grog.

Known for: One bandsman always wearing an afro wig.

Recollection of the era: "It was a good-fun time, mostly free-style, with lots of dance and who-looked-best contests," said Tracy Smith.

Breakout performers: Choi, drummer, with other acts such as Imua and J Michaels Band; Smith has performed with Heart and Soul, "Magic of Polynesia"; Maldonado does local theater.

Look for: Maldonado will appear as Donna Summer.


Members: N.J. Chang, Malcolm Rolsal, Stephanie Dillard, Tony Trevias, Kim Field, Scott Shafer, Dan Del Negro.

Heyday: Has been performing the past three years.

Hangs out at: Kincaide, Gordon Biersch; completed a military tour of Japan, Singapore, Okinawa and Diego Garcia prior to Iraqi war.

Known for: Its energy, soulful sounds, harmonies. "It looks like we're always having fun," said Dillard.

Recollection of the era: "Disco music was focused, it was real, it was not sequenced; people knew how to write," said Dillard.

Breakout performers: Several have left the group to join other bands.

Power Point

Members: Jason Nagashima, Gary Asato, Jean Asato (Gary's wife), Dwayne Higa, Owen Kajiwara, Brad Choi, Todd Yukumoto and Garry Chun.

Heyday: Mid- to late '70s through early '80s. Also known as the SRO Band (at '80s wedding parties).

Hung out at: C'est Si Bon at the Pagoda, Da Sting at the Princess Kai'ulani Hotel, Point After at the Hawaiian Regent (alternating with Aura).

Known for: Covers of prevailing hits like "Car Wash" and "Brick House."

Recollection of the era: "Long lines," said Nagashima.

Breakout performers: Asato has emerged as a bandsman with other groups.

Yvonne Elliman & the J. Michaels Band

Members: Yvonne Elliman, J. Michaels, Brad Choi, Lina Frantz, Gary Asato, Dwayne Higa, Owen Kajiwara, Lia, Todd Yukumoto

Heyday: Of recent vintage; associated with Elliman as her working band.

Hang out: No regular club; periodic convention gigs.

Known for: Backing up Yvonne Elliman. "Not quite two years ago, we were doing a private party with Stephen Bishop, who opened up for us, if you can imagine," said Lia, a group member. "He knew Yvonne and invited her to the show; we met, and she expressed interest in our band. So we do her music whenever she has a gig."

Breakout performers: A couple of members have ties with other groups. Asato has ties with Power Point, Yukumoto with Asia Blend.

Look out for: A CD is in the works, but no release date has been set.

Phase 7

Members: Michael DeGuzman, Lucky Salvador, Adney Atabay, Ricky Ricardo, Eddie Ortiz, Hemingway Jasmin, Eric Kutzen.

Heyday: Late '70s and early'80s.

Hung out at: Hawaiian Hut, Infinity at the Sheraton Waikiki, Da Sting at the Princess Kai'ulani Hotel and the Jazz Cellar (Imperial Hawaii Hotel).

Known for: Arrangements and vocals; concentrated on the vocals and horn arrangements.

Recollection of the era: "Everybody, all the bands had jobs — every band had a club, every block had three or four bands working. Big difference from now," said Lucky Salvador. "Not like today, everyone competing for one or two venues. More fun then. And after we pau work, we used to meet with other groups at Coco's."

Breakout performers: Ricardo, Jasmine, Atabay and Salvador have become members of Tino & the Rhythm Klub, with a few spending time with The Krush.