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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Don's story

 •  Ho biography noteworthy because it's his telling

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Jerry Hopkins

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Don Ho courted several authors to write the story of his life but settled on Jerry Hopkins, a stranger who became a confidant in the last month of Ho's life to complete his "authorized" biography.

Hopkins, who has penned 36 books in a prolific career, says the legendary entertainer, who died April 14, probably knew the end was near and cooperated fully to get his story told.

Hopkins' book, "Don Ho: My Music, My Life," which was released Saturday in limited quantities by Watermark Publishing, was written while the state and world were mourning Ho's death last spring. It assembles quotes, vignettes, recollections by Ho and comments from a legion of friends, family, fans and colleagues to tell the life story of a performer known the world over for musical hits such as "Tiny Bubbles" and "I'll Remember You."

"I think Don regarded me as his last chance at finishing a book before he died, a book over which he had complete control," Hopkins said, in an e-mail interview. "I had only met Don twice, in 1976 when I was living in the Islands and interviewed him, and again in 2006 when we first talked about a possible partnership, so we didn't know each other."

Ho would divulge many intimacies about his life to Hopkins, who had a reputation for stitching comments into what he dubs a "Hawaiian quilt" format part oral history, part biography.

Hopkins didn't go into some gray areas of Ho's life that other authors had tried and failed to penetrate, including Ho's frequent carousing. Ho had the power to say what was in and what was not, and that responsibility passed on to his widow, the former Haumea Hebenstreit, after Ho's death.

After agreeing on the ground rules, Ho devoted the last month of his life to serious chats with Hopkins, a former Honolulan who resides in Bangkok, Thailand. Hopkins completed his research the day before Ho died.

While the book provided Hopkins with candid and revealing glimpses of Ho, in retrospect he admitted he couldn't call himself a Ho "buddy." But he admires the entertainer, whom he calls a "hero." Highlights of Hopkins' e-mail chat with The Advertiser:

Q. What, after 36 books, made this one memorable?

A. Time actually spent with Don. Except for my collaboration with Tom Moffatt ("Showman of the Pacific: 50 Years of Radio & Rock Stars"), all my previous biographical works were unauthorized. Don's was not. ... It was from the start Don's book, not mine thus the title "My Music, My Life."

Don's authorization allowed me to talk with everyone from his two surviving siblings to his doctors; I also interviewed him numerous times and got precious time with him and Haumea, backstage and after his shows. This allowed him to clarify and react to what I had heard that day from others and answer new questions from me. His death added a spooky spin. Along with Uncle Tom and the book's publisher, George Engebretson, I had the last picture taken with him, and after what turned out to be his final show, I had the last interview, sitting in the darkened showroom, asking mop-up questions. In the morning I flew home to Thailand. Don died while my plane was still in the air.

Q. How daunting was it to compress live interviews with bio stuff, newspaper and/or magazine sources, longstanding memories ... to concoct the final product? The book's coffee-table format one you've worked with before was to "quilt" his story. What was his reaction?

A. The "Hawaiian quilt" format using excerpts from interviews with Don and others, strung together chronologically and thematically, rather than using a single narrative voice had been used previously by, among others, Gavan Daws when he chronicled the life of Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records and for many years a resident of Lahaina. I chose it for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the short time frame given for the book's completion just three months, from my first lunch with Don to delivery of the manuscript.

Gavan kindly sent a copy of the Holzman book, "Follow the Music," to Don so he could see what I was talking about. I assured Don that his would be the predominant voice and that the other voices would back him up and add flavor and detail. Don said OK, and when I arrived in Hawai'i for the research, with Don's and Haumea's help, I started calling family, friends and former or current associates.

The visual material, from Don's archives I'll never forget Haumea saying, "We've got 15 boxes of stuff. Is that enough?" and from others, filled in many gaps and helped bring the words alive.

Q. Others have tried to do a biography. How did you access his heritage and win his confidence?

A. I think Don regarded me as his last chance at finishing a book before he died. ... And it wasn't until later that I learned he was calling people after I'd interviewed them, to ask them what they thought about me. Don was, among many other things, a man who insisted on being in control. His keyboard on stage, with all its knobs and switches, was not unlike what he had in front of him when he flew fighter jets for the Air Force. It must've driven him somewhat nuts to have this guy running around town asking questions of his friends.

Q. What's your first recollection of Don? Had you been aware of his prowess in show biz while living away from Hawai'i?

A. I lived in Hawai'i for 17 years, during the period when Don was at the Polynesian Palace and the Hilton Dome. I'd always admired him not just for his music, but, like Elvis (whom he knew), for what he represented. Don and Elvis weren't just successful performers, they were cultural icons, distinct in many ways, but also much alike. Don also did far more to put Hawai'i and the hang-loose Island lifestyle on the world map than anyone else.

Q. Were there any hot buttons you attempted to avoid because of his disdain? ... Like, he hated to talk details about his family, his romances, his personal life. Yet these were as much his soul as his music.

A. Let me say again that this was Don's book and there were some areas he didn't want explored deeply, and a few not at all. That said, in the interviews he gave me and Dr. Cristy Kessler, a University of Hawai'i professor and a friend of Haumea's, I thought he was quite candid about his personal life, about which he had a few regrets. And where Don was reluctant to cite chapter and verse on some subjects, others filled in details.

For example, when Don referred to what he called his "promiscuity," three of his closest friends, Jimmy Borges, Larry Mehau and John DeFries, take us backstage for a closer look.

Q. It's eerie that you were able to spend much of Don's last month with him, that he would die after you leave like he waited for you to get the project going. Did he insist on seeing the final text before it went to print?

A. The understanding from the beginning was that Don would have final say on what appeared and didn't appear in the book. When he died, that responsibility passed to Haumea, and the changes she made were in correcting factual mistakes made by some of the people I interviewed.

Q. What did you personally learn about Don, through your one-on-ones, through your research? Was there anything that surprised or disappointed you?

A. The thing that surprised me most about Don, I think, was the depth of his generosity. He not only gave his stage and show time to talented young performers like Marlene Sai, Tokyo Joe, Angel Pablo, Sam Kapu Jr., and Danny Couch where other performers might have felt threatened behind the scenes. He helped so many in so many incredible ways.

There was the time Tony Silva (now a member of Da Braddahs), who was then one of his dancers at the Dome, asked for an advance on his salary so he could put a down payment on a house, and Don said, "Haumea, write dis boy one check."

Another time, when Danny Couch was hit with a then-little-recognized but serious trauma commonly called "stage fright" and thought his career (was) at an end, Don put Danny in his personal physician's care and then eased Danny back into performance.

Q. How will you remember Don Ho, after this journey?

A. Don's image was that of a simple beach boy, and he was that. I think he really did believe it was important to keep sand between your toes. But he also was a demanding perfectionist, a father who was sincerely shamed by how he slighted his first wife and first six kids (what he called his "first batch") while he was building his own success, redeeming himself with his "second batch" of four in an attempt to become Super Dad.

And he was a fighter, willing to take a risk that was literally unprecedented. When his heart began to die and conventional treatment failed, he became the 30-somethingth person in the world to undergo an experimental kind of stem-cell surgery, in Bangkok. ... And then he went right back on stage.

I don't think Don and I ever would've become close buddies, but to me he was not only a hell of a baritone and a handsome, charming guy and an icon, and all that, but he also was a goddamn hero.

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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