Donald McDiarmid Jr., 88, Isle music industry legend
By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
Donald McDiarmid Jr., a legend in the Hawaiian music recording industry and president emeritus of Hula Records, died Thursday at his Kailua home. He was 88.
McDiarmid was a major figure in the local music industry for more than 50 years and launched the careers of many entertainers. He made the first commercial recordings of Don Ho and was instrumental in the Hawaiian music and dance renaissance of the 1970s.
Over the years, the Hula Records label included Gabby Pahinui, Genoa Keawe, Edith Kanaka'ole, the Kahauanu Lake Trio, Peter Moon Band, the Cazimero Brothers, Ohta-san, Kawai Cockett and Nina Keali'iwahamana. During his early years, he counted among his friends Duke Kahanamoku.
"He had everyone," said son Donald "Flip" McDiarmid III, who took over Hula Records from his father. "He had a lot of great times."
Don Jr. was born in Stockton, Calif., and came to Hawai'i in the 1930s when his father, Don Sr., accepted an invitation to join the Harry Owens Royal Hawaiian Hotel Orchestra. Don Jr. graduated from Roosevelt High School and attended the University of Kansas.
He served as a commissioned officer in the Army Air Corps during World War II before returning to the Islands. In a memoir, McDiarmid wrote that his father hired him to sing with his band at the Kewalo Inn, a gig that had disastrous results.
"I didn't know any of the words and just a few songs, but faked my way along for a while," he wrote. "The trouble was everyone wanted to buy me a drink, so I really had trouble remembering the words. It finally ended when one night I tripped over my feet and fell off the bandstand. Dad fired me and it was a relief for us both."
In 1947, Don Sr. founded Hula Records, but the business ran into difficulties and never took off. But, in the 1950s, Don Jr. revived the label and it grew into one of the top record companies here.
Flip McDiarmid said one of the keys to his father's success was his insistence that the records have detailed information, including Hawaiian language lyrics and translations and biographies of the performers.
"One thing that he really stressed was the importance of preserving Hawaiian music correctly, by doing that not only through recorded music, but by printed lyrics and biographical material about the artists and about the songs themselves," Flip McDiarmid said. "It was kind of a foundation or a cornerstone of the business of Hula that he embedded into our projects."
Don Jr. also was instrumental in the early efforts to include a Hawaiian music category in the annual National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Grammy Awards. In 1974, he began enrolling members of the local chapter of the NARAS to become an affiliate of the Los Angeles chapter, with hopes that a full-fledged Island chapter would emerge.
"Maybe someday a Grammy Award will be made to a Hawaiian record. That is my hope, anyway," McDiarmid said in 1974.
In 2005, the first Grammy was awarded in the newly created Hawaiian music category.
"He was so happy when he finally got a category set up," Flip said. "We're very fortunate we do have that category and it's helping Hawaiian music nationally."
McDiarmid's other major contribution came in 1980 when he "rescued" the tapes and other material of the "Hawaii Calls" radio show from a "half-flooded room in the basement of Alexander Young Hotel." The radio program ran from 1935 to 1975 and broadcast live Hawaiian music to an audience worldwide on the radio.
In 1998, McDiarmid's life's work was recognized by the Hawaiian Academy of Recording Artists with a lifetime achievement award.
"He had a great life," Flip McDiarmid said.
McDiarmid is survived by his wife, Alva; son, Donald "Flip" III; daughters, Mabby McDiarmid-Porter and Dee Dee Wilson; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A service is set for 3 p.m. Thursday at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. Donations may be made to the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, American Diabetes Association, or the American Heart Association.