Issue 14.4: August/September 2011

Cha Cha Cha Boom!

Story by Shannon Wianecki
All photos courtesy MKT Enterprise

 

The Mary Kaye Trio featured Mary's brother Norman on bass and Frank Ross on accordion; the three created the Vegas lounge act, inaugurated the city's dusk-'til-dawn era and built a huge following. "You couldn't get in to see the Mary Kaye Trio with a $100 bill," remembers Vegas producer Pierre Cossette. The trio recorded fifteen albums and twenty-one singles in its heyday.
In 1951 Las Vegas was set to take off. Old cowpoke-themed resorts along dusty Highway 91 were giving way to glitzy new gambling halls bankrolled by gangsters. Showgirls in feathers and skimpy bikinis strutted across casino stages, where outrageous salaries lured the biggest names in entertainment: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Liberace. But it wasn’t until a knockout Hawaiian singer and guitarist named Mary Kaye suggested the creation of an all-night lounge that Sin City hit its twenty-four-hour stride.

 

Mary might be relatively unknown today, but in her prime she was a huge star. A woman who was reputedly descended from Hawaiian royalty, she helped transform Vegas into a round-the-clock party town. Her eponymous band, the Mary Kaye Trio, epitomized the lounge era: stylish, coy and impossibly energetic.

 

During its twenty-year run the trio— with Mary singing, her brother Norman Kaye on bass and accordionist Frank Ross supplying a steady stream of humor— played the hippest hotspots around the globe: New York’s La Vie en Rose, London’s Talk of the Town and the Sydney Opera House. It recorded fifteen albums and twenty-one singles and appeared in film and on television: 77 Sunset Strip, The Dinah Shore Show, The Perry Como Show. But it was that Vegas shift in the wee hours, the one that attracted everyone from Judy Garland to Elvis, that gave the group the most notoriety. 

 

The whole thing could have been a flop. The trio was touring the United States when its manager, Billy Burton, landed the band a four-week gig at a Vegas hotel called the Last Frontier. The musicians arrived to discover a hitch: The showroom was already occupied by a bigger name star who wouldn’t budge.

 

Mary—with plenty of pluck and nowhere else to go—asked the management to make room for the trio. In 2003 she described what happened next to Vintage Guitar magazine: “I suggested a stage be built in the bar area, and it could be called a ‘lounge.’ Jack Kozloff, the owner, and Eddie Fox, the general manager, had it constructed immediately.” The buxom brunette and her band agreed to play from 1 to 6 a.m. on the new stage. They were the first all-night act in town.

 

“Up until that time there was no such thing as a ‘lounge act’ in Las Vegas. Not even a lone piano player,” writes influential producer Pierre Cossette in his memoir. He claims he concocted the idea of the lounge act to get out of hot water, since he was the one who’d double-booked the showroom. “The concept was new and scary to everyone,” he says. “The casino bosses didn’t want to see audiences leaving the big show and walking right through the casino to catch a smaller show in the lounge. I was extremely nervous. The one thing you did not want to do in those days was cross the casino bosses.”

 

The gamble paid off. During the trio’s first week, Frank Sinatra and the infamous Rat Pack stopped in, leaving behind $120,000 on the tables. Instead of dwindling off after dinner, the high-rolling crowd came to hear the Hawaiian crooner and kept the casino cranking through the night. Within weeks, every casino boss in town was building a lounge. The dusk-’til-dawn era was born.

 

For the next fifteen years the Mary Kaye Trio was a Vegas fixture, advertised on nearly every marquee on the Strip. Celebrities flocked to their late-night shows. According to Cossette, “You couldn’t get in to see the Mary Kaye Trio with a $100 bill.” Sinatra and friends, dressed in sharkskin suits and fedoras, became regular lounge cats. Sammy Davis, Jr., jokingly called the trio’s fourth member, tapped congas in the corner. Marlene Dietrich and Lenny Bruce sat ringside, sipping martinis.

 

“The [Mary Kaye Trio] changed the history of Las Vegas,” producer George Schlatter told the Las Vegas Review- Journal in February 2007. Schlatter, who went on to become the producer of Laugh In, was a booking agent in the 1950s and saw the trio take Vegas by storm. “They were all over the room, and they were hysterical. Anybody who saw the act realized this was the most sound you ever got out of three pieces.”

 


 

 

The trio in its prime.
The trio was a tight team. Mary unleashed her versatile voice on jazz standards while the men harmonized at her side. The movie Bop Goes Calypso preserves the scene on film: Mary emerges siren-like from behind her band-mates wearing a radiant smile and body-hugging gown that erupts midcalf in tulle and sequins. Swishing the train like a mermaid’s tail, she launches into a powerful ballad.

 

In another filmed performance, this one of “Get Happy,” Mary leads a conga line through the crowd, warbling and trilling falsetto notes with ease. Alternately passionate and playful, she’d belt out a soulful tune, then scrunch her full eyebrows and giggle, playing off of her bandmates’ wisecracks. She was spunky, beautiful and backed by men who adored her.

 

“Comedy was our ace in the hole,” Mary told Vintage Guitar in a 2006 interview. “Being from a vocal era, it was a given that the vocals were an asset. But the late Frank Ross, the funny man of the trio, was the greatest comedian of our time. I’m not just saying that—it’s been stated many times by a lot of the greats in the industry. He was a mentor to both Don Rickles and Shecky Green.”

 

The music-comedy combo worked. “There is an electricity that certain great performers possess, and the Mary Kaye Trio had it in spades,” Robert Smale told the Henderson View in February 2003. “They created a no-holds-barred party atmosphere, and I was an instant fan.” Smale liked the band so much he signed on as pianist from 1960 to 1965. “I remember Peggy Lee sitting about two feet from my right elbow,” said Smale. “I don’t think I played a right note all night, but Mary covered for me with her great guitar playing and eventually I got my chops back.”

 

Mary’s fellow musicians were definitely impressed by her talents. Louis Armstrong confided that every night before he performed, he’d warm up his trumpet to her recording of “My Funny Valentine.” A youngster named Elvis hung behind the curtain at the Last Frontier, admiring Kaye’s guitar playing. “Where’d ya get those grabs?” he’d repeatedly ask.

 

Mary had gotten those grabs the same way that the future rock-and-roll king got his: She’d taught herself to play, inventing her own chords and creating a unique style. But while Elvis had learned from eavesdropping on his African-American neighbors, Mary had come by her skill in a distinctly Hawaiian way: by playing alongside her ‘ukulele-strumming father.

 


 

 

Mary with her brother Norman and father Johnny "'Ukulele" Ka'aihue; Johnny was hanaied to the Ka'aihue family and rumored to be the son of Prince Jonah Kuhio.
Johnny “‘Ukulele” Ka‘aihue was an accomplished performer, rumored to be the son of Prince Jonah Kuhio. He was raised by hänai (adoptive) parents, Sam and Mary Ka‘aihue, a practice common in Hawaiian families. In 1916, at the age of 19, he left Hawai‘i to tour the United States with legendary surfer and Olympic medalist Duke Kahanamoku.

 

After the tour ended, Ka‘aihue stayed in the Midwest, popularizing Hawaiian music on the vaudeville circuit. He married Detroit socialite Maude Van Patten, and the couple had two children, first Norman and then Malia, who was born in January 1924. Maude passed away shortly after Malia was born, and the orphaned children joined their father onstage with 3-year-old Malia dancing hula and 6-year-old Norman playing ‘ukulele.

 

 

The keiki, according to the family history, won every amateur talent contest they entered. By the time she was 10, Malia could play just about any song on ‘ukulele or guitar by ear. As the Ka‘aihue Trio, the family scored engagements at carnivals and hotels. When WWII broke out, Norman left to serve in the Air Force, and new talent filled his spot: Jules Pursley on bass and funny guy Salvatore Biagio Rossario Bolgna, who played the accordion and the crowd, lending his laugh-a-minute humor to the act.

 

To capture a broader audience, the ambitious young performers opted to anglicize their names and strike out on their own. Malia and Norman Ka'aihue reinvented themselves as Mary and Norman Kaye. Salvatore Bolgna became Frank Ross. In 1947, they launched the Mary Kaye Trio. Pursley stayed on as road manager with an added interest; he and Mary were married in 1951.

 

Vegas might have been changing in the ’50s but in some ways it still resembled the rest of the country. African-American headliners such as Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne may have packed casino theaters, but they weren’t welcome to stay in the hotel rooms upstairs. Instead they were relegated to boarding houses that were located on the city’s outskirts. Sammy Davis, Jr. joked, “Being a star has made it possible for me to get insulted in places where the average Negro could never hope to go and get insulted.”

 

In the midst of it, the Kayes were all class. Exceedingly generous, they embodied their ancestors’ spirit of generosity and aloha. One example: When Smale fell ill on tour in Arizona, he ran up a stack of hospital bills he couldn’t afford. The trio paid the debt in full—to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

 

Mary dealt with her own medical emergencies on the road. She was onstage in St. Louis when she went into labor with her first child, Jay. “I’m not sure how long she convalesced before she got back onstage, but I was always with them,” recalls Jay Kaye, who is now a musician himself. He and his sister, Donna, who followed four years later, remember running through the cavernous back halls of the casinos, watched over by nannies; brother Jeffery followed two years after Donna. Jay also remembers accompanying his mother on her first trip to Hawai‘i. The trio performed with Louis Armstrong at the Hilton Hawaiian Village; ocean liners in Pearl Harbor welcomed the arrival with banners.

 

“My mom was proud of her roots,” says Jay. “She spoke Hawaiian, though she lost a lot of it. She made a point of telling me that we were of royal Hawaiian heritage. When we were in Hawai‘i, she introduced me to loads of relatives. An Uncle Moki up in the hills behind Waikïkï.”

 

Tom Moffatt, a Honolulu concert promoter since the 1950s, recalls seeing Mary and her trio in the early ’60s. “They were great,” he says. “They had a very modern sound, a good blend of voices. She was a great singer, very attractive. She had quite the hourglass figure. I was in awe of them. They were Hawaiians who had made it.” The trio was voted best jazz act in the country in 1957 and 1962 in the Playboy All-Star Jazz Poll.

 


 

 

Mary Kaye was known as one of her era's great guitarists; when Fender advertised its first custom Stratocaster, it was in Mary's hands.
Mary Kaye’s Hawaiian heritage wasn’t her only connection to royalty. Fans also dubbed her the “First Lady of Rock and Roll” after she became the first female singer in history to have a rock hit. Mary’s career was at its peak when rock was emerging as a new genre, and in 1959 heavy-hitting producer Don Ralke took Mary’s recording of “You Can’t Be True, Dear,” labeled it rock and roll and distributed it nationwide. It landed on the nascent Billboard rock chart.

 

And then there was the guitar, Fender’s first custom Stratocaster, a terrific blond ash model with gold hardware. Fender asked the trio to debut it. Mary posed with it in a Fender advertisement and in the film Cha Cha Cha Boom!, solidifying her rock credentials. Customers flooded music stores with requests for the “guitar that Mary played.” Today the instrument, nicknamed the “Mary Kaye Strat,” remains one of the most valuable collectible guitars on the market. It originally cost $330; it now fetches $50,000.

 

Ironically, Mary didn’t own the coveted Strat until decades later. The crew that delivered it to the photo shoot mistakenly returned it to Fender—twice. Mary didn’t make a fuss; she preferred playing her customized John D’Angelico guitars anyhow. She commissioned her first D’Angelico for $495, a princely sum in 1955. The master craftsman inscribed her name in pearl on the fretboard he measured to fit her hand. He also outfitted one of her acoustic instruments with electric components, ushering her into the new age of music. Not to be entirely outdone, Fender kept the Mary Kaye Trio well supplied with amplifiers. And finally, in 2003, they reissued a single-edition “Mary Kaye Strat” and presented it to the woman who’d made it famous.

 

Mary’s outfits were as glamorous as her guitars. Liberace famously called her the second-best-dressed performer in Vegas—after himself, of course. By the mid-’60s the trio was the highest-paid band in Sin City, collecting $250,000 for a twenty-two-week engagement at the Sahara. Mary looked every inch the part. A bona fide “barn burner” (Rat Pack lingo for a well-dressed woman), she had a closet full of finery. Her heavily embellished costumes weighed forty pounds or more; one sequined affair topped a hundred pounds. To enable Mary to perform in such regalia, her bandmates wheeled her on and off stage on a dolly.

 

Daughter Donna Pursley-Rodriguez still owns some of her mother’s couture gowns. “Other people wanted dresses from [Spanish dressmaker] Goya,” remembers Pursley-Rodriguez, “but she was so busy sewing for my mom, she didn’t have time.”

 

Behind the beautiful façade, however, trouble was brewing. Mary’s husband, Jules Pursley, drank heavily and was violently jealous. The couple made a series of poor financial investments, and an accountant embezzled most of Mary’s earnings to pay his own gambling debts. An exposé published in 1963, The Green Felt Jungle, revealed Sin City’s sordid underbelly, outing mobsters and drug addicts and implicating many of the trio’s fans in illicit activities. Mary was named as a regular at a high-class lesbian bar—shocking for the time. Already on rocky territory, she and Jules divorced in 1966. Their son Jay, who was 12 years old at the time, remembers, “We went from living in a really posh area to a ghetto on the other side of the tracks.”

 


 

 

In August 1966 the Mary Kaye Trio played its last show to a packed house at the Tropicana in Vegas. Afterward, Mary said, she and Charlton Heston cried together in her dressing room. “I never thought the band would end,” she told Guitar Player in 2006.

 

 

Every source gives a different account of why the trio split up: Norman Kaye left to pursue a real estate career. Frank Ross quit to start a comedy act with Blackie Hunt, landing an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Certainly after the trio’s beloved manager Billy Burton died in 1962, competitive egos started to emerge. Pursley-Rodriguez says her mother decided to disband the group when a disagreement between her brother and Ross sparked a parking lot brawl. “Frank needed to borrow shoes for the night. My uncle refused and the argument became a fistfight. The owner of the hotel was connected to the mob and said, ‘Mary, you need to stop this.’”

 

Mary left Vegas for a time, continuing to play music with various combos. In the 1970s she worked with Nadine Jansen, an incredible talent who played the trumpet with one hand and the piano with the other. “My mother grew in musicianship after the trio broke up. She developed more of a jazz feeling,” says Pursley-Rodriguez. “When I was 18 or 19 years old, that’s when my mom was at her height of singing. The version of ‘My Funny Valentine’ that’s on the album is commercial. The one that she used to play live was unbelievable. I’ve never heard anyone do it so well.”

 

Mary never recaptured the wild buzz of her first band. She tried her hand as an entrepreneur, opening a restaurant in Hollywood and starting a porcelain doll company. She helped her son Jay launch his music career. In her later years she raised money for diabetes research by performing benefit concerts.

 

Today albums by the Mary Kaye Trio are rare collectibles. Only a handful of YouTube videos exist, and though they are testament to the band’s exuberant energy, they fail to fully convey the creativity, the polished talent and the sheer stamina required to keep a town like Vegas hopping night after night for years and years.

 

Given the Mary Kaye Trio’s enormous influence and huge popularity, how could its music have faded into obscurity so quickly? “It’s not that odd that they slipped through the cracks,” says Norman Kaye’s son, musician John Kaye. “They broke up three years after the Beatles broke out. A lot of bands that were huge got overshadowed by the British Invasion.”

 

University of Hawai‘i music instructor Jay Junker agrees. “This happened to a lot of pop artists of the pre-rock era, who for one reason or another were not considered ‘hip’ by the critics,” he says. “Some get rediscovered later, while others are mostly passed by no matter how good they were or how popular they once were.”

 

Before Beatlemania fully eclipsed the lounge cats’ reign, Mary visited England. She socialized with the shaggyhaired lads from Liverpool at a party held in her honor. She played a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II—one member of royalty playing for another. Their outfits alone must’ve been something to witness.

 

Mary died at age 83 in 2007. That night, she had planned to perform for her nursing home. She’d been there only a few weeks, but she’d already teamed up with another musician and comedian. Right up until the end, she was working. With unflappable grace and poise, she rose from her start as a novelty act to become one of America’s highest-paid performers. And by winning over the world with an identity of her own invention, this powerful, gifted Hawaiian woman helped to pave the way for the next generation of female musicians.
 
The online version of this story differs slightly from the print edition that was originally published in Hana Hou! magazine in August/September 2011