Issue 20.5: October/November 2017
Feature

The Unstoppable Bruno

Before he became one of the world’s biggest stars, Peter Hernandez was class clown by day and Elvis impersonator by night
Story by Jocelyn Fujii.

It was a showbiz arrival: colored lights gently dimmed, 1950s doo-wop music thrumming softly, a tub of warm water in the delivery room of a Honolulu hospital. Peter Gene Hernandez IV, later to be known as Bruno Mars, floated in the water for twenty minutes before his umbilical cord was cut.

“We wanted to be sure he entered the world peacefully—and musically,” writes Bruno’s father, Peter Hernandez III, in his memoir-in-progress, From Brooklyn to Mars: The Rise of Bruno Mars. Hernandez, a third-generation musician, and his former wife, the late Bernadette Bayot Hernandez, a vocalist and hula dancer, orchestrated the details of their son’s birth in the hope that maybe, just maybe, their musical lineage might be imprinted on their infant son.

On the opening spread: Bruno Mars performs before a crowd of more than eighty thousand in the 2014 Super Bowl halftime show at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium. Peter Hernandez III, Bruno Mars’ father and an accomplished musician himself, lives in a Kaimukī studio filled with memorabilia of his son and Elvis Presley.

It’s hard to say, but who needs proof? Thirty-two years later the “round, tough-looking baby,” as his father described him, has shed his tough-guy persona for a polished sensuality and musical virtuosity that have driven him to the top of the charts. A veteran of the sought-after Super Bowl halftime performances and a staple at the Grammys and on Billboard charts, Bruno took home the BET (Black Entertainment Television, which includes other minorities) awards for Best Male R&B/Pop Artist and Video of the Year awards last June. In last February’s Grammys, with fans still mourning the loss of Prince, it was Bruno Mars who, eerily Prince-like in a moving tribute, channeled the “Purple Rain” god with a white guitar, purple sequined jacket and white ruffled shirt. On his current three-year world tour, every gig—at the headlong pace of a different venue every day or two—brings sold-out arenas, oceans of ink and enough energy to power a city.

I asked Bruno what he loved most about the work. Writing? Performing? Producing? Touring? He pointed to his love of per-forming and of his fans. “I love meeting my fans from all over the world,” he responded. “Otherwise they would just be Instagrams and people on social media who send wonderful comments. On tour they become real.” The most difficult part of his current tour (in support of his recent album, 24K Magic), he added, was “dealing with the sadness that flowed from the tragedy at the Ariana Grande concert,” the suicide bombing in England’s Manchester Arena. The event roiled the world and hit fellow entertainers hard. “I can’t believe that people can be so cruel,” Bruno told me.

It’s no surprise that tickets to his last Hawai‘i performances, at the Blaisdell Arena in 2014, sold out in record time—for the first two concerts, within half an hour. Bruno’s father, a seasoned percussionist and doo-wop showman, opened for his son with his eighteen-piece band, the Love Notes. They added a second night, an irony not lost on the elder Hernandez, who remembers a younger, more doubtful Bruno wondering, “Dad, do you think we can fill all those seats?”

Maui businesswoman Debbie De Mello has attended Bruno Mars concerts in Seattle and Hawai‘i (twice), and she has booked seats for September’s Madison Square Garden show in New York. She also saw Bruno in his teenage years in Honolulu, when he impersonated Michael Jackson in Waikīkī. But from the fourteenth row of one of Mars’ 2014 Blaisdell shows, De Mello experienced, again, the magic of who he had become. The slick moves, the flawless vocals, the tight instrumentals, the choreography—he does it all, including the songwriting. “We didn’t sit down the whole time,” De Mello continued.“Everyone in front of me was standing, too. Everyone wanted to dance; with Bruno Mars you just can’t sit still.” She was as star-struck by Peter Hernandez and the Love Notes as she was by his superstar son.

Without doubt, there’s music in the Hernandez DNA. In his memoir, Hernandez describes how Bruno’s great-grandfather played guitar in the clubs and cabarets of Puerto Rico, while his grandfather, a successful musician in New York, opened for a number of Latin greats, including mambo king Tito Puente. Hernandez III grew up in Brooklyn, where doo-wop, with its vocal harmonies and simple beat, was sung on street corners. Never far from music, Hernandez got his first drums at age seven and began honing his musical chops.

But Elvis changed everything, Hernandez tells me. Elvis Presley was his idol, and Presley’s movie Blue Hawaii cast a spell on the young musician. In 1977, at 25 years old, Hernandez packed one bag of clothes and seventeen bags of his musical instruments, mostly drums, and left Brooklyn for Honolulu. Eventually he formed the Love Notes and met and married Bernadette, the band’s vocalist, who also came from a musical family. When he opened Elvis Elvis Elvis, the All Elvis Shop in the erst-while International Market Place in the heart of Waikīkī, the Love Notes show had it all: a peerless young impersonator named Bruno (the most popular person on the stage), musical talent and Elvis belts to adorn his costumes. Hernandez, licensed by Graceland, the Elvis estate and museum, made frequent buying trips to Memphis, where he met the leathersmith who made Elvis’ saddles and bejeweled belts. Bruno acquired several downsized replicas of the same belt Elvis wore in Aloha from Hawaii and in 1990, at just five years old, performed at Graceland. Graceland executives dubbed him “the next King of Rock and Roll.”

In 1977, Presley’s film Blue Hawaii lured the elder Hernandez to Hawai‘i, where he opened the Elvis Elvis Elvis museum and costumed his young son as “the world’s youngest Elvis impersonator.” At left: Baby Bruno—Peter Hernandez IV— was a naturally charismatic and polished performer at three years old.

“In the beginning he just learned from watching videotapes,” explains Hernandez.“If we wanted him to learn the Elvis Presley moves or the words to a song, we simply gave him a videotape. By age three he already knew how to rewind and cue up the VCR. So he would just keep going back and forth until he perfected a segment, and then he’d move on. … Once at 3 o’clock in the morning, I found him practicing an Elvis routine. As for the singing, his mother was a great singer. He never took any lessons at all, no formal training. It just came naturally to him.”

Bruno stole the show with his first act as Elvis and was immediately dubbed “the world’s youngest Elvis.” He mastered the Elvis sneer, gyrated on Waikīkī stages in a tight sequined jacket and bell-bottoms and wore his curly hair perfectly coiffed into a signature pompadour. He was cheeky and fearless, and his dimples had a fan club all their own. I remember seeing him, his ensemble aglow with a belt buckle half the size of his torso, crooning in his little-boy voice, his movements and attitude pure Elvis. He was loose-limbed and confident as he slithered and glided across the stage, timing perfect, holding the mic in the nonchalant Elvis way. Like the Bruno Mars of today, he owned the stage, and the crowd roared its approval as the King of Rock came to life.

Bruno’s fan base may be international, but in Hawai‘i it’s also personal. Lori Hamel, who has taught for twenty-five years at Bruno’s alma mater, Roosevelt High School, is not surprised at his success. He spent his four high school years at Roosevelt and left for Los Angeles immediately after graduating in 2003. There was no fear or equivocation, she recalls; he knew what he wanted and went after it. “I had him in my junior English class, my drama class and my newswriting class,” Hamel recalled. “He was Peter then and I still call him Peter. When he left I knew he would pursue his dream. He was focused on moving to LA and making a career in music. That’s exactly what he did.

From his regalia to his peerless sneer, hip gyrations and nonchalance, Bruno was an unflappable Elvis impersonator on Waikīkī stages; the adult Bruno sings, writes, choreographs, performs and plays multiple instruments, including guitar and drums.

“He came back one time. He had gotten a contract with Motown, and we were so excited for him, but then nothing happened for a while.” When he returned in 2010 for his first concert in Hawai‘i, said Hamel, he again paid a visit to the school. Because Hamel was on Christmas break and missed him, Bruno had left a note for her with a video clip of him saying hello to her.

The next time he visited the school, it was through his sister and his mother, Bernadette. “He donated an autographed guitar to the school, and his mom brought it for him,” recalled Hamel. “She wanted to present it in my class because she knew we had a close relationship. She put him on the phone, and I got to talk to him and thank him.”

What Hamel most remembers is Bruno’s sense of humor, on full display the several times he hosted Saturday Night Live. “I think that’s the part of him people don’t see too much,” she reflects, “because he’s always performing and he’s so professional. In the classroom he was fun-loving, always engaged, great with his classmates. Even though academics weren’t his strong point and he wasn’t all about English class, he still had that positive attitude and tried to make learning fun for everyone.” Even with his ongoing responsibilities at home—he performed in Waikīkī in the evenings—he was, said Hamel, “the class clown.”

From childhood through graduation, Bruno worked with his family in the evenings, either with the Love Notes or in the Legends show in Waikīkī. “That was a lot for him,” Hamel continues. “School early in the morning and the show running late at night.” He still managed to write a monthly column for the school newsletter, Peter’s Playground, that included original poems and essays.

Bruno accepts the award for Best Pop Vocal Album for his 2012 record Unorthodox Jukebox — his second Grammy—at the fifty-sixth Grammy Awards in January 2014. Bruno dedicated the award to his mother, Bernadette Bayot, who passed away in 2013. “Ma, I know you’re watching, and I hope you’re smiling,” he said.

“We’d laugh and say, ‘Hey, the poems —maybe he’s starting to write lyrics,’” Hamel says. “He was always very talented with words and in drama. The school plays, especially, highlighted his sense of humor and acting ability. He also sang.” Most of the Roosevelt students knew him for his dancing and choreography, which gained visibility in the boys pep squad for homecoming, she adds. “The pep squad was always phenomenal, and for the boys who signed up, Peter was a taskmaster. You had to be serious, you had to show up for rehearsal.” He had a band called the Schoolboys, and he was also in a Polynesian music class. His schoolwork, his evening performances in Waikīkī, making it to class on time—it was all a big load for a student.

One of the class projects at the high school turned out to be a personal revelation for Bruno’s class. It was a performance that included poetry and a choral reading, and not every student was confident. Bruno was in charge of the group, the leader who assigned the parts and coached and encouraged them throughout. One of the girls, recalls Hamel, was hearing-impaired and extremely shy. “He was so great with them,” she says. Through his gentle coaching, “he got the hearing-impaired girl to speak up. He gently touched her and pointed when it was her turn.” But when Hamel told him he had the makings of a great teacher, he said, “I don’t want to be a teacher. That’s the last thing I want to do.”

Bruno has reached the highest echelons for an American musician, with Super Bowl performances, Grammy and BET awards, and too many magazine covers to count. Above, Bruno and his band, the Hooligans, in full force at his second Super Bowl halftime performance in February 2016.

Bruno Mars is doing exactly what he set out to do at 17 years old, but even his father is incredulous at the level of success his son has achieved. Where to go from the top? Bruno says that he will “continue to try and stay ahead of the curve and maintain the highest level of entertainment and a deeper involvement in the needs of family and humanity.” Professionally, say father and son, it’s hoped that movies will also be on the superstar’s horizon. His epic dance moves, peerless vocals and range, kinetic energy and creativity suggest that in some ways he is just getting started. As for acting ability, his guest appearances on SNL prove his gift for comedy and acting, and his lifelong impersonations—Elvis, Michael Jackson, Jackie Wilson—speak volumes about his acting chops.

As for his personal life, Bruno had this comment: “Hawai‘i still calls. The back of Mānoa valley holds my greatest memories. Hawai‘i is a special place, unlike any in the world.” Someday, he adds, “I will return to Hawai‘i and probably spend much more time there. While most of my family is there, I plan to always maintain my home in LA as well as continue touring for as long as possible.” Hawai‘i, where Hernandez and some of Bruno’s five siblings live, “will always be my home,” he says. HH