The Music Men
interview by Julia Steele
color photos by Linny Morris Cunningham
Cecilio and Kapono. Cecilio Rodriguez, a Mexican of Yaqui Indian descent raised in Santa Barbara, California. Henry Kapono, pure Hawaiian, from Honolulu’s Kapahulu district. Together they created the Island soundtrack for the 1970s, a smooth, sweet harmony of good times. Forget funk and Foghat. Never mind disco and The Doobies: If you fell in love in Hawaii during the decade, chances are C&K was on somewhere in the background. If you had a barbecue, drove to the beach, went to a prom, stopped at the supermarket, checked out a friend’s party, met someone for a drink after work, dropped off your car at the mechanic’schances are C&K was on somewhere in the background.
Cecilio and Kapono were Hawaii’s Lennon and McCartney. The first time they played together, they astonished their small living-room audience; within a year, they had a three-record deal with a national label. The duo’s string of hits reads like a compendium of Island favorites: About You, Night Music, Sunflower, Railway Station, Friends, Here With You, Highway in the Sun and on and on. In the ’80s they went their separate ways, but the lure of the music pulled them back together time and again; the longest they’ve ever gone without playing with each other is four years. This year makes it thirty since they first picked up guitars together, and in June they launched a reunion tour with three sold-out shows at Kapono’s, Henry’s bar in Aloha Tower Marketplace. To mark the occasion, we sat down at the bar to talk story with the two of them.
Your music was the music of a whole generation in Hawaii. What do you think made it so popular?
Cecilio: There were some blank spaces in music in those days that needed to be filled and we just happened to come along at the right time. We sing songs that have to do with hope and love, feel-good songs. People were ready for that kind of thing. The fact that it became the music of a generation, we couldn’t have foretold that, it just happened. We were writing about what everybody was living. Parties, getting away, travels, love. It was a more innocent timenobody was in a hurry to grow up. C&K personified kicking back and listening to good music. We were very distinct in the sound that we had, and it became the C&K sound.
How long did it take to create that sound?
Kapono: It was there the first time we played.
Cecilio: I’m not sure that we had the conscious thought that we were meant to be together but our reaction to the first song we ever sang together was laughter because it sounded so good. We just laughed out loud. A group of people had gathered around, and they went, ‘My God.’ We never consciously said, ‘Well, shall we be a group now and what shall we pursue?’ We just continued.
Kapono: It was more or less, ‘What are you doing tomorrow? Let’s get together.’ We played and then we got a manager.
Cecilio: We had a gig down at the Rainbow Villa at the corner of Kalakaua and ‘Ena Road. And one night we were hired to open for Frank Zappa at the Old Civic Auditorium here in town. [At the show] we said, ‘We’re playing every night at the Rainbow Villa.’ When we returned to our job, there was a line of people outside, and we thought they had hired somebody else in our place. We both thought, ‘How rude.’ And as we got close to the door, people started whispering, ‘It’s them, it’s them, hey, check it out, here they come.’ We did the cartoon thinglooking around, then thinking, ‘Hey, they mean us!’ After that night, every night it was lines around the block, standing room only. That was the turning point. Two months before that, there was nobody in the place: the bartender, a couple of guys shooting pool in the back, a couple waitresses and us.
For me, it was about the party. Party and girls. I was a young guy. We had a couple of caring people who said, ‘You’re going to have to decide: Is it a party or is it business?’ I said, ‘Oh well, let’s do the business’ and off we went. But I remember thinking, ‘This is so cool, man, let’s make the party the business,’ and that’s exactly what we did, that’s what songs like Lifetime Party came from. Unfortunately, along the way, we were partying so much that we forgot to take care of the business and we got taken advantage of but, you know, that happens. No regrets. There are lessons in life and those were some of them. And here we are thirty years later, still selling out concerts.
How exactly did you meet?
Kapono: I was playing a club in Waikiki and then we met and right after we got together, I think a few days later, we joined up ...
Cecilio: Henry gave me half his pay at the gig, so we could work together!
Kapono: ... in a bar called the New Frontier that became JJ’s Café and then we moved to Rainbow Villa.
Cecilio: This was all within an eight-month period. People say, ‘Wow, it was like a meteor, man.’ I say, ‘No, I’d already been working for fifteen years all across America, working on my craft, writing, paying the dues.’ At the Rainbow Villa, we started adding in more and more of our own music. One of our biggest thrills was: ‘Hey, check it out, we got a request for Sunflower!’ It was like, ‘They want to hear our song, all right!’ And that’s why I think it was so strong in the beginning, because the audience began liking our stuff. That’s why the following we have is so strong. Now sons and daughters are embracing us. When we did our first album, we did nine songs. I think the ninth song was [Stevie Wonder’s] All is Fair in Love. Everything else was ours. That album became a history maker. Every single song became a hit.
What are your favorite memories from those days?
Cecilio: You mean, like the parking lot at the Rainbow Villa? (Laughter) That parking lot didn’t have any lights. It wasn’t even paved. It was always full of cars and every activity you want to imagine was going on back there ’cause it was dark. There was a Korean bar next door, the Korean Doll House. So we got to know our neighbors. There was a gay bar across the street. It was the upper end of Waikiki, but we were definitely at the lower end of life. There was a leak in the men’s bathroom and always water on the floor, but nobody seemed to mindthey just stepped around it. People came and packed the Rainbow Villa, but it was a dive.
Where did you go from there?
Kapono: A place in Palo Alto. That was a nightmare. Not knowing, we just walked in and we looked around and saw all these ties and suits. We’re doing our stuff and someone walked over and said, ‘Keep the noise down, we’re trying to have a conversation over here.’ So we looked at each other like, ‘This is going to be tough.’ It was a seven-week gig. We had to psych ourselves up. But eventually it turned around. A whole other crowd started to take over the place. So we had two weeks of heaven after five weeks of hell. That was our first Mainland gig. From there we went to Vail, Colorado. We did seven weeks there during the Christmas holidays. A lot of drinking. But it was fun.
Cecilio: I remember one night we were at the barwe’d gotten to know quite a few peopleand someone said, ‘What about those boys from Hawaii, let’s see how they can drink. What about it, boys? How about a shot of Wild Turkey?’ So I saidthank God I said it’We’ll drink Wild Turkey with you as long as you drink tequila with us.’ We got them schnockered.
And then you came back to Hawaii?
Kapono: Well, we ended up spending six months at a time on the road. Then we’d come home for a couple of weeks and then go right back out. We had a booking agency. As soon as we got on the CBS label, they said ‘You guys need a booking agency.’ So there was some guy sitting at his phone, booking C&K and not necessarily caring what he was getting us. We had a few mismatches out there that we regretted a lot. But on the road you’ve got to show up.
Cecilio: We went to this place in Louisville, Kentucky. It was called The Beggars’ Banquet. We didn’t know it but we were the first group in this new platform they were trying. It was a real loud, rowdy rock-and-roll kind of place. So we began singing andoh, my God!it was ugly. I think we were scheduled to do about forty-five minutes and we did about twenty-five. We looked at each other and said, ‘We’re outta here.’
What was the most brutal show you ever did?
Cecilio: That was one. We could name the bad ones probably on three fingers because we had so many wonderful jobs; that’s why the crummy ones stand out. Once we were opening for Cheech and Chong, and they thought we were Cheech and Chong. They said ‘Oh, you guys sing, too?’
What about shows that stand out because they were so good?
Kapono: There was one in Austin, Texas, in ’75 or ’76. They had a great lineup: Peter Frampton, Santana, Gary Wright, America and us. They treated us really well. We had our own Winnebago!
We flew in to the concert on a helicopter, and from above you could see the gates open and all the people, everybody rushing in like cattle to the front of the stage. About 80,000 people. We had been there the night before, and in the distance, you could see bonfires where people were camping out so they could get in line the next morning. It was first-class all the way. We had our own suite and a limousine to take us to the parking lot where the helicopter was waiting. It was fabulous. But that was about it. After that we went back to regular, normal gigs.
Whose musical artistry inspired you?
Cecilio: There were a bunch of singer-songwriters, people like James Taylor; Kenny Rankin; Crosby, Stills and Nash; groups like that. Those were the days when artists wrote their own stuff. Today in Hawaii I can count on one hand singer-songwriters doing their own stuff. Now everyone tends to gravitate toward reggae, thinking, ‘Hey, it’ll be a hit.’ It’s all the same beat, the same vibe. In our day, Olomana, the Beamer Brothers, Sunday Manoathey all had their own identity, their own music.
We were always writing, always trying to come up with better songs. I remember saying to myself, ‘I can’t improve on Sunflower. That’s it, that’s my ballad for the decade.’ And then I wrote About You. ‘Wow. I can’t write anything better than that.’ And I think after that Summer Lady came out. We kept writing. We thought, ‘If we like them, everybody will like them.’ That was our measuring tool.
Kapono: We had some great bands. [The record company] auditioned us, and we were pushing to have our band. We thought it was a great band. And they said, ‘Well, okay, go in here and do these songs and then go in with the L.A. session guys and choose.’ And there was no comparison. Those L.A. guys do it every day and they know what to listen for. We realized the difference between having session musicians and straight musicians.
Cecilio: The bass player we had, I think he’s still with Phil Collins, he was a studio cat. He does the solo on Lifetime Party, not me. He was fooling with it and we said, ‘That sounds cool, keep that in there.’
Cecilio: You have to be careful. Fame and the fortune that goes with it, it’s very intoxicating. You can get drunk on it. I’m guilty of not always keeping my feet firmly on the ground. Like everything else, you have to learn by doing the wrong thing.
Do you have favorites of each other’s songs?
Kapono: They’re all fun to sing. About You is requested a lot. Sailin’. Friends.
Cecilio: They’re all requested, though. If we haven’t done Other Man or Home by some point in the night, someone will yell, ‘Play Home!’
Any songs you’re sick of playing?
Kapono: Not really. When I sing, it takes me back and I remember how I was feeling and that was a good time. So if it takes me to that place, then I’m all over it.
So you’re going to keep playing together?
Cecilio: We’ve still got some things to do together. We’ll work together ’til we’re done and when we’re done, we’ll continue to do our own thing. You never know. Lots can happen. I’m not one to say never. It’s not like a marriage. We’re just working together. If it happens again, we’ll do it again.
Kapono: We counted the years and said, ‘Let’s celebrate the thirty-year anniversary.’ And we still have gigs all the way through November. So we’ve still got some things to do.
Cecilio: At any given time in the history of the world, there’s turmoil going on somewhere and I think that’s instrumental in our wanting to make music to take you away, take you to that wonderful warm place. In fact, we’ve often said on-stage, ‘If at the end of the night, you leave smiling, we’ve done our job.’ Because that’s how we want you to leave. We want you loving it, loving each other.
Cecilio & Kapono will play two reunion concerts with the Honolulu Symphony on October 31 and November 1; on November 7 and 8, they will appear on their own at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. For symphony ticket information, call (808) 792-2000; for the Maui shows, call (808) 242-7469.