Harold Chang: Mr. ‘Yellow Bird’ talks to Ke Ola O Na Mele about the good old days of lounge exotica jazz
“Before we started rehearsal, for eight-10 months, we memorized everything and played it…played with feeling. We became very popular for that.”
When you talk to Harold Chang, 92, about his moment of fame with Martin Denny ( Quiet Village) and the Arthur Lyman Group (“Yellow Bird,” Taboo) — kings of Polynesian exotica — the Hilo drummer always goes behind the scenes, back to the basics: Learn the songs inside-out. Practice, practice, practice. Work hard. Stay open, stay humble.
Chang’s insatiable curiosity, big band obsession, ability to roll with the punches — musically or otherwise (he’d often sneak into USO shows as a young boy during curfew in the middle of WWII!) — and that innate humility would serve him well in the years to come.
Not to mention set him up for legendary status…a status that encompasses milestones many in the industry would envy: longest-living, oldest member of Local 677, circa May 1948, 2017 recipient of Na Hoku Hanohano’s Lifetime Achievement Award, beloved clinician at iconic, now-defunct Harry’s Music Store in Kaimuki.
The drumming veteran also enjoys quite an illustrious past, having rubbed shoulders with quite an illustrious roster of famous musicians and performers in their day, including Don Ho, Hilo Hattie, Jimmy Borges, Steve Allen, Red Skelton, Andy Williams, Dave Weckl, Peter Erskine, Richard Chamberlain, Connie Stevens, and that one time he played with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra for Frank Sinatra.
Don’t forget, Hawaii’s living legend achieved quite a bit of fame on his own later on, with the Ebb Tides, Chang Dynasty, and as co-founder of Makaha Records, with Tom Moffatt, Marlene Sai, Toki Anzai, George J.D. Chun, and attorney David Mui.
Inspired early on by Gene Krupa’s (“Sing! Sing! Sing!”) unforgettable, big screen, big band drum solos, the local boy from Hilo would absorb everything he saw and heard, alchemized and translated into his own extraordinary, ambidextrous, rolling, floating style, in the most unlikeliest of venues (La Hula Rhumba, Tin Pan Alley’s Beretania Burlesque Follies, Club Hubba Hubba on Hotel Street, assorted Japanese dance shows, Waikiki’s South Seas).
Let him tell you more…
How are you doing with the coronavirus scare?
They're shutting down everything in town, restaurants, yeah, etc. etc. etc. They're shutting down every island the same way. In California, they shut down, what, 40 million people now.
In San Francisco, they're sheltering in place. It's not as bad in Hawaii, right?
No, but they still, they closed everything down, no events, no entertainment, no sporting events, no nothing. The parks are closed, the zoo's closed. They're telling everybody to stay home. It's good because the more you go out, you become more of a candidate to catch it. It's very serious.
You know what, you and I are in that category- You gotta be careful. You're feeling okay?
I'm feeling fine.
A lot of people may not know but you were in the Arthur Lyman Group.
Arthur Lyman and also Martin Denny.
Right! "Yellow Bird" was everyone's favorite song growing up in the '60s.
That was one thing that we had that was on the national charts for four weeks. The record company gave each of us a single 45 gold record. But, that's an interesting story. We played to a lot of Jewish people in Chicago. They loved our music. So, we recorded "Hava Nagila." And the guy at the record company said, "Put that on the single." Arthur did, and thought it'd sell. Then, he put "Yellow Bird" on the B side, and believe it or not, that's the one that became #1.
How did it feel to be a part of legendary artists, pop culture?
It felt good. A lot of hard work, a lot of traveling, a lot of requests, man, a lot of playing of "Yellow Bird [ laughs]." I must've done it 5,000 times or more.
Interview took place in March, 2020. For the rest of the interview, head to “Ke Ola O Na Mele,” Local 677’s MAH blog | Fall 2020 issue.
Originally published at https://local677.afmquartet.org on May 24, 2020.