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Harry Owens

b. 1902, Nebraska, USA, d. 11 December 1986, Eugene, Oregon, USA. Before forming his own dance band Owens played trumpet in several Los Angeles area orchestras, including those of Vincent Rose and the Cocoanut Grove Orchestra. When he established his own combo in 1926 to play at the local Lafayette Cafe, it was a conventional dance band that gave little indication of his future direction. The change came about when he travelled to Honolulu in 1934 to fulfil a four-month contract as the musical director of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. The orchestra he pieced together here took native Hawaiian music as its theme, combining this with a more traditional dance band sound. The musicians who contributed were primarily local men, tutored in the big band dynamic by Owens himself. Various vocalists were also employed, including Hilo Hattie, the Royal Hawaiian Sweethearts, Kenny Allen and Gil Mershon. Songs such as ‘Hawaiian Paradise’, ‘To You, Sweetheart, Aloha’, ‘Voice Of The Trade Winds’ and ‘Polynesian Holiday’, plus theme tune ‘Sweet Leilani’, readily identified the group’s sound. These and other songs were released on recordings by Hamilton, Columbia Records, Capitol Records and Decca Records, which proved particularly popular with American audiences who idealised the island’s sun swept beaches but were unable to afford the airfare. Owens stayed at the Royal Hawaiian for seven years, with his raw musicians gradually becoming more adept at what was essentially an alien style of playing. Throughout he made brief returns to the American mainland, playing Californian venues such as the St. Francis and Beverly Wilshire Hotels, also appearing in several films. However, the advent of World War II, and more particularly the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, precluded his return to the island for several years. Owens continued to work on the west coast however, and in 1949 organised a successful CBS television show that ran for nine years. When he retired from music he established a Hawaiian tour agency in Santa Monica, before moving to Eugene, Oregon, in 1976.
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