A master of the Hawaiian style of slack key guitar playing, King Bennie Nawahi (born Benjamin Keakahiawa Nawahi) astounded audiences with his virtuosic playing for more than six decades. Although the peak of his popularity came in the 1920s and '30s, when he assumed the title "king of the Hawaiian guitar," Nawahi continued to perform until a stroke left his body partially paralyzed in the late-'70s.
A self-taught musician, Nawahi frequently performed in the parks of Honolulu while still a teenager. As a member of his brother, Joe Nawahi's band, the Hawaiian Novelty Five, he performed on a passenger liner that sailed between San Francisco and Honolulu in 1919. Together with the group, he subsequently toured on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Leaving the band in the early '20s to focus on a solo career as a vocalist and ukulele player, Nawahi attracted critical acclaim. Sid Grauman of Grauman's Chinese Theater dubbed him "King of the ukulele."
By the end of the decade, Nawahi was recording at a prolific rate, issuing singles on the Columbia, Victor, Q.R.S., and Grey Gull labels. In addition to recording under his own name, he recorded with Four Hawaiian Guitars, Georgia Jumpers, Red Devils, Hawaiian Beach Combers, Q.R.S. Boys, and Slim Smith. Moving to Los Angeles in the early '30s, Nawahi continued to perform with his own band, King Nawahi and the International Cowboys. While the band, which featured future cowboy singing sensation Roy Rogers, primarily focused on traditional Hawaiian music, they incorporated numerous jazz and blues tunes.
The rise of Nawahi's popularity was offset by personal setbacks. While returning from a concert in 1935, he was stricken with a blindness that doctors were unable to explain. He remained determined, however. Despite his handicap, he continued to perform with his brother as the Nawahi Trio. He also continued to fulfill his fascination with long distance swimming. He remains the only blind person to complete the swim from San Pedro to Catalina Island, a trip that took a little more than 22 hours. ~ Craig Harris