"Working with Sonny was such a beautiful experience for his music, and even more, for knowing him as a person. He will always be an inspiration to me, and his music will always live on." - George Winston
Edwin Bradfield Liloa "Sonny" Chillingworth, Jr. was one of the most influential slack key guitarists in history. In a tradition that encourages individualism, his unique patterns, bass runs and vamps had a profound impact on musicians and listeners alike. In a tradition that values sincerity, his passionate playing, warm vocals and generous spirit touched the hearts of all.
Sonny's remarkable career spanned nearly half a century. It began in the late 1940s, a crucial transitional period for slack key. At that time, slack key guitarists were making their first tentative steps from family parties and front porches into recording studios and nightclubs. Through his work with older artists, such as Aunty Vickie Rodrigues and especially his mentor, Gabby Pahinui, Sonny helped shape the style's early commercial evolution and its later emergence in the 1970s as one of the leading sounds in Hawaiian music. His influence on younger performers, through recordings and teaching, also helped fuel a revival of interest in the 1980s that continues to grow. Though cut short by cancer in 1994, Sonny's art continues to bring great joy, through his many classic recordings and a wonderful set of newly released solo sessions on Dancing Cat.
Like most slack key masters, Sonny came from a large, musical family. Several aunts played in the old Wahine tunings. Two uncles were particularly influential. Jimmy "Kimo" Chillingworth dazzled Sonny. "He played a wicked guitar," Sonny recalled. "He could play behind his back, behind his head, everything." Harry Purdy, Jr., a paniolo (cowboy) on the famous Parker Ranch, touched Sonny in a different way, with the old paniolo slack key and songs about ranch life. Since Sonny was related to both the Purdys and the Lindseys, many of the most famous paniolo songs were composed by or about relatives.
Sonny first took up guitar at age twelve, when he was living with his grandfather, Harry Purdy, on Moloka'i. "I was sliding down a hill and got a piece of glass stuck in my foot. While I was recovering, my grandfather came out on the porch and played for me. A couple days later he brought out two guitars." Hawaiian style, Sonny learned by listening, watching and imitating. One day his father, Edwin Bradfield Chillingworth, Sr., brought him a Victrola and some records. One of them was Hi'ilawe by Gabby Pahinui. "This is the song that really turned me on to slack key," he says. "I had that record going, you know, playing and playing." At fifteen, Sonny visited Honolulu. His mother, Anna Purdy, took him to meet Gabby. "I was underage, so she went in and got him during a break. He listened to me play and must've liked what he heard cause he went back in, got his guitar and came back out. We played all night. That was Gabby."
After high school, Sonny moved to Honolulu, joining Gabby, Andy Cummings and others at clubs, lü'aus and more all-night jam sessions. In 1954 he made his first record, Make'e 'Ailana, with the legendary Vickie Ii Rodrigues. For the next forty years he stayed at the forefront of the local music scene. Older artists enjoyed his playing because it reminded them of their roots. Contemporaries such as Myra English, Leinaala Haili and Marlene Sai frequently called him for gigs and recording sessions. The world famous Don Ho got his start playing with Sonny at Honey's, Don's mother's club on O'ahu's Windward side. "Sonny taught me everything I know about how to produce quality music," he says.
Sonny's repertoire was always diverse, encompassing Hawaiian standards, original compositions, country, Portuguese, rock oldies, Puerto Rican, Mexican, R & B, blues and folk. As his many recordings suggest, he was strongly committed to Hawaiian music but enjoyed playing other styles as well.
In 1964, Sonny released his first album, WAIMEA COWBOY, which earned a gold record. For the next decade, he continued to record with his own band, as slack key guitarist for a number of singers and as a member of Gabby's wildly popular Gabby Band, a group that enjoyed a cult status with Island youth. At times he also lent his talents to The Sons of Hawai'i. In the 1970s, Sonny began sharing his mana'o (knowledge) with students, including George Kuo, Ozzie Kotani and others. By the 1980s, he was one of slack key's most respected elder statesmen traveling, teaching and recording.
When Sonny began recording for Dancing Cat in the late 1980s, his plan was to record as full an archive of his music as possible. From the beginning, the intention was to create at least three albums from the sessions. SONNY SOLO appeared first. Designed to serve as a general overview, it came out in April 1994 to rave reviews and warm public response.
ENDLESSLY is the second release in the series. Producer George Winston compiled it to focus on the older Hawaiian music and styles Sonny heard in his youth. Many of the songs are Sonny signature tunes, which he enjoyed reworking into new arrangements for solo guitar. The solo setting really brings his remarkable technique and deep feeling solidly into the forefront. For those only familiar with Sonny in a band setting, these recordings will be a revelation. For all lovers of great guitar music and Hawaiian music fans in particular, they are a very welcome addition to one of the great slack key discographies.
Like SONNY SOLO, ENDLESSLY includes both instrumentals and vocals. Most of the songs were composed in the 1930s or earlier. These include many Hawaiian standards long associated with Sonny, such as Hula Blues, Moana Chimes, Hilo Hanakahi and Kananaka. One of Hawai'i's most poignant love songs, Ipo Lei Manu was written for King Kalakaua by his wife, Queen Kapi'olani. Sonny's playing and singing tenderly evoke the feelings of the separated lovers. His performance of Helen Parker's heart-wrenching 'Olu O Pu'ulani passionately expresses love for family and home, two of Hawaiian music's most enduring themes.
Several tracks on the album are originals. These include standards such as Slack Key #1, which receives a dazzling new treatment, and two of Sonny's last compositions, Keiki Slack Key and Liloa's Mele, a charming lullaby for his grandson.
Ironically, the only non-Hawaiian song on ENDLESSLY is the title track. Long a favorite of Sonny's, this R & B oldie beautifully showcases his distinctive baritone and warmly romantic personality. It also nicely sums up his continuing impact on the slack key scene. As Ozzie Kotani puts it so well: "Sonny was a true virtuoso. His style was unique with wonderfully original movements. He was able to execute extremely difficult passages with speed and fluidity, and yet he was able to capture an unmistakable sweetness and cleanness in his playing and singing. He leaves us a wonderful legacy in his music, an inspiration to everyone who loves slack key."
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