Steve Wofford and Phil Keat of Wofford-Keat

Interview: Phil Keat of Wofford-Keat

Albums like Road To Home make me wonder what other forgotten gems exist in the world of contemporary Hawaiian music. Almost no one is talking about it online—I found a sealed copy currently selling for $75 at recordsbymail.com, and a MySpace page with streaming mp3s of Road To Home—but other than that, this debut LP from duo Wofford-Keat lives largely unnoticed by collectors.

Until now.

Wofford-Keat Road To Home LP

Wofford-Keat Road To Home LP

Phil Keat and Steve Wofford spent two weeks in Herb Ono’s Sounds of Hawaii studio in the late 1970s, recording Road To Home with the help of artists like Henry Kapono, Gaylord Holomalia, Bruce Washburn and Ken Daubert. The result, in my opinion, is a pleasant mixture of gentle, soulful tunes reminiscent of Country Comfort and American soft rock/AOR of the era.

But I’ll let Phil tell you more about it.

Steve Wofford and Phil Keat of Wofford-Keat

Steve Wofford and Phil Keat of Wofford-Keat

Aloha Got Soul: For starters, please tell me a little about yourself—where you were born and raised, and how you first started playing music.

Phil Keat: I was born in Westfield, NJ in 1948. Growing up we’d spend our summers with my mom’s parents on Kauai which is my connection to Hawaii and why I moved to Honolulu permanently after I graduated from college in 1970.

I’m a self-taught guitarist have learned basic guitar chords from the Beatles Golden Song Book. I played in bands in high school and college but in college I realized that what I really wanted to do was to write songs. I read a comment of Gordon Lightfoot that said in effect all he really wanted to do is write beautiful music. I grabbed that as my matra.

You met Steve Wofford in the mid-1970s when he joined Country Comfort. They recorded your song “I’ll Be (Staying Here With You).” You and Steve later formed Wofford-Keat in 1979 when Country Comfort broke up. Did collaborating and songwriting with Steve come naturally?

I met Steve Wofford through Noel “Lucky” Watson who worked at Rack Service Hawaii, a record rack serve where my friend Harry Salzberg worked. Lucky learned “I’ll Be” and when he moved to Kona he met Steve, former a duo and played my song. Steve then moved to Maui where he met Country Comfort on a gig. C.C. picked him up for bass when Randy Lorenzo left the band. Steve brought I’ll Be to C.C. and they included it on their sophomore album aka the “white album”. The white album was the follow-up to their first album which contained the hit Waimanalo Blues. The white album’s hit was “Pretty Girl”.

Steve and I never collaborated in song writing. Steve actually never wrote any songs. I’d write a song and if he liked it, we’d work out a two guitar arrangement. If he brought a cover song to do, I’d just play something that fit his how he played it. If he sang the lead in a song, he’d put his vocal style on it.

Our guitar playing styles were very different. Steve mostly did 3-finger picking and I did more strumming and arpeggiation with a flat pick. Somehow we’d sync up our styles and create a third different sound.

Steve always insisted that I sing lead on half the songs. Lazy bugger. But he had the world-class voice. Either way each of us could harmonize with the other fairly well so even when I sang the lead, the combination sounded pretty good.

Here’s a fact that most folks don’t know: Steve got credit for writing several songs on CC’s white album that were actually written by someone else. The story goes like this: When the record was getting ready for duplication they needed the author’s signature on copyright forms and publishing agreements. But the author was in prison so they (Irv Peninsky and Tom Moffatt) attributed those three songs to Steve. They were “Look Into Your Eyes”, “Good Weather”, and “I Want You To Know”.

Country Comfort - White Album

Country Comfort – White Album

But then I wasn’t there and it was entirely possible that Steve just took credit for those songs and never said anything. I do remember being concerned about bullets and stuff when the real author whose name I’ve forgotten was released from jail. But he was OK with it and never sought to claim the credits.

As an aside, because Chucky Lee, manager and lead guitarist of Country Comfort knew me from recording “I’ll Be”, he got me onto Hawaii’s first Home Grown album. He was asked to be a judge along with other island music big-wigs of which songs were to be included on the first Home Grown album…the concept having been brought to Hawaii from California by radio personality Ron Jacobs (KKUA). Musicians sent in their recordings (home or studio) and they choose the best songs for an album to be sold cheap ($1.69) by KKUA 690AM with the proceeds going to a charity.

During the judging my song came up (“In The Old Hawaiian Way”) and since Chucky knew me he scores it 10-10-10-10-10. Tom Moffat looks over at Chucky’s scoring and figures Chucky knows what’s good and does the same. So thanks to him my song got on the Hawaii’s first Home Grown album under my made-up band name Shak-Bait.

The Wofford-Keat album Road to Home is an excellent example of the acoustic folk sound in contemporary Hawaiian music during the 1970s. Road To Home is reminiscent of Country Comfort in my mind. What artists and life experiences influenced you during that time?

Actually, my influences were mostly mainland bands. This was the time of the acoustic guitar. C&K, America, The Eagles, Kapalana, Olomana and C.C. were the sound of the times. Since we played acoustic guitars as our basic instrument, the music revolved around country chord constructions and that mellow sound.

Probably my biggest musical influence was The Byrds; leaders in the folk-rock sound. But I was also really into Pink Floyd. But you don’t always write and produce songs like the artists who influence you. For me the tended to only color my work vs. emulation.

In brief, what was the music scene like back then?

It was acoustic bands playing in bars. Country Comfort played mostly at two bars; first the Ranch House in Aina Haina, then the Sugar Mill bar at what is now the Luana Waters Hotel on Kalakaua. It was bars where you could play for maybe $75 a night.

But this was the time of the emergence of the Contemporary Hawaiian music scene which took place in all sorts of bars around the islands. It was all based around acoustic guitars and songs based on country music chords emulating in local way the music of America, Jackson Brown, The Eagles, etc. Right up my alley with my Byrds affliction.

Local record sales started to take off. Prior to this, most local music scene was primarily covering established Hawaiian music from decades past. Very little was original. But with the aforesaid influences, local bands started writing new music with English lyrics (they didn’t know Hawaiian) about local places and themes.

I believe this was a—if not the—primary trend that gave rise to the larger social trend of pride in Hawaiian’s culture and ultimately the sovereignty movement. Hawaiians began shrugging off the stereotype of lazy & late and began to realize how amazing their heritage really was. I believe Hawaiian cultural pride was born in the 1970s.

How much time, money, and effort went into making Road To Home? (I really enjoy the finished product, I listen to it start to finish on repeat!)

Thank you so much. The recording of Road to Home was both the most wonderful thing to ever happen to me and possibly the most frustrating. Irv Peninsky, a former Warner Bros record distributor retired to Hawaii in the early 70s and for fun started recording albums for acts like The Aliis, Makapuu Sand Band, Racheal “Noehelani” Cypriano, at that time recording under the band name Golden Throat, and other local acts.

Irv heard my music when he and Tom Moffatt recorded Country Comfort’s second album. After Steve left the band (C.C. self-destructed), Irv heard a demo tape of my songs recorded by me and Steve and decided to do an album for us.

He sent us to Sounds of Hawaii on Young St. next to the BMW dealership. It was the state of the art and virtually only commercial recording studio in Hawaii. It was owned by Herb Ono. Herb recorded virtually everyone from school choirs to Don Ho. We recorded the album in two weeks. It was the answer to my 20-something dreams. Road To Home cost about $10,000 to record and manufacture. Irv’s investment in my music is what really got my avocation off the ground.

Wooford-Keat Road To Home LP

Wooford-Keat Road To Home LP, back cover.

What can you tell me about Irv? He must’ve been an inspirational person to be around.

He was a really nice guy. The kind of person you could trust with just a handshake. In fact, our album deal was merely a handshake. People tended to take advantage of him though because he was well off and liked people. But he knew the music business inside and out. He’d made his millions in record distribution on the mainland and retired to Hawaii. He drove a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud and lived on Waialae Golf Course next to John Bellinger, President of First Hawaiian Bank.

He really didn’t know much about music production other than what he liked, but he had fun recording bands his only goal being to discover some major recording act or hit songs. But he really liked helping talented artists get their music out there.

Irv liked my songs more than he liked Steve and me as performers (haha) and hoped that by recording an album for us he could get some major artist to cover my songs. Funny that it would only happen decades after his passing with the Kingston Trio covering “Cheri”. Timing is all, I guess.

It was Irv’s example that made me decide that when I got too old to Rock n Roll I’d help emerging artists record their music. This is what I’ve done with Highway Recording.

Who else performed on the album? Also, who composed the songs?

Those were the days of session musicians. After one of Steve’s drummer friends didn’t work out to his satisfaction, Irv hired a union drummer and a percussionist that he often used and we taught them the songs in the studio. He was a quick study. Steve played bass & guitar and I played guitar.

We did have an outside guitar player, the guy who did my copy write notation, play a classical guitar on “Cheri” and we ended up using only that as the rhythm instrument.

“Over and Over”, I did the intro lead and Steve the solo the middle.

On “Dutchman”, I’d never figured out what to do in the break so Herb suggested an oboe player he knew from the Honolulu Symphony. So he came down and asked for the non-existent charts. I told him just to improvise something and gave him the chord progression. He looked startled and said he didn’t know how to improvise. That was a real eye-opener for me because I thought everyone knew how to do that more or less and he being a symphony musician I thought would be able to jam. So we played the song back and I went “do, do, do…” and he wrote the notes down and that’s how the solo was created.

Another friend of Steve’s, Henry Kapono, came in and joined us for the backup vocals on “Cheri” and “Road To Home”. My friends Bruce Washburn (banjo) and Ken Daubert (harmonica) also played; Ken on a couple songs. Gaylord Holomalia (Kalapana) played synth on “Road To Home”.

Irv refused to credit the sideman who played which was difficult for me to understand. But it was his record and I was a grateful idiot kid.

Henry Kapono, Steve Wofford, Phil Keat

Henry Kapono, Steve Wofford, Phil Keat in the studio.

Road To Home was a monumental event in your life. How did the process of recording Road To Home motivate you to become a recording engineer? Do you still look back on what you learned from those recording sessions?

Monumental? Yes. But it was also frustrating that as a studio rookie I didn’t know how to make the sounds that I heard in my head come out of the speakers. I was not happy with much of the “sound” of Road to Home as well as the mix.

I realized then that I had to learn the process and techniques of recording. Hence Highway Recording.

Fortunately, recording technology was advancing so quickly that the cost of equipment was coming down to consumer pricing. So I started my own little 4-track recording studio for my own music and expanded it over the years to where I now take on all sorts of outside clients.

I learned a few important things from my 2 weeks at Sounds of Hawaii mostly from mistakes. But there is so much to learn about record engineering; a lot of science. The recording quality of the Sounds of Hawaii tapes was excellent and I still work equal them, but at the end of the day it’s the song, the performance and the mix that makes a hit. So I began reading all the books and magazines I could get and listening to recordings with a different ear. I slowly began to understand how frequencies work together to make different sounds.

You mention on your website, “I started recording in the 1970s using a TEAC 4-track reel-to-reel tape deck and a Shure microphone to record a track that ended up on Hawaii’s first Home Grown album.” What was it like to work with artists during one of Hawaii’s most musically vibrant eras?

The only people I actually worked with were primarily my musical partners. Through Steve who knew everyone, I got to meet a lot of people back then. As you know, Henry Kapono sang backup on “Cheri” on Road To Home. But we’d go sit in on other bands gigs and share beers with them.

I missed a lot of that social interaction because I had to get home to sleep for work the next day. I was one of the few guys that had a career day job.

We didn’t really know what was happening back then. It’s with the clarity of hindsight that we now know that the 70s were a musical turning point for Hawaii’s music and the emergence of contemporary Hawaiian music.

What advice can you offer to aspiring musicians who are thinking about making a studio recording?

Firstly, I’d say make sure you do your preproduction before coming into the studio so that when the clock’s ticking you know exactly what you need to be doing. It’s at preproduction that you work out arrangements, choose instrumentation and examine the quality of your lyrics, make sure the band are all playing the same chords, etc. Even magic can’t make a bad song good.

Writing really great songs right out of the box is difficult. Good songs usually need some tweaking to make them great. Whether it be lyrics or melody or chords and hooks; these things should all be examined and made their best. Have someone as a mentor who can help you make your songs better.

I saw your name on the liner notes of a George Street LP, Living On Daydreams—you were the band’s co-producer and “music advisor”. What can you tell me about working with Gail Mack, Steven Min and Gordon Kim?

I think(*) that’s the name of the album we recorded at my house in Manoa. I had the 4-track and some Nakamichi C-300 mics and that’s it. My “studio” was a small bedroom and a bathroom under the house.

George Street had the weekends and Wofford-Keat weekdays up at Chuck’s Steak House so we got to know them pretty well. Neat people. I think it was their second album that they wanted to do on a low (no?) budget so we gave it a whirl at my place. They just came in, got set up and played the songs one or two times recording live, dry and with no overdubs.

We took the tape to Pierre Grill’s Rendezvous Recording for mix down. I think that was my first production credits. They recorded a song of mine (The Way that I Love You) on a subsequent album.

(*Note: No confirmation on which George Street album was recorded by Phil Keat in Manoa. Living On Daydreams was recorded elsewhere and not by Phil.)

I’m curious, what’s the Pakala Plantation Estate?

It’s my family home on Kauai built by my grandfather in 1912. Not a surfer, huh?

Lastly, is there anything you’d like to add to our conversation? Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences and stories with me, I really appreciate it!

Only that I’m really happy I didn’t try to go into music full time; the lifestyle is not healthy and I like being able to pay the rent. I’m happy for the great day job that financed me, challenged me and gave me so much valuable knowledge all of which significantly augmented my musical avocation.

Read more Aloha Got Soul interviews here.

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