Pauline Wilson is a sweet soul with an outstanding voice—arguably Hawaii’s best singer.
If you aren’t aware, Pauline fronted a jazz-fusion-R&B band during the 1970s and early 1980s called Seawind—arguably Hawaii’s best group ever.
Pauline is the first-ever Grammy Award winning vocalist from Hawaii. And Seawind’s horns helped create the biggest selling album of all-time, Thriller. That said, I doubt anyone would dare to deny either statement. Once you hear Pauline’s voice back by Seawind’s impeccable sound, you instantly know this group is unmatched throughout the world, there’s no argument about it.
I had the chance the speak with Pauline over the phone from her home on the Big Island. Throughout our conversation, she affectionately talked about “the Seawind boys” and traced the history of the band back to the moment when Larry Williams, Jerry Hey and Kim Hutchcroft (“the boys”, which also includes drummer Bob Wilson, bassist Ken Wild, and guitarist Bob Nuanez) walked in to her after hours gig at a Chinese restaurant in Kona.
The rest is history—but aside from Seawind’s official website, there just isn’t enough documentation available online about Hawaii’s most successful band of its time. In hopes of contributing to the recorded history of Seawind’s journey, here is my interview with vocalist Pauline Wilson.
Thank you Pauline and, of course, Fred Li for arranging the interview. If you’re in Honolulu this weekend, catch Pauline Wilson with Music Magic performing live, two nights only. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased via islandjazznights.com.
Let’s talk about you first experiences with music.
I started from a very very early age, at about nine years old. I was actually influenced by my mother and father and my aunties and uncles because they all played instruments and the women would sing. My father was a electrician at the sugar mill in Hakalau, but he loved to play music so he would take me to his gigs in Hilo Town and I would watch his band. From there I was always influenced by my father, every time I had a gig I would ask my mom, “Could I go?” [laughs]. I was little then, like four or five years old. And he was an upright player, he played all the string instruments.
Were they doing traditional Hawaiian or jazz?
They were doing the old 1940s hapa-haole stuff, Filipino music, they would do Filipino weddings.
Is that your ethnic background?
My father’s Filipino-Chinese and my mother is Puerto Rican-Spanish, some American Indian too. They were both born on the Big Island, both families migrated here—my father’s family from an island called Siquijor and my mother’s parents from Puerto Rico—they all came here to work on the sugar cane plantations. So I grew up living in the country all the time and I took a bus to school every day, from grade 9 to when I graduated from Hilo High School.
What was your high school days like?
I have an older brother who plays guitar. During our time in the 60s in high school, they had live bands for their dances, prom, and everything was live. So my brother gathered a few guys and me as the singer, we were called The Intruders. My dad would cart us around, he bought a station wagon just so he could drive us around amplifiers and mic stands and things like that. And we would go down to Kolekole Beach Park in the Hamakua coast about 13 miles north of Hilo, and we would go to the pavilion and rehearse everything that we had. We entered contests and things like that. It was great because my mom and dad helped us out, supported us, keep us out of trouble I’m sure. And music was my whole life.
After that I went to school in Washington State, I was in Ellensburg. I spent a year in school, but there were two more siblings below me so after the first year I took a summer job to help my dad send me back for my second year. I got a job singing at a hotel called Orchid Isle. It was situated on Reed’s Bay in Hilo. Later on it burnt down, I don’t know what happened, I was already gone when I heard the news about the hotel.
But there was a bar in there called the Monkey Bar, and they needed a singer because their singer got pregnant and needed to stay home and take care of herself. My father knew the band and he said, “Hey, they’re looking for a singer, a summer job yeah?” I said, “Oh! Cool! Okay!” so I took two songs, one by Vikki Carr “It Must Be Him” and I forgot what I did for the other song. I got hired, and I played with the band throughout the summer.
I was making a good income when I started, it was fun, I was doing something I loved to do. I never thought I was going to be a singer, or a vocalist. When it came time for me to go back to college, I asked my mom and dad if I can try this out for a year. My mom was against it, my father said “Oh, let her try!” [laughs]
So he got my mom into saying yes, and I never went back to Washington.
What happened next?
I then started with a group called The Echoes Five that played in Kona at the old King Kamehameha Hotel. Then we moved to the Hilton at the Windjammer room there, and then we went to an old Chinese restaurant that stayed open from after 10 o’clock—I think our gig started at 9:30pm and we got done at about 3 o’clock in the morning—so we attracted all the musicians that got done with their gigs, and they would all come up and see us. It was the only place where they served drinks [after hours] and they had great Chinese food and good music: we played Top 40 and all that.
Well, three of the Seawind boys happened to be at the Windjammer with another artist and, of course on my day off, our band went to go see them. I was totally blown away—totally blown away! I never knew I would even encounter such musicians, and this was the group of boys that eventually became the Seawind boys.
They got done with their gig and they came to see us, and they asked me to go to Honolulu with them to sing with them in what they were getting together. A band. I had already had maybe two and a half years with the band I started with in Kona.
The Echoes Five?
The Echoes Five, yeah. It was a very hard decision for me because we were already family, you know? But I wanted to pursue my career as a singer and I knew that if I got with these boys they would teach me a lot of things that I needed to learn. They were horn players from Indiana State University, guitar player from Berkeley.
I made the decision to go to Honolulu and start up with them.
So the horn players at the time, they weren’t known as Seawind—they must’ve been in a different group?
They actually were playing for the Harvey Ragsville Band when Sammy Davis Jr. and people of that caliber would come [to Hawaii]. They were the union musicians for these gigs. During their spare time they would do festivals, like at Thomas Square, a few clubs.
I got put together with them and we started to do Top 40, Tower Of Power, Aretha Franklin…
So this was early 70s?
Early 70s, after 1970—I think we all got together as a group called Ox. We had a full horn section at that time, you know Chicago was very popular, Cold Blood from San Francisco-Oakland. We did the Diamond Head Festivals that were put on by Tom Moffatt. They used to ask us to front jazz shows at the Waikiki Shell, at the Blaisdell. We were like Hawaii’s start-up band for groups like Tower Of Power, Herbie Mann, things like that.
So when they asked you to join their group and move to Honolulu, did they already have a band formed?
No, they were playing with a big band, I was just brought over to do the show that was supposed to be in Las Vegas. I was to rehearse with them and a few other musicians, and a person by the name of Kimo Mata—he was a manager from Las Vegas and was supposed to take all of us over to Vegas and get a showroom there and do a show. I was the girl guest singer. That never happened. We waited for them to say it’s time to move over [to Vegas]. We never got a call for whole months, our money was dwindling.
So you had to put something together.
Yeah. Bob Wilson (drums) and Larry Williams (keyboards, sax) said “Let’s put this group together”. We picked 35 songs out of the Top 40, which included Edgar Winter, Tower Of Power, Earth Wind & Fire. We learned it all.
We wanted to call ourselves Miscellaneous Music, but our agent in Seattle that’s too long of a name to put on a poster. So we all went to the Honolulu Zoo and figured, “Ok, what are we gonna call ourselves?” Something short and strong.
I remember us sitting at the zoo and figuring it’s either going to be Gnu [laughs] or Ox. It was unanimous: “Ox is only two letters, that’s cool let’s call ourselves that.”
So, here we go on the road to Washington State—our first-ever gig together as Ox was at the Goofy’s Nightclub in Spokane, Washington. When we got there, we didn’t have any kind of uniforms. I had my own outfits but during that time, the bands liked to look the same, they had all the same outfits and everything, bell bottoms, puffy sleeves [laughs].
We went and got a U-Haul truck, bought our sound system—everything from mice to cords to, everything—and then went to a department store and—I don’t remember which department store, but it was right in Seattle—and said, “Hey! How bout this?” So we got uniforms for the boys, then we headed off to Spokane.
Incredible, first-ever gig as Ox.
Yeah, Goofy’s Nightclub.
I would think that the first-ever gig would be here in Hawaii. How did that come about?
We wanted to leave because we thought we could do better elsewhere [because there was more work on the mainland]. Everyone voted to go, so we did.
When we got to Goofy’s Nightclub and started working, the horns players and everyone were reading music except me and the drummer. The Goofy’s Nightclub manager goes, “You need to learn that music or you’re fired!” [laughs] We took the next day to be on it early in the morning, everyone memorizing their parts. When we went on that night, there was not a music stand on stage. Everything was memorized. We kept our gig.
How long did that run for?
About a month, I believe. And then we went on to Alaska to play at the Fancy Moose Inn right in Anchorage, next to Lake Spenard. We stayed there for thirteen weeks. After that, we left to go straight to Phoenix, Arizona, where Robert Wilson’s mom and dad put the whole group up in a trailer beside their house, a few other members rented a house, and there we decided to start write original music.
The whole time you were doing Top 40 covers?
Yes, anything on the radio, anything familiar to the audience. Oh yeah, we went to Montana too to play at the Jekyll & Hyde. Boy, those were the days.
We stayed in Phoenix for almost two months, I believe, playing at a Lucky’s Nightclub on Grand Avenue and Phoenix (Mr. Lucky’s is still around), where—thank God for Mom and Dad Wilson—we were just earning 20 bucks a week, each member. Rehearsing every day from one to four. The boys had an eight track recorder, we would record everything. Then it was put on tape and Bobby (Bob Wilson) and Larry took off on a Greyhound bus to LA to sell our music to record companies.
We waited for them to come back, [we had] no word from them [for awhile]. It didn’t turn out well because people didn’t understand our music at the time.
Why didn’t they understand it?
I don’t know. It was jazz fusion, it wasn’t like anything anyone had heard before. The boys wrote a lot of inspirational music, you know. There were born-again Christians in the band and they wanted to write for that.
But they had a background in jazz, and the Top 40 at the time was really funky, so those three came together.
Yeah, but no one was interested in our music.
And no other bands were doing that kind of sound either?
No, no one. They didn’t get it yet. We figured, “OK, let’s go back to Hawaii.” So we moved the whole group back to Hawaii, we tried to find our places, and we started working at—oh golly, it used to be… it used to be the Colony Surf, I forget what it was called when we were there, but apparently—
—this is on Oahu, right?
—yes, this is on Oahu. Oh, we worked at the Red Noodle. It was above Duke’s nightclub at the International Marketplace. That stayed open until 3 o’clock in the morning. And so here we have the mainland bands’ concerts at Blaisdell, and they would bring their acts after their gig and—like Rocco from Tower Of Power, [session bassist] Abraham Laboriel—they would come in.
There was this guy by the name of Bob Wirtz who was MD for Trini Lopez. He came in and gave us the address to send our tape over to LA. Bob Wirtz was friends with Harvey Mason. He played our cassette tape for Harvey Mason, and immediately Harvey Mason goes “I can get you a deal! Move back to LA!” He shopped for us, and it was not an LA company that signed us first: it was a record company in New York City called CTI, Creed Taylor Incorporated. It was at the Rockefeller.
How much time did you spend in Honolulu before that opportunity presented itself?
Maybe another six months or so, because we were working at the Colony Surf, then at a place called Aquarium on Lewers Street, and already we were performing our original music mixed up with Top 40.
Do a lot of Seawind fans know about Ox?
The younger generation, probably not. How old were you when we were on the road? Not even a glimpse, I would think.
I was born in ’87. [laughs]
I believe the newer generation doesn’t know the history of the band Seawind. We had to change our name when we got to Los Angeles because John Entwistle, who played for The Who, he formed a band and called it Ox, which was his nickname.
We didn’t want to get into any kind of litigation, so we figured, “Let’s go down our song list and see if any of these songs can be a name for a group.” And there’s a song on one of the albums called “Seawind”, it segue into another song, it’s an instrumental. We said, “Oh! Seawind! That sounds cool!” Everybody voted and that’s how it all started.
A far departure from Miscellaneous Music! [laughs]
Let’s go back a bit before getting into CTI or anything beyond that. What was your impression of the local music scene at that time? You said the band felt like there was more work elsewhere, or that you could do better outside of Hawaii—but what was it like?
Lots of Hawaiian music. We just worked to put income in our pockets. We were doing Top 40—every where there were people doing Top 40 stuff, you know. But the boys were getting tired of Top 40 music, and we all knew that if we wrote our own music we could get income from publishing and things like that. Like if we got played on the radio. That’s what we were all striving for, to have an identity of our own.
Did you in some way want to keep your identity connected to Hawaii when you left for the mainland?
No, we just ended up like that because we always wore aloha shirts and I developed my own style using vintage forties clothing, Hawaiian print, things like that. Jean skirts were dry popular during that time, the Haight-Ashbury look, I believe.
Aside from that immediate visual reference, what about musically? Growing up in Hawaii, being surrounded by parents and uncles and brothers and aunties who played music, what was that like?
I guess for me and the bass player [Ken Wild], he went to Punahou—he played upright and string bass, he came from a military family and he also played at the Outrigger, they did shows, Vegas kind of shows: John Rowles, Aunty Melveen Leed, The Orient Express, Liz Damon. They’re all show bands. The boys wanted to play, not only just back singers up but also do improvisation and things like that. With having a band, that gave them the freedom.
And like you said, create your own identity.
So Harvey Mason told us to move stock-and-barrel to Los Angeles, and there he arranged for all the record labels to be in one spot at one time and we would do a performance. That was at the Baked Potato on Cahuenga Boulevard.
That was to shop your music to all those record labels, right?
Oh, wait a minute. First we got signed to CTI, and that dwindled after two years because they were taking liberty on remixing our stuff, putting horror pictures on on album covers. If you look at Window Of A Child, it has an ugly fish on there. [laughs]
We actually had our own rendition of Window Of A Child, it was supposed to be a child looking through a stained glass window in a church. I guess Mr. Creed Taylor didn’t think that was cool, he went for shock. That’s how the fish got up on there and the boys were not very happy, and they found there was some remixing done.
When you say remixing, what do you mean?
Like they remixed some of the songs on the album, just took it back in the drawing room and did their own remixing. i don’t know if it was one or two songs, but the boys weren’t happy. They took their liberty upon us, and we didn’t think that was cool.
So Harvey Mason then got a place for us to play at the Baked Potato, one night, and invited bunch of record companies located out of Los Angeles. We got signed after that night by A&M Records. The first record we performed [with A&M] was called Light The Light. “Follow Your Road” is on there, and it was produced by Tommy Li Puma.
That’s the song that got recognition after “He Loves You” from [our first album] on CTI. “Follow Your Road” got a lot of airplay. After that album, it was George Duke [who produced our next album]. It was an album with a bunch of seagulls on there, kind of like sunset-orangey and blue. George Duke produced that.
Then we tried to, on our next album, to become a little more R&B-ish and still have jazz as a part of it. It was a great record, a great tape. But it got shelved by A&M. The songs on that album we thought we perfect for a third album [with A&M]. Record companies were kind of losing money at the time and we got put on the back burner.
Were you guys ever able to release any of those songs to the public?
Yes, on a CD called Remember. Michael Paulo had a record company out of Seattle called Noteworthy. Bob Wilson and he got together and put some of the songs that did not get released onto that CD.
Bob and I split up, we were married then and I headed my way, and they [Seawind] tried to keep the band together. They tried for about two years I believe, and then it finally dissolved. It took us [the band members] nearly 30 years after all the healing and everything—“time heals all wounds”—we started to communicate again with each other and it all happened when I did my own project called Tribute and hired some of the band to do it.
Tribute was produced and arranged by James Garfield, he plays keyboards for George Benson now. Our manager at the time, Blue Johnson—he still is part of our band—
—but you and Bob did an album together, Somebody Loves You?
Yeah, that was out of Waco, Texas, on Word Records.
What’s the story behind that album?
Well, we’re born again Christians and Bobby had a whole lot of songs, he wanted to do his own album. Of course, use the horns and everything. But I believe there were some untold feelings at the time when Bobby wanted to just devote his time to writing for the Lord.
That album was put out by Robert Wilson, he got with a guy by the name of Mark Vieha, who wrote a lot go songs on there, really cool songs. It’s a very good album, you can’t find that easily.
I love the second track on there, it goes “Open up your heart and soul, you can feel so much more”—
—“with love in your eyes” [singing over the phone].
Yeah! That’s a nice one.
Was this after Seawind dissolved?
No, this was before Seawind dissolved. And I think that [album] kind of put another wood on the fire. Even though everybody’s on the album, the horn players, it was kind of hard for the band members to think that Bob would go on his own.
After that, Bob and I dissolved our marriage, we had been married for about 7 years. I headed my way, and everybody else tried to keep the band together with a male singer. But that didn’t work.
Not the same.
Yeah, it’s not the same. But after time, I wanted to do my own projects. In 1990, I got with a producer named Yutaka Yokokura, who was the first keyboard player for Hiroshima. We did an album called Intuition that was on Pony Canyon in Japan.
So you were still based in LA?
Yes, but Yutaka said, “Let’s talk with Pony Canyon and see if they’ll sign us up. I’ll produce the album and you can choose the songs.” There’s one or two there that I co-wrote, “Back Again, Back In Love” and “Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right”.
After that, in 1995, my husband now—we got married in 1994, and in 95 we moved back to Honolulu.
Did you continue pursuing music here?
Yes, I did. As a matter of fact, we did Tribute while I was in Honolulu. But we did not do it in Honolulu, I flew to LA to do it because there’s Airto Moreira on the album, Lenny Castro, Jerry Hey, Kim Hutchcroft, Alphonso Johnson, Harvey Mason. Have you ever heard of Flora Purim? Airto’s her husband.
We wanted to have some fun on Tribute, I do “Rio De Janiero Blues” by Randy Crawford, “Good Morning Heartache” by Billie Holliday. Some old songs from the 40s. My moused to sing “The Nearness Of You” so I did that for my mom and dad. “When I Fall In Love” and “Someone To Watch Over You”, “Never Let Me Go” was inspired by Nancy Wilson.
Tribute was a tribute to—
—the 1940s music, the jazz era. Billie Holliday, Dinah Washington.
The stuff you grew up hearing your parents play.
Yes, like Ella Fitzgerald.
Are you working on any projects now? Like this upcoming show with Music Magic?
I’m going to Los Angeles to work with Seawind right after the concert [with Music Magic]. I leave April 7th. But we want this to be a surprise for Seawind fans. Everyone should be in tune to Seawind’s Facebook and seawindjazz.com because it’s all coming about again.
This is a brand new thing. I’m not gonna say what it is—the boys said, “Let it be a surprise for the fans!”
Are you looking forward to being on stage with Music Magic? You’re probably going to do some originals, some Seawind favorites.
I will, and I’ll do some from Tribute, and one song that I recorded on Yutaka Yokokura’s album called “Brazasia”. There’re having me come up and do my bit, and they’re gonna start off the concert on both nights. I’m excited! We’ve got good players, Al Pascua, Fred Schreuders is an old friend of mine. Darryl Blouin, Jay Molina, Fred Li.
I’m very glad Fred Li decided to call and invite me, and it’s for a very good cause, Special Olympics Hawaii.
It’s going to be a great two nights. I got to see you perform about three years ago with Lil Albert and Nueva Vida for the 70s Night Club Reunion. That was a lot of fun to watch. First time I’ve seen you perform, so I’m looking forward to the second time.
Pauline Wilson & Music Magic
April 4 & 5, 2014
Pagoda Hotel International Ballroom
Tickets starting at $30
>> Buy your tickets now <<
Read more about Pauline Wilson on Aloha Got Soul: