Profile: Arthur Lyman

The Mood Merchant of Exotic Music casts his Spell Again in Waikiki
by Rick Carroll

A conch shell honks, bamboo sticks rattle, a jungle bird cries out.

It's 1958 all over again: Arthur Lyman is making the music that made him oh so famous and rich so very long ago.

He's doing it in Waikiki on weekends now before silvery-haired Mati-tip sipping couples who sit holding hands, proof old mood music still works.

Now 67, the vibraphonist Time magazine once called the "mood merchant," of exotic music, casts the same tropical spell that captivated the nation more than four decades ago.

Old favorites like "Yellow Bird, "the Haitian folk song he turned into an American standard and nostalgic selections from his first album, "Taboo," which sold 2 million copies and still haunts anyone over 50.

He still keeps time with parrot squawks, bamboo sticks and temple bells but it's been a long time since Lyman was No 1 on the nation's pop charts.

"Arthur who?" he laughs.

With Diamond Head crater over his shoulder and Waikiki's azure waves lapping the golden shore, Lyman looks like he just stepped off one of his old album covers.

"Isn't it beautiful," he says, "that's why I like to play here."

Here is the open air bar of the New Otani Kaimana Beach hotel on Waikiki's quiet side.

He plays private parties and regular gigs in Waikiki for $100- a-night, a bargain for the exotic music maker man who once commanded thousands.

"I never thought my music was exotic," he laughs. "It was natural to me-the crash of the waves, the rustle of the palm trees, the birds."

Over vodka in the afternoon he reminisces about the glory days.

"It was rough," he said, "three months on the road, back here, three months on the road."

He ran though four piano players, four bass players and three wives. Got married once on Valentine's Day in Las Vegas after appearing with Harry Belafonte. His bride, a nightclub camera girl, became his manager.

"She was a good manager," he said "but we had problems when she started to tell me what to play."

Alone now, a survivor of 11 banner years on the road, he's back in Hawaii and happy, neither broke nor rich.

"Wives," he said, "they got all my money. I never smelled it."

On a toy piano he plunked out "You Are My Sunshine" when he was only five.

"My father said, 'You're going to be a musician and he made me practice, practice, practice. He was blind and he would kick me in the butt when I hit a wrong note."

At 8, Lyman made his public debut on the "Listerine Amateur Hour" on Honolulu radio station KGMB (now K-59), playing "Twelfth Street Rag." "I won a bottle of Listerine," he laughed.

He turned pro at 17, playing in a Kakaako club called Leroy's.

"I went to school days and played nights with a group called The Gadabouts. We did George Shearing stuff, cool jazz. I got $45 a week.

"When I got out of McKinley High School in '51, I finally told my father, I quit. I went to Halekulani Hotel and worked there as a desk clerk.

"That's where I met Martin Denny," he said, "He'd heard I played vibraphone. I was making $280 a month as a hotel clerk. He said, 'You'll be making $109 a week playing for me.' I went back to music.

In late 1956, he formed his own band with John Kramer on bass, Allan Soares on piano, Harold Chang on drums and Augie Colon on bird calls.

They opened at the Hilton Hawaiian Villages' Shell Bar and might be playing there still except for millionaire golfer France Ii Brown. He invited Lyman and the band to California's Pebble Beach to play for a private party during what was then called the Bing Crosby Pro-am Golf tournament.

Some very important people at that party liked what they heard and suddenly Arthur Lyman had a big-time Mainland gig.

"We played Vegas the next week," he said. "And then New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo and..."

In 1962, the year he turned 30, he earned $120,000, same as Willie Mays, big money in those days. He was headlining Chicago's Edgewater Beach Hotel, playing two sets a night, six nights a week. That same year he produced six albums in 45 days.

Five years later, exotic was old hat, the Beatles were hot, and Arthur Lyman was out of a job. The band broke up in Vegas in 1968-the year Janis Joplin appeared on Newsweek's cover-and they all came home to early retirement in Hawaii.

In his meteoric 12 year career, Arthur Lyman and his band produced 33 albums, won three gold records, and recorded 396 songs that even today conjure up dreamy island images of tropical escape.

"We always tried to do that," Lyman said, "to get people to come here so we wouldn't have to go there but, funny thing, we were never as popular here in the Islands as we were on the mainland."

He's up for a mainland tour, he said, but until that happens you can only see Arthur Lyman on the beach in Waikiki.

Rick Carroll's profile of Arthur Lyman available by permission of author. Copyright Rick Carroll.

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This page last modified on Tuesday, June 08, 2004.