Remembering Billy Hew Len
Every year about this time, I reexamine Billy Hew Len’s life and music – not only in honor of his January 18th birthday, but because he was one of the most recorded and most sought after sidemen in the history of Hawaiian music. His story is also an inspirational one - a tale of triumph over adversity. As a student of the steel guitar myself, I listen to Billy Hew Len for endless hours, and I aspire to attain his level of not only technical proficiency, but also creativity and inventiveness. But, alas, apparently I have a handicap. I have two hands.
Billy Hew Len only had one.
Like Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt before him who reinvented his playing style after a caravan fire which left two fingers of his fretting hand paralyzed, Hew Len’s accident was also the genesis of his distinctive style. Billy became fascinated with the guitar around the age of 10. When his cousin would leave for work, Billy would sneak into his room and “borrow” his cousin‘s guitar and play all day. (Some days he didn’t sneak the guitar back in time, and his cousin would scold him.) At the age of 15, Billy quit school and went to work in a garage. And then, one day, a tragic accident... A planing machine took Billy’s entire left hand – clear at the wrist. Thinking that any potential career in guitar was now over, Billy fell into a depression.
Billy’s mother encouraged him not to give up and turned to anyone she thought might be able to help. Enter Edwin T. Morrell, an elder in the Mormon church who also worked with the disabled. He spoke to Billy and asked him what he liked to do, and the dejected lad said, “Ah, nothing.” But his mother interjected, “Billy plays the guitar!” And Mr. Morrell promised that he would find a way to help Billy play the guitar again – even in his new, differently-abled condition.
Mr. Morrell took Billy to a leather shop – the kind that made saddles in those days. He explained Billy’s situation and gave him a drawing of a device he thought would ultimately help Billy. And the leather worker made it: A glove that would fit snugly over Billy’s wrist and to which they could attach the steel bar for which the steel guitar takes its name. Billy saw the glove but was only mildly encouraged. He expressed the practical concerns of a musician far more seasoned than his years should imply: How will I attain the vibrato that is the signature sound of the steel guitar and which begins and ends with the wrist? Will I have to shake my entire arm back and forth? And what about slants? Steel players slant the bar forward to create one kind of chord and slant it backward to create another kind of chord. How am I going to do that without a wrist?...
But, somehow, miraculously, and through no small effort, Billy did. And if you have ever seen the much too little video that exists of Billy playing (such as the Robert Mugge documentary “Hawaiian Rainbow”), you can easily see how Billy overcame the very real limitations he predicted. But more than that, you can see how he turned such limitations into the assets that became his unique playing style.
Billy went back and forth between instruments including a fry pan and several pedal steels. (The use of the pedal steel in Hawaiian music is often considered anathema to traditionalists. Only a handful of players from Hawai`i who dabbled in the pedal steel can be named off the top of one’s head – Freddie Tavares, Ernie Tavares, Peter Dillingham, Billy Hew Len, and, occasionally, Jules Ah See and Barney Isaacs. Whether or not the pedal steel is “Hawaiian enough” is a controversial topic better left for another day. Suffice it to say, for now, that Hew Len used the pedals so sparingly and tastefully that it would be hard for anyone to argue that his playing was not “Hawaiian enough” – at least not that I have ever heard.) Billy played a unique tuning – a variation on A6th which he called “A6th added b5 added 9th” which appeared from bottom to top as:
G Bb C# E F# A C# E
(Notice the diminished 7th chord on the bottom strings!)
Unlike Hal Aloma (discussed elsewhere in this issue) about whom it is next to impossible to find any of his prodigious recorded output in the digital era, Billy Hew Len appeared on so many historically important recordings from Hawai`i that we find the vast majority of his recordings still available for listening through the popular streaming services (including Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, iTunes, and Apple Music). You simply have to know where to look! The problem with recordings made in that era is that the sidemen were rarely listed or pictured on the album covers. So I have spent many years identifying Billy Hew Len on record solely by ear and compiled the list of artists and album titles on which he appears for your education and listening pleasure.
A Brief Billy Hew Len Discography
But as delighted as we should be that there is so much available Billy Hew Len material for our consumption, there are still a great many more recordings on which he appeared that remain out of print in the digital era – classic recordings by Kekua Fernandez, Kealoha Kalama, Chick Floyd, Elaine Ako Spencer, Violet Pahu Liliko`i, and `Ilima Baker. Moreover, Billy Hew Len enjoyed a long association with his friend and musical partner Pua Almeida with whom he recorded four full-length LP records and countless 45 rpm singles for the then popular Waikiki Records label. None of these Waikiki Records sides have seen the light of day in the digital era. Visit the following link – http://hoolohehou.com/billy-hew-len/ to visit the Ho`olohe Hou Radio website where you can hear a few more of the out of print sides by Billy Hew Len mentioned above.
Note: AISGC is unaffiliated with external websites that may be linked in its articles. The link provided is for informational purposes and does not constitute an endorsement.