HONOLULU – Crooner Don Ho, who entertained tourists for decades wearing raspberry-tinted sunglasses and singing the catchy signature tune “Tiny Bubbles,” died Saturday morning of heart failure. He was 76.
Ho had suffered with heart problems for the past several years and had a pacemaker installed last fall. In 2005 he underwent an experimental stem cell procedure on his ailing heart in Thailand.
Promoter Tom Moffatt said he attended Ho’s final show Thursday, and Ho received a standing ovation. Afterward, Ho reminisced about his many years in Waikiki and talked about how Judy Garland sang with him one night.
“Don was in great spirits,” he said. “He was fine.”
Ho entertained Hollywood’s biggest stars and thousands of tourists for four decades. For many, no trip to Hawaii was complete without seeing his Waikiki show — a mix of songs, jokes, double entendres, Hawaii history and audience participation.
Shows usually started and ended with the same song, “Tiny Bubbles.” Ho mostly hummed the song’s swaying melody as the audience enthusiastically took over the familiar lyrics: “Tiny bubbles/in the wine/make me happy/make me feel fine.”
“I hate that song,” he often joked to the crowd. He said he performed it twice because “people my age can’t remember if we did it or not.”
The son of bar owners, Ho broke into the Waikiki entertainment scene in the early 1960s and, except for short periods, never left. Few artists are more associated with one place.
“Hawaii is my partner,” Ho told the Associated Press in 2004.
Donald Tai Loy Ho, who was Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and German, was born Aug. 13, 1930, in Honolulu and grew up in the then-rural countryside of Kaneohe.
In high school, he was a star football player and worked for a brief time in a pineapple cannery. After graduating in 1949, he attended Springfield College in Massachusetts on an athletic scholarship. He grew homesick, returned to the islands and ended up graduating from the U. of Hawaii in 1953 with a degree in sociology.
Inspired by the U.S. military planes flying in and out of Hawaii during World War II, Ho joined the Air Force. As the Korean War wound down, he piloted transport planes between Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu and Tokyo.
When he returned home and took over his parents’ struggling neighborhood bar, Honey’s, he put together a band and started performing at his father’s request.
“I had no intention of being an entertainer,” Ho said. “I just played songs I liked from the radio, and pretty soon that place was jammed. Every weekend there would be lines down the street.”
Honey’s became a happening place on Oahu, with other Hawaiian musicians stopping in for jam sessions. Ho began to play at various spots in Hawaii, then had a breakout year in 1966, when appearances at the Coconut Grove in Hollywood helped him build a mainland following, and the release of “Tiny Bubbles” gave him his greatest recording success.
Soon he was packing places such as the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. Stars such as Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra were known to be in the audience for Ho’s shows.
Ho also became a television star, and hosted the “The Don Ho Show” on ABC from 1976-77. One of Ho’s most memorable TV appearances was a 1972 cameo on an episode of “The Brady Bunch.”
“I’ve had too much fun all these years,” he said in the 2004 interview. “I feel real guilty about it.”
Gov. Linda Lingle said Ho created a legacy that will inspire future generations of musicians in Hawaii.
“Hawaii has lost a true island treasure,” she said. “He laid the foundation for the international prominence Hawaii’s music industry enjoys today.”
Besides “Tiny Bubbles,” his other well-known songs include “I’ll Remember You,” ‘‘With All My Love” and the “Hawaiian Wedding Song.”
In the final years of his life, Ho’s heart problems couldn’t keep him away from the stage. He was back performing at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel on a limited schedule less than two months after his heart procedure in Thailand.
Ho is survived by his wife, Haumea, and 10 children, including Hoku, who sometimes performed with her father.