Billy Vaughn






My love-hate relationship with the music of renowned arranger Billy Vaughn (1919–1991) is superfluous, and yet an integral part of the Exotica section on AmbientExotica. Sukiyaki rekindles the latter word of that relationship. Released in 1961 on Dot Records, with many horribly wrong cover artworks of test pressings which falsely claim the album title to be Sukiyaka – as pictured above – and are hence much sought-after rarities, Billy Vaughn ventures a second time into Hawaiian climes after Blue Hawaii (1959) which is as horrific as it is enormously successful, peaking at #7 in the Billboard charts, thus clearly going gold. Indeed, during the recording session of Sukiyaki, one can imagine that Billy Vaughn hoped to repeat the success again. And planned success is always based on a formula, right?


It turns out that he has not yet mutilated, ruined and disfigured enough Hawaiian classics on Blue Hawaii, so Sukiyaki presents eleven Hawaiian leftovers and one genuinely gorgeous Japanese title track named after the famous dish. The material itself is top-notch and well-chosen, with many classics and less considered compositions happily united, but there is one gigantic problem looming in the opener already which turns out to become a miasmatic-gaseous entity that pesters the overwhelming majority of the LP. It is the distinctive accomplishment that made Billy Vaughn so famous in Germany, but is horribly de trop in the, er, tropical surroundings of Polynesia: the hyperbolically syrupy schmaltziness of the polyphonous horns. This peculiarity opened Billy Vaughn the road to stardom, fair enough, but it simply does not work in these endemic surroundings of the LP. The horns are not mighty or powerful, but incessantly smarmy and oily, akin to the German-Austrian Folk tradition of alpenhorns and aural depictions of valleys. Is Sukiyaki a hopelessly distasteful album? Almost, but not in its entirety! 


As it is regularly the case with Billy Vaughn’s albums, the album is always named after the opener. Sukiyaki by Hachidai Nakamura and Rokusuke Ei is delicately Japanese, and the reason I stress this can be found in the remaining material of Hawaiian origin. And indeed, Sukiyaki is the standout track for this reason alone. Warm strings accompany the wood-pecking staccato of the xylophone, the timbre is purely Asian, silkened hi-hats inject the rhythm that holds the surprising lightning bolts of Hawaiian steel guitars and the string washes together. Even the lead trumpet in the middle section does not degrade the admittedly saccharine, but curiously working – if also humble – magic of the arrangement.


Distantly similar to Werner Müller’s Holiday In Japan (1958) which he recorded under his international alias Ricardo Santos, Billy Vaughn’s interpretation of Sukiyaki oscillates between mellowness and transformation by comprising the same textural range as Müller's take. Fans of string-heavy faux-Japanese Exotica, this is the song to fetch from this LP. The following Mapuana by Lani Muk Sang then leads to Hawaiian climes. Nothing can beat Arthur Lyman’s take on his hyper-dreamy Hawaiian Sunset (1959), and Billy Vaughn inadvertently assures that this superiority remains intact. Please excuse my harsh words, but Vaughn’s reliance on the brass sections is disgusting! They resemble German/Austrian Folk mannerisms, ooze out of the speakers due to their syrupy aggregate state and destroy the lure of the main melody. The harmonica is equally audacious. What a pity, for both the backing ukulele and the steel guitar emanate the aura of a soothing sunset.


While Robert Alex Anderson’s Lovely Hula Hands is perturbed by the same chintzy horns and harmonica helixes which narrow down the sphere of action of the crunchy steel guitars, Gerry Stover’s and Henry Kailimai’s On The Beach At Waikiki transforms the uplifting Hapa Haole ditty into a German Schlager fest with the same awful trumpet blasts, only the great lead ukulele heard during the bridge ennobles the horror with astute sunbursts of Hawaii. After much panning from my side, Arthur Freed’s and Nacio Herb Brown’s Pagan Love Song is arranged much more efficiently, with the moss-grown polyphony of the trumpets unfortunately reappearing time and again, but allowing the steel guitars and vibraphone sparkles as well as the dusky bonfire harmonica room to breathe. Side A ends with Maewa Kaihau’s Now Is The Hour, an aptly nocturnal piece of dreaminess. The well-known problem makes a relaxing sleep impossible: piles of smarmy, currying brass instruments illumine the night with their ashen complexion. Avoid this tune at all costs. At least when it is envisioned by Mr. Vaughn.


And so the downfall of Hawaiian goodness continues. With the exception of two partially interesting and mildly successful arrangements, side B continues the way side A ended, there is no escape, figuratively spoken. My Tane by Johnny Noble launches with sappy-succulent trumpet washes as well as starlight harmonicas and merges them forcefully with moony steel guitar scents and translucent vibraphone sprinkles, but these are swallowed by the walls of the brass instruments. Harry Revel’s and Mack Gordon’s less often considered Sweet Someone in regard to Exotica-related LP’s is based on the same sickly sweet trumpet placentas; only the rhythm ukulele and the scattered vibraphone droplets can fight the insipidity. Harry OwensTo You Sweetheart, Aloha is quite wonderful for a change. There is only one lead trumpet on this tune which is actually comparably mild, with only shorter instances of a brass trio. A female choir is humming along, the mélange of a steel guitar and ukulele can finally unfold in the proper way, and it is here where one possibly notices the effective placement of each player and the ensuing plasticity.


Ken Darby’s and Ralph Rainger’s Kalua experiences the same trumpet-charged flaws, and while the strong prominence of the harmonica reminds of Tommy Morgan’s and Warren Barker’s Tropicale (1958), this ray of hope remains just that. Whereas King’s Serenade by Charles E. King and Hal Aloma is ruined by the duality of a gorgeously warped steel guitar glissando, vibraphone shimmers on the one hand and the prolonged chewing gum-esque perforation on the other, Alfred Newman’s and Frank Loesser’s The Moon Of Manakoora shines. Finally! And not one minute too late, for it is the outro. The orchestra strings make their first return since the opener and can be considered as elevatory for the presentation. Rhythmic acoustic guitars and ooh-oohing women ennoble the arrangement further. That there are zilch trumpets is a godsend. Thank you so much for their omission, Mr. Vaughn. Less is so much more in this case.


I have to state it again: it is no wonder that Billy Vaughn is so particularly successful in Japan and Germany as well as the latter’s neighboring countries in the South East. The timbre and tonality are specifically designed for this audience. I can honestly understand the appeal of Billy Vaughn’s arrangements, but his style only improved massively around 1963 when his fan base widened and the band setup changed accordingly. Here on Sukiyaki in the year of 1961 AD, the blending of the Alps with Hawaiian beaches does not work at all and is a terrible transmutation of the Hapa Haole skeletons that form the base frames of each composition via the rhythm ukuleles and steel guitar accents. These constant anomalies celebrate the sun-dried dreaminess, but suffer strongly from the omnipresence of the brass instruments.


Whenever the trombonists and trumpeters remain silent, Sukiyaki shines, showing Billy Vaughn’s ability to create slick segues that truly glow: the vibraphones inherit the soothing susurration, the steel guitars encapsulate that warped complexion that is so typical for Hapa Haole artifacts, and yes, even the harmonica works here and there, adding campfire romance to the scenery. Notwithstanding these skillful inclusions, Sukiyaki does not deliver them regularly enough. The tonality of the horns destroys the vast majority of the moods. The title track meanwhile succeeds with its string washes and Far Eastern xylophone sequences, and so does the closer The Moon Of Manakoora which luckily neglects the horns altogether, but the remaining material is simply outdated by now. Billy Vaughn does offer a different viewpoint, but it is one that is not embraced by me. Avoid the album, it is not worth it for Exotica listeners. Better get Billy Vaughn’s strictly exotic Pearly Shells (1964) and Mexican Pearls (1965) whose arrangements are much improved.


Exotica Review 242: Billy Vaughn – Sukiyaki (1961). Originally published on Jul. 27, 2013 at