Ken Griffin
Hawaiian Magic






Hawaiian Magic by American organist Ken Griffin (1909–1956) is a twelve-track LP of organ-fueled Hapa Haole classics, posthumously released in 1957 on Columbia Records. Featuring the talent of steel guitarist Andy Nelson in ten renditions, he is the actual savior of the LP, trying his best to detox the venomous amounts of syrup and schmaltz as unleashed by Griffin. However, the textural variety of Griffin’s organ fine-tuning is great and contains everything one needs for a successful Space-Age album of Hawaiian descent. He even manages to add swirling star dust glitters to the arrangements which conflate well with Nelson’s steel guitar riffs.


The basic problem is the duality of the songs. I like progression, clever segues and eclectic interstices in Exotica works, but when either the first half or the second of most tracks is terribly spoiled and ruined by smarmy kitsch and fairground auras, the quality of the album suffers. Heck, if there were exclusively bad songs and a few gems in-between them, I would not complain, for there are many soulless duds on a lot of the less-considered genre albums; in the end, schizophrenia on a per-song basis devalues even the most clever tune. I have nonetheless decided to review the album in-depth, for there are moments where the vivacity of bachelor pad tunes, the galactosamines of Space-Age and moony verdure of Hapa Haole shimmer through. In addition, there are listeners who feast on over-the-top pipe organ havoc, so maybe the record serves an aesthetic purpose after all, one that Griffin did not have in mind and Columbia would have wanted contemporary listeners to forget.


Island Magic kicks off the LP, a good choice given the magic album title. Originally envisioned by William Alwyn in 1952 on the piano and serving as a prelude for a piece thought as too large for a short Exotica exodus, Ken Griffin’s take is a surprisingly faithful one. One instrument with keys is replaced by another one with keys, the piano is ostracized as the Hammond organ finds its place in the spotlight. And what a spacey anacrusis this version is! It is by no means good, I’m afraid, but its creepy carnivalesque pipe physiognomy would undoubtedly ennoble everyone’s ghostly attraction. Only the organ chords, a three-note pedal riverbed and a few swirling glitzy particles gyrate in this cotton candy chimera. Charles E. King’s Song Of The Islands is much improved, for it starts with aquatic guitar twangs which lead to Ken Griffin’s legato runlets of elasticized crystalline chords, with the undercurrent of upwards spiraling guitar globs and xylophone glints. The guitars provide a warmly analogue sense of realness in-between the balmy artificiality.


Charles E. King’s second tune King’s Serenade, co-written with Hal Aloma, features the same mélange of Ken Griffin’s organ bubbles and guitar accompaniments, but potentially enchants the Space-Age connoisseur with a vesiculating alloy of organ blebs whose rotor-esque glissando wafts through a slick dreamscape before the sugary erections return and boost the unhealthy sweetness to a disappointing maximum. The rendition of W. G. Beecher’s A Song Of Old Hawaii, however, offers what is probably the freshest synergy of transmuted Hapa Haole and Space-Age timbres, for the swinging guitar chords are moist and pristine, sweeping suavely in the center, with the syrupy organ chords progressing mercilessly towards a jejune state of pandemonium. A classical mixed bag, but acceptable. Griffin’s interpretation on Drifting And Dreaming by the song-writing quartet of Egbert Van Alstyne, Erwin Schmidt, Haven Gillespie and Loyal Curtis shuttles between the same poles of mauve-tinted silken strata and jinxed rhizomes of toxic schmaltz, with Maewa Kaihan’s Now is The Hour serving as the camouflaged Gothic final destination of side A; this is an organ arrangement with a good-spirited aura and genuinely interesting jitter protrusions. Galactic.


Side B starts with the appliance of a moiré filter: Hugh Williams’ and Jimmy Kennedy‘s Harbor Lights features serpentine guitar glints en masse, but Griffin’s organ cascades seem diffusely blurred, as if they reached the audience from afar. The last few seconds are the only ones where the grandiloquence of the original shimmers through when the pompousness of the organ grows and the warped guitar licks graft gallons of Hawaiian spirits onto the soundscape. Walter Blaufuss’ and Egbert Van Alstyne’s follow-up Golden Sands And Silvery Sea is a hybrid of distinctly ophidian organ structures and a more sophisticated guitar placenta in its second half, whereas Harry Owens’ classic Sweet Leilani succeeds for real with the dreamily sweeping afterglow of the sun-dappled steel guitar, as does the next classic Blue Hawaii by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger where Griffin cautiously underlines the sparkling scintillae via the pedal.


Hugh Williams’ Red Sails In The Sunset then is oddly arranged, for the vivacious and saturated colors of the title are nowhere to be found and in fact replaced by shadier but no less warmer chord sequences. The advantage is clear: Griffin’s take sounds serious, dedicated and gets rid of the intrinsic alkaline sweetness just this once. Korla Pandit’s interpretation as delivered on his album Hypnotique (1961) is still far better. The closer is the mandatory Aloha Oe from Queen Lydia Lili’uokalani’s feather. The main melody suffers from the chord atrophy and spectral sweetness, but is still pushed forward via dreamy guitar tercets. And so ends a less than optimally balanced Hammond organ-fueled ode to Hawaii.


No secrets, zero hidden layers, zilch particular flashes of genius: Ken Griffin’s Hawaiian Magic is a disappointing and largely avoidable Space-Age Hapa Haole Exotica hydra created for the messiest of all bachelor pads. The material has been interpreted thousands of times before and ever since, a fact the organist cannot be blamed for. However, since the wealth of renditions is a kaleidoscopic one, Griffin needs to offer something unique or particularly enchanting, but regularly fails to deliver. Even in those instances where the textures of the Hammond organ truly shine and gleam in cosmic colors such as in A Song Of Old Hawaii and Drifting And Dreaming, this state does not last overly long.


Even worse: who would listen to an album of exotic songs nowadays that only features a few good parts and otherwise suffers from over-the-top cavalcades of sweeter than sweet sugar hills? Guitarist Andy Nelson does his best to ameliorate the overblown alkaline soils, and the amount of mistakes or wrong decisions he makes is close to zero, but every languorous strum he delivers is, alas, to no avail. Fans of Korla Pandit might check out this ephemeral LP, but will probably defy it wholeheartedly. It is most likely not dark enough for their tastes. The best two takes of the album would still be the aforementioned A Song Of Old Hawaii due to the stringent surface sorcery and Red Sails In The Sunset when Griffin plays his signature instrument in less glaring colors. Hawaiian Magic is available on vinyl, a reissued CD version by Sony from 2005 and a download version. 


Exotica Review 292: Ken Griffin – Hawaiian Magic (1957). Originally published on Dec. 14, 2013 at