We recognize the passing of Tom Moffatt, a legend in local show business. He died on December 12, 2016 at the age of 85.
Above, you can find the first of two episodes featuring Moffatt on Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, in which he shares his life story. Transcripts and audio podcast files for both episodes are available below, as well.
These two programs will be rebroadcast on Sunday, January 8 at 2:00 and 2:30 pm.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox: Tom Moffatt
Once a showman, always a showman, right? Maybe not. As a kid growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Tom Moffatt wanted nothing to do with the big city, instead preferring the simple life on a farm. See how Hawaii’s hardest-working man in showbiz went from raising livestock to spinning platters, as he sits down with Leslie Wilcox on Long Story Short.
Part 1: The Making of a Showman
Original air date: Tues., Apr. 5, 2011
Tom Moffatt, The Making of a Showman Audio
Download: Tom Moffatt , The Making of a Showman Transcript
Part 2: A Life of Entertainment
Original air date: Tues., Apr. 19, 2011
Tom Moffatt, A Life of Entertainment Audio
Download: Tom Moffatt , A Life of Entertainment Transcript
Part 1: The Making of a Showman
Tom Moffatt in the morning.
Hear Elvis direct from his Army quarters in Germany. He’ll be interviewed on KPOI by Tom Moffatt.
From sunrise to sunset.
Modest new voice in music today.
He has a name that’s as well known locally as many of the acts that he’s presented to Hawaii, from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra, from Michael Jackson to Bruno Mars. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Mr. Tom Moffatt.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
If you grew up in the 60s, this is how you heard the latest and greatest music, a transistor radio. There were no music videos, no iTunes, it was just you and a disc jockey, the faceless voice spinning the hottest hits from artists like the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Paul Revere & the Raiders. In Hawaii, the radio station leading the way in rock and roll music was KPOI, and KPOI’s most popular deejay was Uncle Tom Moffatt. Now, you would think that a man who has such a passion for rock and roll grew up in the big city, L.A., Chicago, New York. But not Tom Moffatt.
Where did you begin life?
In Detroit, Michigan.
Well, what was it like?
Cold. [CHUCKLE] I didn’t like the city, and I had relatives who lived outside of Detroit, so in my eighth grade, my folks let me work for this cousin of ours who had a mink ranch in a little town called Waterloo, Michigan. So I spent my eighth grade in this little town, in a one-room schoolhouse.
How many kids?
Oh, it was from kindergarten to eighth grade. [CHUCKLE] It was full.
Now, what didn’t you like about the city?
I don’t know; I didn’t like the congestion. I liked the country. I just liked the country. I liked the feeling of being outdoors, and just that nice feeling of [INHALES] inhaling and [CHUCKLE].
What did you do at the mink ranch?
Fed the mink, cleaned up after ‘em.
And enjoyed it?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, and I had a pet pig, Herman. And we fed the mink horse meat and cereal. And there was always some of that left over, so I fed the pigs what was left over. And the pig became very healthy. He was pretty young, he weighed three hundred fifteen pounds when I took him to the county fair. And he won first place.
So then, we took him to the state fair, which was at Michigan State University. On the very same football field where they play football now, I showed my pig. He didn’t win, but. [CHUCKLE]
And so, did you go K through 12?
No, when I—
You started in the eighth grade?
—graduated, then I returned to Detroit to go to school. And again, I wasn’t too happy. I got a job washing dishes in a restaurant called Curly’s. And the people who owned it had a farm about forty miles outside of Detroit. And they took me out there one day, and I fell in love with it. And so they needed somebody to work on the farm, so I talked to my folks, and they let me go into high school working on the farm.
So you’d been away from eighth grade, and then went you went away again in high school.
Yeah. I spent one year at Detroit in high school there. I just wasn’t happy. So I went tenth, eleventh, twelfth grade and ended up at South Lyon High School.
And graduated from there?
Yes, I did.
And then, what?
Well, I played football and basketball there, and I got a scholarship in my senior year to play football for a very famous coach, who wasn’t a famous coach at the time. But his first coaching job, he’d graduated from the University of Michigan. And I got this scholarship offer.
What position did you play?
I played tackle. [CHUCKLE] I was a farm boy. [CHUCKLE] So I remember going to Bowling Green, Ohio and seeing his team play, and sitting on the bench with he and the players. And I really was excited about it. I have the correspondence from him, not my letters, where I kept writing and asking, If I get hurt in football, will my scholarship still be in effect? I couldn’t get a definite answer. So I decided to go to work for a while in a factory and earn enough money to go to college. By the way, the coach is George Allen.
George—I was gonna ask you.
Los Angeles Rams, Washington Redskins, Hall of Fame. [CHUCKLE]
And did you want to play for him? I mean, did he—
Did he evoke that leadership—
Oh, yeah; yeah. I liked him. But I was just—, what happens if I get hurt, and I don’t have a scholarship, and I don’t have any money? And I didn’t want to go to my folks for money, so I worked in a Dodge plant, and the Michigan Seamless Tube Company in my hometown of South Lyon. So I spent a year working there to save enough money to go to college.
It’s said that Hollywood actress Lana Turner was discovered at a drugstore on Sunset Boulevard. In Tom Moffatt’s life, the corner drugstore would provide that little catalyst which would take him away from the Dodge plant, and send him to a place he would come to call home.
One day, I’m in the corner drugstore in South Lyon, on my way to the tube company to work, and it was a steel mill. And I found this little book about colleges in the United States. The last page was University of Puerto Rico, and University of Hawaii. So I wanted to travel and go to school, and I got interested in University of Hawaii, and that’s how I ended up in Honolulu.
When you got here, was it what you expected?
Yeah; it was. It was more than I expected. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I could just feel the love of people and just the feeling of Hawaii when I got here.
So you didn’t have trouble breaking into local culture, or—
No, I kinda [CHUCKLE] fell into it. [CHUCKLE]
And knew you were gonna stay?
Well, I didn’t know. I didn’t know at the time if I knew I was gonna make this my home. But after I spent some time here this was it. So I went to school, and wanted to be an attorney.
Where did you live when you first got to the island?
Manoa Valley. Not far from here. [CHUCKLE] Not far from your studio.
Do you remember the street?
Yeah; Hillside Avenue.
Beautiful place to live.
Yeah, it was.
And you know, UH went fine for you? What were you majoring in?
Law; I wanted to be a lawyer. And in my first year, I had a speech teacher who said, You have a nice voice, you should get in the radio guild.
Now, was that the first time you’d been told you have a nice voice?
Well, in a farming town, they don’t [CHUCKLE]—
They don’t care how deep your voice is.
But I’d never been in a speech class before, either. So I joined the radio guild, and got interested in being a radio announcer. So the end of my first year, I auditioned for KGU, and didn’t make it as a junior announcer. So I went to work at Tripler Hospital, mopping floors. I mopped every stairway in Tripler Hospital.
[CHUCKLE] Why do you think you didn’t get the job as a freshman?
Well, it was pretty competitive. There were only, like, just a handful of radio stations there. KGU, KULA, KGMB; that was about it. And a couple of language stations.
So good experience, but off you went to mop the floors.
Yeah, so I went back to school. And I’d go home every night and read the newspaper aloud, and talk, and read stories. Nobody was around, I’d just read every night aloud. So anyway, come the following June, I went back to KGU and got a job. I really got into it. I became a staff announcer at KGU. This was before disc jockeys really.
Were you always reading, or did you make up what you were saying?
I would do a little bit of news. And you come in between network programs and get a station break, and maybe a thirty-second commercial. [CHUCKLE]
And you’re operating the equipment as you’re speaking too?
Yeah. It was on the third floor of the Advertiser Building. And the tower was on top of the building that was the antenna for the radio station. I did just about everything. We recreated baseball games. Joe “Rack ‘Em Up” Rose, and Carlos Rivas, and Frank Lenny were also in the same game. But I was Joe’s board operator. He’d be in the other room, and he’d get teletype reports of what was happening with the baseball game, New York Yankees in Boston, or whatever, and he’d recreate these games. And I had three turntables or four turntables. One was just a regular crowd, another was excited crowd.
One was boos, and the other was a 7-Up vendor. Get your 7-Up.
‘Cause that was one of the sponsors. So you’d hear this guy in the stands selling 7-Up. [CHUCKLE]
And who was making the crack of the bat?
Joe would do that.
And he would do that live?
He had one of those pieces of wood that drummers use sometimes. And he’d hit that with a pencil. [CHUCKLE]
Wow. Those were the days when we didn’t get those games piped in.
Oh, no. They were all delayed, and it was just recreated. The only way you could get it here was shortwave, and that was kind of expensive, I guess, or it wasn’t that clear. So they all recreated these games. [CHUCKLE]
And nowadays, people are used to consolidated radio stations with the same voice, recorded on channels throughout the nation. But in those days, it was all one of a kind and local.
It was quite glamorous, too. I remember being nervous the first time the microphone opened, and I had to say, This is KGU in Honolulu [CHUCKLE], high atop the Advertiser Building. Things like that.
Did you attract fans?
Not then. A little bit, maybe. People were interested, enamored with radio announcers, even then, although we didn’t say that much sometimes. [CHUCKLE]
News, sports recreations, a little bit of music. That was radio back in the 50s. Tom Moffatt was just beginning to see how the power of radio could influence the tiny community that was Hawaii.
Now, at KGU, I fell in love with being a commercial announcer. So when school started in the fall, I decided I was learning more at KGU than I was at the University of Hawaii, so I stayed on as a radio announcer. And I remember coming home, and remember meeting Ella Fitzgerald at KGU. And we had some tickets for her concert that night at McKinley High School auditorium. And I went home to change. And in the letterbox was a draft notice. You will report to … and so that was the end of my radio career at KGU. So I remember learning it that night, but I went to the concert and saw Ella Fitzgerald at McKinley High School. [CHUCKLE]
Did she pack it?
Oh, yeah. Oh, yes. [CHUCKLE]
McKinley High School?
M-hm. And many years later, I would present her in concert. [CHUCKLE]
So where did you go to report for the draft? Where did you serve?
I reported here, and I reported to Schofield for sixteen weeks of basic training. This was during the Korean War, and we were all being shipped off to Korea. So just when we concluded our basic training, this tough old sergeant called me in and said, Look, he said, you don’t want to go off to this war. [CHUCKLE] He just kinda said, Hey, you got a talent, and they need a radio announcer at Armed Forces Radio at Tripler Hospital. I’ll lend you my car. He gave me the keys, and I drove to Tripler Hospital. And since I’d had some training in commercial radio, they grabbed me up right away. So I spent the next two years defending my country at Tripler Hospital. [CHUCKLE]
What were you voicing?
They ran pretty much the same things we ran at KGU. The big transcriptions, the Jack Benny Show, the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show, Suspense, Dragnet, Escape, all these shows. They were like half-hour shows. And you put a big fifteen-minute disc on, and go from that to the next one. Then come in between, and give a station break.
And that went only to the military population?
Yes, in Tripler Hospital. They called it the Bedside Network.
Only in Tripler?
And that was your draft service?
Uh-huh, that was it.
The place where you’d been mopping floors previously.
Wow. And did you do—
That was fun.
Did you do that throughout your time in the service?
Yes, I stayed there for the rest of my Army career. And then I went back to KGU. And I started at KIKI also, so I was working at three radio stations, really. I’d do my, you know, Army duty at Tripler and worked my eight hours, and then I’d work in the other stations. So I began my disc jockey career, really, at KIKI. It was kind of fun. [CHUCKLE]
Did you ever hook up with any of the guys you trained with at Schofield?
Yes. Unfortunately, I had a few days off before I had to report to Tripler Hospital. And when I did report, one of the guys was coming down on a gurney. He’d gone to Korea and got shot, and returned to the hospital already. And quite a few of them came back injured, to Tripler Hospital. At the time, a lot of the entertainers who came to Hawaii on vacation, Jack Benny and George Burns came up one time, and I interviewed them on the radio, and then they toured the different areas of Tripler Hospital, visiting with patients. Another time, Louis Armstrong came up and performed at the Post Theater. So I had the pleasure of introducing him on stage. And one of my favorite stories, I’m on stage, kinda nervous, because this is Louis Armstrong. And the place is packed, and the band is on stage and where’s Mr. Armstrong? I’m looking around, and so I went out in the parking lot. There he is. The parking lot is deserted, ‘cause everybody’s inside. And he’s with his signature handkerchief and trumpet … rehearsing, blowing his horn. Anyway, the show got underway. It was great. [CHUCKLE] A special moment, seeing him out there he had this white handkerchief that he always used, playing the trumpet. And there he was, out in the parking lot, tuning up.
Excuse me. [CHUCKLE]
And so, a career was born. Tom Moffatt was spinning stacks of wax, and like any good disc jockey, he was taking the musical temperature of his local listeners, giving them what they wanted. And what they wanted was a style of music that would revolutionize radio, and give Tom his identity.
So I started this jazz show on KIKI. But I would play other things too, like you know, Nat Cole, and things like that, and Frank Sinatra. All of a sudden, I started listening to this music, and getting requests for a guy with a funny name. Elvis Presley. And I started playing his music. And that’s where it exploded. All of a sudden, every kid on the island was listening, and I was the only one playing in the islands, really, I was the only one playing rock and roll. So yeah, I used to get like fifty-some letters a day [CHUCKLE] requesting. And I started doing a show from a drive-in, where Ward Warehouse is now, right by the corner of Ward and Ala Moana Boulevard. Right across from Fisherman’s Wharf.
It was a drive-in restaurant, not drive-in movie, right?
No, it was a drive-in restaurant called the White Top Drive-In. It became kind of the social center of Honolulu, and I was there every night from nine o’clock ‘til midnight, I think, or one o’clock.
Could people see you doing the show?
Oh, yeah. There was a fellow had a show called The Fishbowl Show. His name was Don Chamberlain. Then he left town, and this empty thing was sitting there, and they could move it around. So I turned it into Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A listener once wrote and said, Uncle Tom, or something like that. I got this moniker, Uncle Tom, and they started addressing letters to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. So I called the show Uncle Tom’s Cabin. So that’s what I called this former Fishbowl.
Then you got to perform with more than your voice. You had audiences.
Oh, yeah; yeah. And they would come, and the carhops would bring dedications from different cars.
And you were the first to play rock and roll music on radio in Hawaii?
It was fun. [CHUCKLE] It was exciting.
That must have just swept, I mean, so pretty soon, you were doing a rock and roll show?
Oh, yeah. I was into it. The jazz was forgotten. [CHUCKLE] But I still hung out with the musicians, and we used to go to jam sessions. And a good friend of ours was Joe Castro, great piano player. And his girlfriend was Doris Duke. So a couple of times, we went up to Doris Duke’s home, and we’d jam all night. And I was like still the disc jockey buddy of these guys, and so we’d hang out and go to places like that. One night, we jammed all night, and she cooked breakfast for us the next morning. So we could boast that breakfast was cooked for us by Doris Duke. [CHUCKLE]
When you listen to the radio today, you’ll find that most stations change their format on a regular basis. They’re always searching for that sound, or personality that’s going to drive an audience to their wavelength. With rock and roll music in the 60s, there was an opportunity to grab hold of the music, the artists, the disc jockeys, and dominate the local airwaves. All it took was a visionary.
I was at KIKI, and Henry J. Kaiser, a great visionary, built the Hawaiian Village Hotel. And he wanted to have a radio station, I guess, and he saw what was happening with radio and felt he could do better. And so he built a radio station on the top floor of the Hawaiian Village Hotel. And he got J. Aku Head Pupule to be the manager, and do his morning show. Well, Aku hated rock. So, Mr. Kaiser felt that this young music should be played on his radio station, so he himself called some principals of schools to see who the kids were listening to. Well, of course, I won, ‘cause I was the only one playing rock and roll. So I got hired by Henry J. Kaiser to do—
Did he call you himself?
It went through Ron Jacobs, who was working for him as a good music disc jockey with Aku. And Ron called me and said, Mr. Kaiser wants to hire you. So that’s how it came together, and I met Mr. Kaiser, and it was very exciting. [CHUCKLE]
And even though he didn’t like the kind of music you’d be playing, he knew—
Mr. Kaiser, he was pretty open. It was Aku.
Even to when he died, up to the—Aku was like one of the top disc jockeys in the world. He was, at one time, the highest paid disc jockey performing in Honolulu, and the whole world. He even boasted, just before he died, that he never played a Beatles record. [CHUCKLE]
And Mr. Kaiser didn’t say, Aku, you work for me, you’re gonna play rock and roll?
No, he didn’t force Aku to play rock and roll. But he said, You should have a young guy playing young music at night. So Aku went along with it.
So you had a definite franchise there.
Oh, yeah. And so, Ron was in the afternoon, and he started playing rock and roll. And then I was doing nine to midnight. And I’d do a mid-morning show also. So I was doing nine to noon, and nine to midnight.
So a pattern emerges. You work a lot. I mean, you worked multiple shifts.
Yeah. So that was my pattern, I worked two shifts. And Ron would be in the afternoon, and he was the bad guy, I was the good guy.
How did that play out?
It played out great. The roller derby was very big here in the 50s.
Oh, I remember. [CHUCKLE]
So we talked about doing a grudge match with Jacobs the bad guy, and myself the good guy. So we picked a night. It was slow at the Civic Auditorium, where the average crowd was twelve hundred people. So we worked a deal out with Mr. Ralph Yempuku, who ran the Civic, that we would get a piece of every ticket over twelve hundred. Well, we started talking this thing up, and that night, thirty-six hundred people showed up. It was packed. [CHUCKLE]
And there’s a hat story?
Yeah. This was in 1956, for the premier of “Love Me Tender” at the Waikiki Theater. Well, we set it up so I would have a teen premier on a Saturday afternoon, before it opened for the general public, just for kids. It was a Saturday morning, really, at the Waikiki Theater. And I got the hat, the actual hat that Elvis wore in “Love Me Tender”. But the kids had never seen Elvis on the screen before. And so, we had this contest. I got fifty-three thousand letters … trying to win the hat.
Yeah. It was wild. It was the first time I ever heard girls scream in a theater. At a movie. That was at the Waikiki Theater.
So that was the beginning of Elvis in Hawaii.
I think so.
Just on screen.
And then …
Well, what happened, I think, was that the following year, Elvis had an open time period, and I think Colonel Parker remembered this contest and all the fan mail that kids wrote from Hawaii. I would give Elvis’ address out, and talk about Elvis, and play his records. And I think Colonel Parker remembered that. And so to fill that one date that they needed, they decided to come to Hawaii. And that’s why Elvis came to Hawaii in November of 1957.
What was that like?
Oh, that was something.
Was that one of the most memorable experiences you’ve had?
Yes; in music. And just about one of the most memorable experiences, just introducing Elvis on stage, and watch what happened. And watch him on stage, with really no visual support that performers have today. They moved the boxing ring that they used at the old stadium, and that was his stage.
This is the old Honolulu Stadium?
Yes,. The one where King and Isenberg, there’s Stadium Park there now. But I introduced him on his first concert. And here’s the stage, it’s a boxing ring. They’d taken the poles off, but they still had the overhead lights. That was his lighting. [CHUCKLE] The overhead lights, and that was it. And just his magnetism held that audience. Of course, he’s a great performer, great singer.
Who was backing him up?
His regular guys. The Nashville guys that recorded with him, they came here and backed him up.
What did you say in introducing him?
Oh, I don’t know, something. The man, you’ve come here to see him. And you could just feel the excitement. And I went to Colonel Parker. He said, Go up and introduce him. I said, Well, where is Elvis? He said, Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it, just go up and introduce Elvis. Oh, there was a limousine parked over by the dressing room, not the dressing room, the dugout.
So you hadn’t met him at the time you were introducing him?
Yes, I had. I’ll tell you that story. [CHUCKLE] That’s another one. [CHUCKLE] But anyway, I introduced him. Elvis Presley. The place went crazy. It was so exciting.
Really high decibels?
Yeah. And there he was, just a microphone, and a simple sound system. But he held that audience. And the most unforgettable moment that I’ve ever experienced with a performer is watching him do his encore. He did “Hound Dog”. Rock and roll, yeah? And he came back. And he got down on his knees on the stage, and did a slow version of “You Ain’t Nothing”—real slow. And then he jumped off the stage on his knees, and down on the ground, doing “Hound Dog”, slow. It was something. [CHUCKLE]
And when had you met him before that?
Well, the day before, Ron Jacobs and I, Ron figured this one out. Do something different. And we’d met the Colonel, and we’d kinda hinted there might be something like this in the works. And Don Tyler was of our guys at KPOI, and we dressed him up to look like Elvis. Ron had this convertible, a Ford convertible, hardtop convertible, top down, and got a fellow that looked like Colonel Parker, and Ron driving. And we had it all planned. I’m on the radio. From the moment Elvis arrived, I’m on the radio, playing nothing but Elvis records. And I did this all morning, into the afternoon. So I kinda planned it. We understand that Elvis is heading for Kailua. So people would be out on the streets waiting, looking for Elvis, and drive down the streets, and people are screaming, and we did this in different neighborhoods.
Did you get any fallout from it?
Well, we got back to the studio. By then, I had played Elvis for six straight hours, at least. It was mid-afternoon, and we were patting ourselves on the back. And we get the message from our news guy that, Colonel Parker wants to see you guys downstairs, immediately.
Oh. And we looked at each other; we wanted to escape. So we went downstairs, and there’s guards at the elevator. We went down one floor. And they took us into Colonel Parker’s suite. Colonel said, We didn’t know what to expect. Colonel said, Boys, that was a pretty good promotion you did. Oh, my gosh. Oh, and here’s Elvis. In walked Elvis. And that’s the first time I’d met Elvis. [CHUCKLE]
And he’d heard all about it?
I don’t know how much Elvis had heard about it, but Colonel said, These boys did a nice promotion today, and I’ve asked them to introduce you tomorrow at the stadium. So Mr. Moffatt’s gonna introduce you in your first show, and Mr. Jacobs in the evening show. [CHUCKLE]
Wow. So you scored on that.
Oh, wow. That was a relief. [CHUCKLE] And since then, we became such good friends with the Colonel. And so subsequently, whenever Elvis came here, I was the first guy with the microphone to talk to him. And sometimes, the only one.
For a young man who grew up working on a farm in Michigan, these were heady times. Tom Moffatt was a popular disc jockey on a radio station that was dominating the airwaves. He was living in Paradise, surrounded by teenagers who hungered for the culture and the music of rock and roll. The next time we talk with Tom Moffatt, we’ll see how he and the Poi Boys of KPOI Radio grabbed the local audience by giving them everything they wanted, and how Tom made a career out of feeding that hunger with more than just the sound coming out of a transistor radio. For PBS Hawaii, and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.
You had a pretty good voice too, as far as singing.
Tell us about making a record yourself.
This local record company owner, Bob Bertram, who went on to record Robin Luke’s “Susie Darlin’”, which became the first top ten rock and roll hit to make it outside of Hawaii all over the country, he came to me and said, Look, these guys can make records, why don’t you? So we picked “Beyond the Reef”, which was the Alfred Apaka hit song, which was very popular back in the 50s. And Mr. Bertram said, Look, you know, to push this record, you’ve gotta sing it when you emcee shows. Now, Alfred Apaka was the singing star of Henry J. Kaiser’s Tapa Room at the Hawaiian Village Hotel. So I was all set to sing it that night, I’d rehearsed it that afternoon with the band. So I came out, the emcee of the show, and I looked down at the front row, there’s Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. Kaiser, and Alfred Apaka, sitting in the front row. I didn’t sing it that night. [CHUCKLE]
Part 2: A Life of Entertainment
If Michael calls, I just took the update out and everything. Can you come up real fast? I just want the one that says, March 18th. Only rock and roll. I’ll copy you on what I send him, okay? Thanks.
His life is on the walls and shelves of his office, celebrities who are close friends, acts he’s presented to Hawaii, awards and memorabilia of a life immersed in entertainment. Coming up on Long Story Short, disc jockey, promoter, entertainer, Tom Moffatt.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha. I’m Leslie Wilcox. His career has spanned Elvis Presley in the 50s, the Hawaiian music renaissance feature Cecilio & Kapono, Kalapana, and Country Comfort in the 70s, all the way to Bruno Mars today. But in the 60s, Tom Moffatt was one of the Poi Boys, a team of disc jockeys taking Hawaii by storm. They pulled off ridiculous, just wacky promotional stunts, and played the latest rock and roll hits from the continent.
The transgression went from KIKI to Mr. Kaiser at KHVH, and then to KPOA, where I hosted the Big 30 Review, which was a major radio show at the time. And Ron went with me there, and then we started KPOI. And that was when we really had a free hand in radio, and we became the first rock and roll radio station to broadcast twenty-four hours a day, with the Poi Boys.
How many Poi Boys were there?
Oh, five or six. And it rotated. But there was Ron Jacobs, and myself, and Tom Rounds and Don Tyler was a Poi Boy, and Sam Sanford was a Poi Boy, Bob the Beard Lowrie.
Jack Kellner was, as well.
Jack Kellner was, Dave—
—Donnelly was, Don Robbs. Oh, yeah; yeah. [CHUCKLE]
Those were great days of radio, when you didn’t have corporate saying, You have to sound like the other stations.
No, we could do whatever we wanted. On the spur of the moment, we’d do crazy things. People would think they were planned, but they weren’t.
What are some of the things you did? What do you remember most fondly? What was the biggest stroke …
Well, the biggest—
—thing that we did—this was planned. But Tom Rounds would stay awake for a week at the Wigwam store on Dillingham Boulevard, right by where Meadow Gold is. And he stayed awake for a week. Another time that I did—[CHUCKLE] … they promised me a week in Las Vegas, so I would do this hang-a-thon from a car high above a used car lot on Nimitz Highway.
Yeah. So I would broadcast from a car … five or six stories up, in this car, for I don’t know how long. And this crane took me up. And we had a whole drama unfolding before it, but anyway, Jacobs was supposed to do it, and I came in on my white horse and rescued the event, and I will go up and stay when Jacobs chickened out. It was all planned. But I went up—this was not planned. I got up in this car, and I was looking for a week in Vegas, and signing meals. And while I was up there, I could pick meals, and they would send meals up to me from any restaurant in town. It was all set, and I was gonna do this hang-a-thon. Well, the State Safety Commissioner got involved, and threatened to pull the license on the crane company, unless they lowered the car. So I remember being up there, looking at all these mice running around, people, ‘cause I was way up there. [CHUCKLE] And all of a sudden, I’m coming down. That’s what happened. So I didn’t get the trip to Vegas. [CHUCKLE]
That one didn’t work.
And your management really gave you carte blanche?
Oh, they did; yeah. Yeah. Sometimes, they didn’t quite understand it, but they went along with it.
And the audience was just glued for the next move.
They never knew what—
—was gonna happen. That was the charm about that radio station, is that people would tune in, and any time of the day or night, something bizarre could happen.
But the Poi Boys weren’t just hanging from cranes and staying awake for a week. They were the ears of Hawaii, always on the lookout for the latest hits from the continent, and bringing those sounds to the local airwaves.
I remember the waiting every weekend … was it once a year that you did the Song of the Year, and you did a countdown? And I always waited to find out what was the number one—
Oh, that was—
—Labor Day Weekend. We’d do a Marathon of Hits Countdown. And we had listeners starting in the summer sending in their votes. And we’d send something to some of the listeners and get them to send in their top five favorites. Then we’d tabulate them all, and play off the top three hundred hits of all time, starting Labor Day weekend, and ending up on Monday night. It was pretty wild. And people tuned in, talk about it, what’s gonna be number one.
Yeah, it’s sort of … I mean, with the internet and all the engagement, I mean, it was like that without the internet then. People were—
—back and forth, and talking, and—
—engaging all the time.
The phone was a great communicator for us. You could tell pretty much if a record was gonna happen. I answered the phone all the time. And if somebody would take the time to call for a record, you’d take another listen to it, or play it again, or …
And you’d decide—
It’s a great barometer.
—what to play, or the record companies told you what to—
The records companies didn’t. They would bring us the records, but we had a music department, and usually Tom Rounds, Jacobs, and I would sit in, and we’d listen to the records, and see what was happening nationally with them. And if it wasn’t happening nationally, if it had a local sound, and we had a certain playlist that we played, but the jocks didn’t have to follow a certain list. And we had a whole spindle full of records that were older records that we had the choice of playing that we’d play at a certain time. But we had this whole current playlist that we could play. And sometimes, if a record was hot, I’d play the same record two or three times in a show. It was like that hot. And you could do that.
You had such a large audience.
And then, you had influence over the music to be played. So—
Oh, yeah. Yeah.
A lot of records broke here, before they broke on the mainland.
Is that because you guys noticed that this is really resonating?
Records took note of Hawaii, because there was no outside influence into our marketplace. Like Los Angeles or any major market had smaller cities in their area that might influence record sales. But we had none here. We were it. There was nobody outside of our perimeter. [CHUCKLE]
So great lab for—
Yeah, yeah. So the record companies watched what was happening with our radio station, and watched what we were playing.
How long did the Poi Boy era last?
Well, we started in 1959. And I left KPOI. I went from disc jockey to music director, to program director, to GM vice president. It kinda lasted all the way through, but the heyday was in the 60s, when the Moose, Dave Donnelly, and Kellner, and Jacobs, and Rounds, and all of us were together having fun and … those were the times.
Tom Moffatt’s love for music and entertainment soon opened other doors for the affable deejay with the magical voice. He began working with local promoters, producing live shows featuring some of the most popular acts of his time, including our own homegrown talent.
During the time that I was at KIKI, Mr. Ralph Yempuku and Earl Finch, who had promoted stadium shows, state fair, and things like that, called me into their office and said, Look, we believe this new music is gonna happen, and you seem to know it better than anyone. We’ll bring you in as a partner. And if the show makes money, you’ll make money; if the show doesn’t make money, it loses money, you won’t lose anything. So it was the perfect opportunity for me. So I started working with Mr. Finch and Mr. Yempuku, and we put on thirty-some different shows at the Civic Auditorium, from Paul Anka, to Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, you name it, anybody who was a young rock and roll singer, Eddie Cochran. Many of the people who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came here for the Show of Stars.
What did you learn from the two older gentlemen?
Be conservative, be cautious, be careful, and learn how to sell your product. I learned that from them.
Be cautious with money, or with risk?
Yeah, with risk. Yeah. It’s very easy to get in over your head in that business, or this business.
You got to know many of the local entertainers, as well as these big national stars.
Who were some of the people that made a big impression on you when you were in radio, in those days?
Well, Alfred, of course, did. Sterling Mossman, at the Barefoot Bar, at Queen’s Surf. Let’s see. So, The Alii’s, Don Ho, of course. Don Ho came along … at the latter days of KPOI. Dick Jensen. We recorded Dick Jensen as Lance Curtis.
We thought he should have more of a Hollywood sounding name. [CHUCKLE] So we recorded him. I think it was at the KPOI studios. And we recorded quite a few artists here, local artists, that we put out as forty-five records.
And that was sort of a natural outgrowth of what you were doing as part of your radio job.
Yeah; yeah. Yeah.
Or did you do it on the side? Was it part of the radio—
No, it was on the—
But it was because you knew the people, and you knew the biz.
Yeah. And we’d play the records at KPOI, and the bands would come and play for us at different promotions. It kind of went hand-in-hand. And we did this show, they’d sing at the Funny Farm over in the American Chinese Clubhouse every Friday night. And one summer, a restaurant had folded in Waikiki, and was available, and so we opened a teenaged nightclub called Fat City. It was the hottest thing of the summer. Just served soft drinks. There was always a line up right on Kalakaua, where the Hyatt is now. [CHUCKLE]
And that was just started by your gang?
Yeah; yeah. We started that. And we started a company called Arena Associates to promote shows at what would become the Blaisdell Arena, then the Honolulu International Center Arena. I remember we used seed money from the Funny Farm and Fat City. I remember this scrapbook came out on the Beatles. And I put a station logo on it, and offered it on the air for sale for, what, fifty—I forget what it was. And we sold those, and made a profit on that. And all that money, we put together to promote the first show at the Blaisdell Arena, the HIC Arena.
Yeah. Honolulu International Center. And that was April 10, 1964. That was the first show. And we brought in ten acts out of a big show that was performing in San Francisco.
Do you remember who they were?
Paul Revere and the Raiders, Ray Peterson … Teddy Randazzo. Chuck Berry was supposed to come in, but he had a incident where he was on parole. And he was all set to come in, and then his parole officer wouldn’t let him out of the continental United States. So I called Teddy Randazzo in New York, who was in a recording session, and I said, Hey, we need some help, can you make it? So he dropped everything and came over, and took Chuck Berry’s place. Chuck Berry was huge, but Teddy was huge also. Jan and Dean, and people like that.
That was a big start.
Yeah, it was. It was a great show. And we sold tickets for next to nothing, and we did two shows in one day. I think tickets were ninety cents, for ten acts.
And for many decades since, Tom Moffatt has brought heavy hitters from the entertainment world to Hawaii, allowing us to enjoy the likes of Frank Sinatra, The Eagles, Michael and Janet Jackson, the Rolling Stones, and Sir Elton John. If a big act was playing Hawaii, they were probably here because of Tom Moffatt Productions. But if you think that the life of a concert promoter is all glamour and celebrity, you’d be mistaken.
Throughout your career, you’ve been the good guy.
You’re the one that doesn’t get judgments against him for promotion, and you have contract handshakes.
M-hm; yeah. I’ve done a lot of shows just by a handshake.
What is your life like the week before a big concert? What is it like to be in the office with you?
Well, it’s last minute changes in arrival times, and rehearsals, and sound checks and food demands.
That’s something I’d love to hear about, food demands.
Is it true that some of these over the top requests are just kind of crazy?
They are. They are. It’s more expensive now. [CHUCKLE] The first time I brought the Rolling Stones in, we had a drinking fountain back stage. That was it. That was it. It just wasn’t thought of. The performers came in, and did their show, and left.
Well, now, it’s—whew. You’ve got breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And dressing rooms full of goodies, and …
And they’re very specific about vegan this, and certain brands, and—
Oh, yeah. And you get a vegetarian, and you got that whole thing going. They want fish in one day, chicken on another day, meat on another day. It’s all specified in the riders. And the riders are getting thicker and thicker. [CHUCKLE]
What else has changed about bringing acts in?
The technical has gotten, like, wow. [CHUCKLE] I refer to the Stones. The first time they came in, we used what they called stage lights that rolled on. This is from the old vaudeville days, and they were a bank of lights that you rolled on and off the stage. And we had overhead spotlights in the Blaisdell. Those were there. But that’s what the Rolling Stones used the first time, were these roll-on stage lights, and spotlights overhead.
How was Mick Jagger to work with?
Great; they were great. This was the last date of their US tour, and they came here, and they were looking forward to it. We put ‘em at the Kahala, and they were very happy and easy to work with. Unfortunately, they had in their rider where you had to hire fifty uniformed city policemen. And wherever they did this, even with the policemen, kids would mob the stage. Well, here, our young people respected authority, at least around the stage. They made noise, but they sat in their seats. And the Stones weren’t used to this. And they did a twenty-seven-minute show, because they didn’t know what to do between songs. Where normally, it would be two or three minutes of pandemonium with kids rushing the stage, it didn’t happen here. [CHUCKLE]
That’s amazing. And that’s ended now. People do storm the stage.
Can you imagine a twenty-seven-minute concert now, with a major act? [CHUCKLE] But we didn’t get one complaint. And the reviewer in the Star Bulletin mentioned twenty-seven minutes. And I still have a tape of their show. I have a tape of the show, and I timed it; it’s twenty-seven minutes. [CHUCKLE]
So, did you have to rush up to conclude the show, not really ready for that?
No, no. No, I remember Mick Jagger saying, Wonderful time here, and this may be our last concert, ever. [CHUCKLE] Ever; and the drum roll goes [CHUCKLE] when he said that. [CHUCKLE] Oh, it was funny.
Speaking of drama.
Yeah, it was. It was hilarious. But not one complaint. The kids just screamed all the way through. The Rolling Stones were on stage, and that’s all they wanted.
If you were to ask Tom Moffatt to name the favorite chapter of his career, he might mention the musical renaissance of the 1970s. It was a time when local fans stood in long lines outside the Top of Da Shop—remember how small the room was when you finally got in there? Territorial Tavern, or even the Monarch Room at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
Who were the local artists that you most enjoyed working with, and had the most success with?
Well, the Royal Drifters were one of the first local groups. Dick Jensen, Robin Luke, Ronny Diamond; they were all big singers in the 50s and the early 60s. And we used them as often as possible on The Show of Stars at the Civic Auditorium, and whenever we could at the new arena. I remember the first time that the Rolling Stones came to town we put Dick Jensen on as the opening. Lance Curtis as the opening group, opening performer.
And he danced like Michael Jackson. This was before Michael Jackson. He could dance.
Didn’t you record Keola and Kapono Beamer in Honolulu City Lights?
Yes, I did. I had just left radio. I’d finally decided that I’d gone through a couple of owners at KPOI, and a third one was coming in, and I decided it was time to take hiatus from radio. So I started my own record company. And in the door, walked Kapono Beamer one day, and said that they weren’t happy with wherever they were in recording, and so I got the two of them in, and talked to them about it. And I said, Why don’t you guys go home and write, and let’s do a record together, an album. So I gave them some seed money to go out and write. And Keola called me and said, I think I’ve got a song. He was living up at Alewa Heights. I’ll never forget it. And I went up to Alewa Heights to hear this song, just when it was getting dusk, and that time of the evening when it was getting dark, and the lights were coming on. And he played for me Honolulu City Lights. And I knew we had something. So that was my first recording endeavor, really, on my own. And we came out with Honolulu City Lights, got Teddy Randazzo to help with the arrangements.
And for decades, I believe that was the highest selling local album of all time. Is it still?
Oh, I don’t know, with Iz around. [CHUCKLE]
And I think Kealii Reichel might have had a—
Oh, yes, yes.
A really big seller.
But not that long ago, a few years back, I think it was the Star-Bulletin and the Advertiser, and Honolulu Magazine came out with a list of the best albums. Not best selling, just the best albums, Hawaii albums of all time. And number one was Honolulu City Lights. That was a thrill. It’s still my favorite. [CHUCKLE] I still love that song.
Me too. Actually, that came out when I was seeing a lot of friends off to college at the airport.
And it was always playing in the airport then, and they were always crying. And those were the days where there was no security.
You went to the gate to see people off.
You could go to the gate with lei’s. Yeah.
And local style, you didn’t bring just lei’s, you brought bento’s and food, and everybody had luau’s. And that song was just playing—
—almost continuously. And if it wasn’t, somebody was asking that it be played. Yeah. So that’s such a cultural memory in Hawaii. That was your first, ever, recorded song.
Yes. Well, I’d done some singles and so forth. Once, I put out an album, a trumpet album, but that was with other people involved. But this was the first one I did on my own, was Honolulu City Lights. At the same time, I had a girl that worked for me just as I was leaving KPOI. And she said, You gotta go out and see this group in Aina Haina.
No? Okay; who?
Playing at the old—
At The Sty.
—M’s Ranch House? Oh, The Sty.
No, this was at The Sty. It wasn’t Aina Haina, it was beyond Aina Haina, at The Sty.
Niu; that’s right.
Yeah. And I heard these guys, and I went out and saw what was happening with the audience, and what they had going for them. And so I finished off an album that—this was just before Honolulu City Lights, that my partner Irv Bninski [PHONETIC] had started. And I finished off the album, and we put it out together. Then after that, I left out on my own. But Country Comfort was one of my favorite albums. I also did an album by The Surfers at that time called Shells, which I still think is one of the best Hawaiian albums ever produced.
Did you pretty much have your pick of people wanting to make records?
Yes. Yeah, there was a lot of talent around.
Those are some—
There was a lot of ‘em coming up.
And The Alii’s, we recorded The Alii’s and presented them. And I opened the showroom at the Outrigger Hotel in 1968.
All of these enterprises, these artistic enterprises, and creative enterprises … to really be stable, and to make a go of them, you have to be good at money, you have to be good at restraint, and you have to be good a planning. Did you have that all along? Or did you have to learn that the hard way?
I’m still learning. [CHUCKLE] Still learning. But I’ve got good accountants around me. Yeah.
And you’re not by nature prone to take unreasonable risk.
No. We put quite a bit of money into some of the recording projects, but I believed in them, and it turned out okay. Opening the Outrigger main showroom was kind of a gamble. The room that was sitting there was a convention room that they never used. And Tommy Sands had come to Hawaii, and was looking for a place to work, and so we opened that showroom. And it’s been going ever since. After Tommy, then I kinda drifted off, but … and another time, when the Beamers got going with Honolulu City Lights, there was another room that was sitting empty, which we opened as the Reef Showroom at the Reef Hotel. The Ocean Showroom at the Reef Hotel, that’s what we called it. I put the Beamers in there. That was kind of a gamble at the time, but I felt, you know, this record was happening. So we opened the showroom with Keola and Kapono Beamer, and Andy Bumatai as the opening comedian. It was very successful.
With Tom Moffatt’s reputation and success, you might think that his son would be eager to learn the business.
You have one son.
Who’s not a promoter.
No. No, he’s a—
Because he saw the stress involved.
[CHUCKLE] Yes, I think so.
What does he do?
He’s in landscaping in Hilo. He lives in Hilo. He likes the feeling of Hilo.
So he’s kinda like his dad, in liking the country?
Uh-huh. But when Dad comes over with a show, I put him to work. When he graduated, I promised to take—he’s a surfer, take him to Surfer’s Paradise in Australia. So while there, I took him to Sydney and met a good friend of mine, Gary Van Egmond, who was promoting a concert at the time, several of them with the same artist. I can’t mention the artist, because he’s a good friend of mine now, and he’s doing fantastic now. But at that particular time, he wasn’t selling tickets. And I went to see him, and introduced my son to him, and he was getting these calls from different box areas, and what the ticket sales were in different areas of Australia. He had a couple dates in New Zealand with the same artist. And his face was getting whiter and whiter, because they weren’t selling. And I think my son watched this, and decided this is not the business he wanted to be in. [CHUCKLE]
Yeah. Watching you do it, it must have looked kinda easy.
Yeah; yeah. Didn’t see the stress sometimes you feel in an office when you’re getting box office reports.
Was there a time you considered getting out, because maybe the risk was too high, or you know, the cost was too high in some way?
No, I’ve never felt that way. I always have been very optimistic about this business, that people want to be entertained, they want to see live concerts, they want to go out and be there, and experience that music firsthand.
Would you have done anything another way along the way?
Well, I think I was making big money in working in an automobile factory first, in Detroit, and if they hadn’t gone on strike, I might still be there. [CHUCKLE] ‘Cause I was making good money.
But then, I saw—
—Detroit was to be a music center, too.
Oh, yeah. When I was going to work in the Dodge factory at Hamtramck, I took the bus down Grand Boulevard, in Detroit, and went past, every day, coming and going, what would soon be the site of Motown. [CHUCKLE]
Wow. So it could have worked out, if you’d stayed. Except, you would have been a lot colder.
[CHUCKLE] But if they hadn’t gone on strike everybody was making great money, but they went on strike at Dodge, and I said, Wow, this isn’t the life for me.
Do you see yourself retiring one day?
I can’t see it, really. I enjoy what I do. I don’t feel like it’s going to work. I think if it gets to the point where I’m like, going to work, and having to do it, I may think about that. I love music, I love the people involved in it, and I just love to see a happy audience and a happy performer.
In Tom Moffatt’s career, spanning more than five decades, he’s been a part of our lives, first, as a radio deejay, then as a promoter. It’s likely that nearly everyone in Hawaii has either seen a Tom Moffatt production, or heard about the one that they missed. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.
When the Hawaiian renaissance in music came around with groups like Olomana, Country Comfort, Kalapana, and of course, Cecilio & Kapono, I got involved with all of them. Especially Cecilio & Kapono at the beginning. I got a call from their manager, Bill Thompson, and they were rehearsing their firsts Columbia album in Colorado. They were skiing and rehearsing, and performing. So I flew over to see them, and they had some of the top sidemen from Hollywood doing the album with them. So I got all excited, and when they came back to Honolulu, I put them in a concert at the Waikiki Shell. We did, I think, about three to four thousand people. But when the album came out shortly thereafter, they kind of introduced songs from the album that night and sang them live, but when the album came out, wow, everything happened.