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Sonny Chillingworth: Endlessly

Jamie O'Brien

Sonny Chillingworth


Label: Dancing Cat
US Release Date: 1999-04-13
UK Release Date: Available as import

When talking of the most important ki ho'alu (Hawaiian slack key guitar) players of the last century, three names come instantly to mind: Gabby Pahinui, Leonard Kwan, and Edwin Bradfield Liloa "Sonny" Chillingworth, Jr. Each had his own particular style of playing and each has legions of musicians today influenced by their approach. Chillingworth's professional career started in the early 1950s after moving to Honolulu upon graduating high school. He played with many of the top musicians at the time and went on to being a member of Eddie Kamae's legendary Sons of Hawaii, performing solo (releasing the classic Waimea Cowboy in 1964) and with his own group, and teaming up with the Gabby Pahinui Band (which gained worldwide attention partly thanks to Ry Cooder).

Endlessly is perhaps his greatest legacy. Recorded shortly before his death in 1994, the album reflects his diverse approach to slack key playing. There is a strong "Spanish" influence as shown by the powerful bass line on a song like "Aloha Hale O Ho'oponopono"; his appreciation for Portuguese fado is apparent on "Slack Key #2"; his version of Brook Benton's classic "Endlessly" shows his love of R&B; "Hula Blues" presents a jazzy, near-ragtime interpretation of Johnny Noble's timeless piece; his understanding of the intricacies of slack key -- the hammering on and pulling off, harmonics, percussive effects and so on -- are ably demonstrated on "Keiki Slack Key". The album is 65 minutes of something close to perfection and, as such, a wonderful introduction to a fine exponent of the genre.

Sonny Chillingworth was born 14 July 1932. His family, like many in the Islands, was musical; it was also a paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) family. He took up guitar when aged 12 and living with his grandparents on Molokai. He gained his basic knowledge through observation and imitation, later developing his style by jamming with outsiders, especially the Puerto Rican and Filipino musicians he encountered growing up. He also met Gabby Pahinui while still a teenager, which started a long and fruitful friendship lasting until the older man's death some 30 years later.

Over the years, he built up a wide-ranging repertoire, as reflected on this album. There are many tunings in slack key, each with its own characteristics. On this recording, Chillingworth prefers to use Taro Patch, a G major tuning (though on some tracks he slackens the strings further to the key of F or E). Six of the tracks are pure instrumentals in which he demonstrates his prowess with the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of ki ho'alu. There are also nine songs in which the guitar takes on a supporting (though still delightful) role to his sonorous baritone voice. As with many soul singers, there is deep emotion in his vocal work: this is partly why "Endlessly" with its warm lyrics works so well, and helps explain the heart-wrenching power of a place-song like "Olu O Pu'ulani", which describes the family home for a child who is about to be placed in perpetual quarantine as a victim of leprosy.

Chillingworth died on 24 August 1994, some time before the release of this album. Although already unwell while recording Endlessly, he created a living, lively body of work which not only is highly entertaining, but also serves as a record of the variety and depth of his performance. (This is even more so when heard along with Sonny Solo, an album released earlier though recorded at the same sessions as this). There is talk of a third album from these sessions, in which he recorded as many of his favorite songs and tunes for posterity. His incorporation of elements of fado, Puerto Rican, Mexican, country, folk, blues, ragtime, and jazz help create his distinctive approach to music and also provide a fascinating glimpse into the musical mind of a virtuoso musician. His legacy lives on, not just in his students, slack key guitarists like Ozzie Kotani and George Kuo, but also in this recording.

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