Jimmy Borges, Hawaii’s gentleman of jazz, died Monday at age 80, having faced his recurring cancer with the same gutsy attitude that propelled him from hardscrabble Kalihi to the glittering stages of Las Vegas.
His velvety voice and charisma sustained Borges through 60 years on stage, but what struck listeners most is how the jazz and pops singer spoke to them through song.
“It’s not just making sounds,” Borges explained in an interview in January. “Many, many singers nowadays think it’s about making beautiful sounds. But it’s like chewing gum. The taste is there, then the taste is gone. When I sing a song that tells a good story, they’ll remember it 30 years from now.”
Borges beat back liver cancer a few years ago only to have it resurface in his lungs. He embraced the time he had left rather than further medical intervention that was likely to be futile.
His wife, Vicki Bergeron Borges, said in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, “On behalf of Jimmy, his daughter Steffanie Borges-Juergenson, and our entire family, we are so very grateful for the love and support we have received from our friends, our community and from Jimmy’s fans in Hawaii and throughout the world during these final months of his life. His decision to live his way until the very end was exactly the right thing for Jimmy and both a gift and a lesson for the rest of us.”
The family is planning a small, private Catholic Mass but details on a “more public” memorial will be released at a later date.
Borges went out on a high note, winning four awards at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards Saturday, including male vocalist of the year, album of the year and entertainer of the year, for his swan-song album, “Jimmy Borges.” He was too ill to attend, but his wife, Vicki, and daughter, Steffanie, represented him.
A magnetic presence, Borges thrived on stage where he could connect personally with his audience. He is credited with helping keep jazz and the great American songbook alive in Honolulu. From the music of Cole Porter to James Taylor, Frank Sinatra to Stevie Wonder — Borges put his own jazzy stamp on each song, backed by the town’s top musicians.
“When it comes to smooth, suave and debonair, there is only one Jimmy Borges,” marveled Willie K at a tribute concert for the veteran showman in January. “My shoes are big. But those shoes that he wears are going to be the biggest ones to try to fill in this business. I’m just really happy that I know him and had the chance to be around him, hug him, kiss him, love him.”
Borges started out life on the edge. His mother was just 17 when he was born prematurely, on June 1, 1935, at home in Kalihi. His first bed was a cigar box. Jimmy grew up playing ball in the street and went on to all-star in football and baseball, all while wearing hand-me-down shoes.
“I wanted to be somebody, like the locals say, I wanted to be some-BODY,” said Borges, who was proud of his Hawaiian, Chinese and Portuguese ancestry. “All of us are meant to be somebody. Every one of you is one of a kind. You have to make that work in your favor, and if you don’t, shame on you.”
As the arc of his life reached twilight, he focused on helping Hawaii’s homegrown talent get launched on the big stage, establishing the “Jimmy Borges Endowed Scholarship in Vocal Music,” a need-based award at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
His many friends came together to fulfill that dream with fundraising concerts that lifted the endowment to more than $370,000.
“He has a beautiful voice, but there are a lot of beautiful voices that are not very entertaining because they don’t reach inside your heart and grab it,” said entertainer Lucie Arnaz, one of those friends. “Jimmy knows what he is singing about. It’s his storytelling and his phrasing, which is what they say about the greats.”
“One of the reasons I’ve always loved Jimmy is there is a true Hawaiian sensibility that is above and beyond mortality,” she added. “It’s very spiritual… To me, he is eternal.”
Borges learned to love big band tunes when he was a kid, listening to records that GIs gave his mother, who manned a hot-dog stand in Kalihi. From age 12, he spent most of his years on the mainland, and went on to earn a football scholarship at San Francisco State College.
At age 20, he discovered he could get paid to sing in Bay Area nightclubs, and he never looked back.
“When the opportunity came, I grabbed it,” Borges said. “I didn’t wait for it to go by and say, gee, I wish I had done that.”
He would bluff his way onto the stage at nightclubs by informing the manager that he was looking for a band to take with him on the road. That way, he got asked to sing and didn’t have to plead for a turn, he recalled. The young vocalist was “drop-dead handsome” and stood out because he had style, according to Cha Thompson, a lifelong pal.
Borges sang at the “Forbidden City” nightclub in San Francisco before being recruited to Las Vegas in 1959, where he replaced the star of a show called “Holiday in Japan.” He remembers being thrilled, “as a Catholic boy,” to be surrounded by dozens of beautiful women on stage.
“It was like climbing that mango tree in my backyard,” he recalled, and feasting on the fruit.
From Vegas, Borges was tapped to star in a show at the renowned Latin Quarter nightclub in New York City. He went on to perform at venues ranging from the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro to Boston’s Schubert Theater, from cosy clubs to jazz festivals for tens of thousands.
Borges headlined Keone’s, a jazz club in Waikiki, for several years in the 1970s. Then he and pianist Betty Loo Taylor held court for 10 years at Trappers in the Hyatt Regency, through 1986.
“He did really well and attracted a big following,” said longtime friend Gordon Sakamoto. “Not just locals, but a lot of well known entertainers stopped by there a lot. People like Tony Bennett, Jack Jones, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. They had heard about him.”
Bennett was quoted as saying of Borges, “Wherever this man goes, follow him. He’s one of the best singers I’ve ever heard.”
Borges credits his chutzpah for a singular career coup. He was the only singer granted free and complete access to Frank Sinatra’s archive of musical arrangements. He relayed his request through a mutual friend, and Sinatra reportedly sent a scout to check him before saying, “give the kid what he wants.”
When Sinatra’s aide called to tell him, Borges could hear a smile in her voice and asked what was so funny.
“Well, Mr. Borges, to be very frank, a lot singers like Tony Bennett and Victor Moon and all these big shots, they wanted to borrow arrangements but they were too afraid to ask,” she said, chuckling. “But this guy from Hawaii who no one ever heard of calls up and asks, and Mr. Sinatra gives him the house.”
Borges’ fondness for those arrangements prompted some observers to dub him “Hawaii’s Sinatra,” but he dodged the label.
“I’m the first Jimmy Borges,” he said. “That’s all I really want to be.”
He favored live performances and didn’t put much stock in recording. Although he put out an album, Honolulu Lady, in 1991, he says he made little effort to promote it. It wasn’t until last year that friends persuaded him to issue his first CD, “Jimmy Borges.”
“The ballads are the ones that touch me the most,” Borges said. “‘A Song for You’ and ‘Here’s to Life’” are my very favorites because they really bespeak my philosophy and who I am and what I am.”
In 2008, the Hawaii Academy of Recording Artists gave him a Lifetime Achievement award.
Borges supplemented his career by acting in the original Hawaii Five-0 and its current incarnation, as well as Magnum, P.I., and other shows. But singing was his real passion. He shared that talent freely, performing at fundraisers and mentoring young vocalists.
“I learned a lot from him, spontaneously,” said Hawaiian diva Melveen Leed. “He never even realized he’s been tutoring a lot of us, without him knowing, mentoring us.”
A soft touch, Borges recalls when “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” came over his car radio for the first time. “I pulled over to the side and just cried,” he said, “it was so beautiful.”
At a PBS Hawaii concert taped in December, with 50 of his closest supporters, he sang it to his wife Vicki, who was seated with his daughter, Steffanie. His voice was husky, his lungs compromised, but he gave it his all, a performance so intimate and powerful that it left cheeks glistening with tears across the room.
“I have lived a life filled with the hugs of so many people,” Borges said as the evening closed. “I wouldn’t trade any of those hugs in for one extra year.”