Composer, arranger, producer and recording artist Jack de Mello, who created an expansive new synthesis of Hawaiian melodies and lush, contemporary orchestral music, died Saturday in Las Vegas. He was 102.
During his prolific career, de Mello recorded close to 160 albums of all types of music, including almost 500 Hawaiian songs. He recorded at top studios around the world and “gave Hawaiian music a new identity,” according to a statement from his family.
Born Nov. 15, 1916, in Oakland, Calif., de Mello showed early musical talent. He studied music and music theory at the Bickett Military Band School in San Francisco and was only 9 years old when he began playing the trumpet. The family recalled his stories about piling into a Model T Ford with his brother to go to his lessons, which also required travel by ferry boat and train since the Bay Bridge had yet to be built.
As a young musician in San Francisco, de Mello joined the staff band at the CBS radio network and later served as a musical director at ABC and NBC. He entered the Army as a bandmaster at Camp McQuaide in California.
As musical director of Mutual Network top-rated radio show, “Beat The Villian,” de Mello hired the Society Band led by Joe Reichman. They went on to perform together at major U.S. hotels including the Waldorf Astoria and Roosevelt in New York. During a run at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, they accepted an invitation to reopen the Royal Hawaiian hotel in 1947. The hotel had been used exclusively by the U.S. Navy during World War II.
De Mello’s parents had moved to California from Hawaii, and following his three-month Waikiki engagement he decided to stay. Later that same year de Mello founded the Aloha Record Co. and recorded the song that became his first island hit, “Coconut Willie.”
As the label grew he changed the name to Music of Polynesia.
De Mello’s biggest productions were elaborately packaged, commissioned projects with titles that captured the optimistic mood of the first years of Hawaii statehood: “Songs of Hawaii’s Golden People” and “The Wonderful World of Aloha.” In 1966 Ala Moana Center and its parent entities, Hawaiian Land Inc. and Dillingham Corp., commissioned a multirecord project, “The Music of Hawaii: From the Missionaries through Statehood,” that was so successful it inspired sequels that continued the story.
His arrangements were performed by the London Philharmonic, the Tokyo Symphony, the Victor Concert Orchestra and the NHK Orchestra, among others.
Locally, de Mello and his record label helped develop the talents of Emma Veary, Nina Keali‘iwahamana, Marlene Sai and others, and contributed to the evolution of modern Hawaiian music with the release of the first albums by Keola & Kapono Beamer, Jon & Randy, the Brothers Cazimero and Hokule‘a.
Though de Mello is best known for his contributions to Hawaiian music, his talents were much broader. He also composed music for various Hanna-Barbera Productions’ animated series including “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons.”
In the final years of the 1970s, he turned the record business over to his son, Jon de Mello, and Music of Polynesia became The Mountain Apple Co.
“He was the dad of dads,” Jon de Mello said in a statement. “He was always able to explain anything with wit and humor and was an encyclopedia on any subject. When it came to music, I saw him compose music on the kitchen table with no piano during a conversation over dinner. His talent was limitless.”
The elder de Mello did most of his work as a recording artist and record producer prior to the creation of the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in 1978, but he received a Hoku Award in 2004 for his work as producer of an anthology of recordings by Keali‘iwahamana. He received the Sidney Grayson Award — the predecessor of the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award — in 1982.
In addition to his son, de Mello is survived by his wife, Ilse, and granddaughter Kamokila de Mello. Services are pending.