For more than 40 years, Dennis Mendoza was the leader and keyboardist of the group known first as the Nomads and then as Aura. By either name, it was one of Hawaii’s most powerful Top 40 bands of the 1970s and 1980s. Mendoza died Wednesday at his West Oahu home. He was 70.
The band featured eight Mendoza siblings and performed as the house band for 10 years at The Point After, one of the most prestigious Waikiki nightclubs of the era.
“Dennis was the backbone of the band,” saxophonist Bill Popaka said Saturday. “He kept the young guys in line. He kept us all in line. He kept the rehearsals together. He was the man that was Aura. He had rehearsals when the club closed at 4 o’clock in the morning — nobody’s late, everybody’s there. That kept us at The Point (After nightclub) for years.”
Adney Atabay, another longtime Nomads/Aura member and trumpet player, shared similar memories.
“He was the eldest, and we always looked up to him,” Atabay said in an email. “He was the guy that always kept us in line from a business point of view as well as our personal lives. We always had fun working and hanging out together.”
Writing on the Facebook page of Mendoza’s younger brother, Clifton, multi-Na Hoku Hanohano Award winner Gaylord Holomalia recalled Mendoza as “a friend and inspiration in the early years of my musical career.”
“I would always go to The Point After to watch Aura play and would stand behind the band to watch him play and check out his keyboards. He always shared his thoughts on his playing in a band with so many other instruments and how he would make his keyboards fit without overplaying.”
In addition to his musical talent, Beverly Mendoza Orbello said her brother was always a gentleman.
“He was always kind and optimistic in dealing with business associates and family alike. He treated everyone with respect,” she said in an email. “He was a very grounded and sincere person who always preferred to see the good in people, but he was no pushover. If ‘push came to shove’ he was a black belt in judo and karate.”
Mendoza picked up his first instrument, the ukulele, when he was 10. He switched to guitar at 13, and was playing professionally with his sister Beverly and brother Brian while still in high school. Mendoza balanced his commitment to music by playing quarterback for the Waipahu High School football team. He graduated in 1968.
After high school Mendoza served five years in the Air Force. Music was the center of his life thereafter. He joined Beverly, Brian and their younger brother Del in the band then known as the Nomads. The four remaining Mendoza siblings joined them when they were old enough to work in nightclubs where alcohol was sold.
An early milestone engagement for all eight was opening for the Commodores in 1975 at the Conroy Bowl in Schofield Barracks.
Time spent playing in military clubs gave the Nomads a more soulful repertoire than most of their local contemporaries, and in 1976 they became the house band for The Point After. It was there the group reached its peak.
In 1979 the group changed its name to Aura and recorded what would be its first and only album. The eponymous album, “Aura,” was reissued by Aloha Got Soul earlier this year.
Opportunities for full-time Waikiki nightclub work evaporated by the end of 1980s. Mendoza became an elevator mechanic and then a state- licensed elevator inspector.
Aura became a legend in local music, and so it was a big event in local entertainment when all eight Mendoza siblings, Atabay and Popaka played an Aura reunion show at Robin Kimura’s “70s Nightclub Reunion IX” in 2011.
Mendoza is survived by daughters, Dawn, Brooke and Brittany Mendoza; sons Denny Jay “DJ” Mendoza and Preston and Vance Montira; brothers Brian, Clifton, Del, Michael and Vincent; and sisters Beverly Mendoza Orbello and Christine Mendoza Olanda.