Premier cabaret and showroom pianist Rene Paulo, known for his transparent Kawai grand piano, died Wednesday at Tripler Army Medical Center. He was 92.
Gail-Anne Paulo Namerow described her father as “a unique, one-of-a-kind man that is irreplaceable with his intelligence and his talent. He had a God-given talent to play the piano and make others happy and smile.”
Hawaiian entertainer and media personality Kimo Kahoano called Paulo one of Hawaii’s “gentlemen of jazz.”
“Seeing him at the Opus One, he made everybody so comfortable,” Kahoano said, referring to Paulo’s former nightclub at the Ilikai Hotel in Waikiki. “When he played, it was just wonderful. He could give it a jazz feeling, he could give it a pop feeling, and Hawaiian too. He understood it all, and everything was just so smooth. He was always such a gentleman. That’s what I’ll always remember.”
Rock vocalist Steffanie Borges mourned Paulo as a “hanai father” who helped her overcome her teenage stage fright and become a confident entertainer.
“I would go to Opus One in the ’70s and hang out with my mother,” Borges said. “I would be so afraid but Rene and (his wife) Akemi and the Paulo family would let me come up to sing and he would encourage me. He helped me get over it. He became my hanai dad and (his daughters) Charlene became my ‘big sister’ and Gail my ‘little sister.’”
Irenio Pagarigan Paulo grew up in Wahiawa with music an important part of his life. His grandfather and one of his uncles were musicians in military bands; his mother played the piano and noticed he had a good ear and natural talent. He started taking piano lessons at age 4-1/2 and was soon recognized as a child prodigy.
At the age of 12, he got his first job as a paid musician when he was hired as a last- minute replacement for the pianist in a dance band playing for soldiers during World War II. Paulo would be a working musician for most of his life.
He met his wife, Akemi, when they were in their teens as young entertainers who worked in some of the same places.
Paulo’s studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City ended when he was drafted for military service in the Korean War. Paulo was in Japan en route to Korea when another islander who knew of his musical talent got him reassigned to special services duty in Japan.
Off-duty, Paulo was able to play in Japanese nightclubs and made enough money as an entertainer to bring his wife to Japan, where she resumed her singing career.
When they returned to Hawaii in the mid-1950s, Paulo established himself as a talented and imaginative pianist. He played at the Shell Bar in the Hilton Hawaiian Village and then at Keone’s, a club on Lewers Street in Waikiki that is fondly remembered as one of Honolulu’s great jazz clubs of the 1960s and ’70s.
He recorded for Liberty Records, a national record label in the late 1950s, and subsequently for several Hawaii-based labels.
In the mid-1970s, Paulo was offered an engagement that required a female vocalist. Akemi Paulo came out of retirement to join him, and the duo Akemi &Rene Paulo became Waikiki headliners. When they opened their own place, Opus One at the Ilikai Hotel, it became one of Waikiki’s great late-night nightspots.
Multi-instrumentalist Rocky Holmes was new to the islands in the late-1970s when a friend who was working with Rene Paulo at Opus One invited him to come down and check it out.
“I was pretty new to the island, didn’t really know a lot of people, but Rene was just the nicest person, very encouraging,” Holmes said. “We only worked a few times together but one of them was when (pianist) Kit Sampson and Rene did a dueling piano thing at the Kahala Hilton. They even moved Rene’s clear Plexiglas piano in there. … What a fine player, and what an amazing, amazing, man.”
One by one, the six Paulo children joined their parents onstage, then moved on to independent careers. Rene Jr., known within the family as “Boy,” went into the catering business. Michael became a member of the local musical group Kalapana, spent nine years touring with Al Jarreau, and then established himself as a solo jazz artist and record producer in California.
Opus One closed in 1980 but Paulo continued to be active. Among his later engagements was as a solo pianist at what was then the Kahala Hilton. Fans remember what a treat is was to hear him play an extended arrangement of “Rhapsody in Blue” from memory.
Paulo received the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
He also continued to record, primarily for Japanese record labels. One of his last projects was a 22-song CD, “The Way You Look Tonight: Sweet Ballad for Hawaii,” that he recorded for Respect Records, a Japanese label, in 2010.
“I always knew what I was going to be. It was just a natural transition from my early days to what I am today, and I still enjoy it,” Paulo told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 2001. “Sometimes people will tell me that their mother or father used to listen to my music, or that they heard their parents playing my records when they were little. I’m glad they still enjoy what I’m doing.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Paulo is survived by his wife, Akemi Paulo; sons Rene Jr. and Michael; daughters Vicky Paulo Takujo, Kathy Paulo-Hirai , Charlene Paulo Jubrail and Gail-Anne Paulo Namerow; 21 grandchildren, 51 great-grandchildren and four great-great- grandchildren. He also leaves behind his sisters, Anita Sotelo, Olivia Simms, Susan Moniz and Maria Converse; and brothers Pablito Paulo and Leonard Paulo.
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