Joseph Pekelo Kekipi Bright Recca, a beloved entertainer with the voice of an angel and an impeccable Hawaiian historian, died Nov. 18 at Queen’s Medical Center.
He was 76 years old.
Recca had been wrestling with throat cancer for more than a decade and spent much of the last few months under hospice care. He was transferred to Queen’s a few days before his passing.
Throat cancer silenced this brilliant vocalist, who hadn’t had real food for more than a year, sustaining only on IV fluids. Yet his mind was quick, and his heart was strong enough for him to endure the irony of not fully utilizing his given talent: that voice.
He was a man of many talents with a swagger that was wholly his brand. He spoke and read Hawaiian, graced the stages of Waikiki and the Neighbor Islands and owned the spotlight as an emcee and singer.
Indeed, he was not your everyday Joe.
How well you knew him depended on how you addressed him: Joseph, Joe, or Pekelo.
I last saw him in all his glory, three years ago, at the 50th anniversary bash of Tihati Productions, his employer for much of the five decades, which also was the occasion for his final bow, though at that time, he was as fit as a fiddle.
Only Pekelo would have three different outfits for a gala – one for cocktail hour schmoozing, one for the hoopla, and one for pau hana going-home gear. Despite his personal health issues, he demonstrated that the-show-must-go-on demeanor.
A celebration of life will be produced by Cha Thompson, co-founder and former vice president of Tihati Productions, from noon to 3 p.m. Jan.29 at the Ainahau Ballroom of the Princess Kaiulani Hotel, where he set anchor in the Tihati revue as emcee and male vocalist, for 15 years, partnering with soprano Patricia Lei Anderson (now Murray), the prevailing musical duo in their heyday.
No one knew Pekelo better than Thompson, who had distant familial ties with Recca though they acted like they were bona fide blood relatives.
Thompson always called Recca “Pekelo,” Hawaiian for Peter, one of his formal given names commonly used by his intimate show biz buds.
“Our relationship of boss-employee, braddah-sistah creators of Hawaiiian culture, started from high school, when he would come down the hill from Kamehameha School to Farrington just to talk story with me and my gang,” said Thompson. The Kalihi rivalry was mostly symbolic, Farrington being a public school that produced a long list of entertainment marvels, and Kamehameha perceived as a formidable private school virtually looking down from Kapalama heights onto the Farrington campus. Hence, the obvious competish.
But the feuds were fun and fueled a bond of shared responsibility since the pair grew up together as teammates in Tihati, shaping and growing the post-statehood visitor industry business in Waikiki, on Maui, on Kauai, and on the Big Island.
Young, creative and energetic, they both had the stamina to “travel the world together, with 30 to 40 entertainers, to share the magic of Polynesia,” Thompson said. “He, the emcee, me, the hula soloist-coordinator of the promotions; he, leading the charges, making sure that and monitoring the ‘Hawaiian’ section of Tihati Productions.” (Tihati is noted for its array of the Polynesian culture beyond Hawaii’s shores, including Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji, New Zealand and Tonga).
At his young age, fresh out of high school, he was performing with Haunani Kahalewai as one of her Royal Lads, at the Royal Hawaiian’s Monarch Room, while she was a featured hula dancer with Elaine Frisbie’s “Puka Puka Otea” at the Queen’s Surf prior to founding Tihati Productions with her husband-to-be, Jack “Tihati” Thompson. Recca married hula dancer Shirley Recca, who had also performed in Tihati shows.
He learned show biz skills from Kahalewai, and adored her to the point of imitating her style, but she advised him be true to his own talents. He said in a 1977 interview that the Hawaiian superstar told him “Don’t be anybody but yourself. Be Joe Recca.”
He was on the brink of discovering his still budding fame, but he never forgot that tip.
He initially became a Waikiki fixture as part of the ensemble cast of “Paradise Found,” a spectacle at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
But his signature show would be the one at Ainahau Ballroom of the Princess Kaiulani, where he emceed the production and sang duets with soprano Anderson-Murray, a former Miss Hawaii who made it to the finals of the Miss America pageant..
While at the PK, Recca and Anderson also partnered in becoming the first historians leading a Waikiki historic trail walking tour, for the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Assn. under the tutelage of George He‘eu Kanahele, the late and notable Hawaiian historian.
He also sang with Marlene Sai and co-starred with hula stylist Bevery Noa at the Halekulani Hotel and assisted Nina Keali‘iwahamana when she was a regular with Webley Edwards’ “Hawaii Calls” radio show originating from Waikiki.
A little known fact about Recca is that he was prominent in his family’s religious profile as the Rev. Joseph Pekelo Kekipi Bright Recca, the Hope Kahu (assistant pastor) of Ke Alaula Oka Malamalama, the mother church of Ho’omana Na’auao O Hawai’i, the first independent Hawaiian Christian organization in the islands, established in 1853.
He descended from a stream of familial ministers, starting with his great-grandfather, the Rev. John Kekipi Mai’a, who was also the founder of the church. Born and raised in the church, Rev. Joe had always been a part of ministers and the congregation, sharing his many talents, time, and of course, that beautiful voice of his. He was ultimately ordained as a minister by his mother, the late Rev. Regina Bright Recca in 2004. Since then, he served as the assistant pastor of Ke Alaula Oka Malamalama with his sister, the Rev. Bettina Moanawai Recca, who is the head pastor of the church and organization.
In the Hawaiian community, Recca was an established storyteller of stories and sermons, and his life reflected his faith in God and aloha for all. After he was unable to perform because of his cancer, he served as a Hawaiiana consultant for Tihati.
Another “insider” reflection that typified the Recca-Thompson friendship: “Did I say that he had allure about him that made him stand out? He was a real gentleman,” said Thompson because of supreme manner. “He insisted I learn to laugh like a girl, minus the ‘deep loud roar,’ as he called it. He kept saying ‘You can do it, Cha, you can do it,’ and I would say but why would I want to (change her laughter). I nicknamed him ‘The Baron,’ and we knew the good, the bad, and the ugly about each other.”
He never stopped challenging Thompson to improve her Hawaiiana knowledge, when they both took nighttime classes in Hawaiian language at Kamehameha.
Recca helped launch Tihati’s Polynesian show at the Hyatt Regency Maui 42 years ago, which remains the company’s longest-running vehicle in the same venue. “He inspired our other emcee-singers,” said Thompson, since he became the model of emceeing under the Tihati umbrella, including Francis Kamahele, who became that show’s eminent singer-host who also was a pastor in his other life. Other Tihati emcees who learned from Recca include Kale Chang, Sia Tonga, Ryan Souza, Sam Kapu III and Hoku Damaso.
The celebration of life event will feature performances by Karen Keawehawai‘i, Nina Keali‘iwahamana, Taimane, Kimo Alama, Melveen Leed, Makana and his sisters-, Ku‘uipo Kumukahi, Jerry Santos, Patricia Lei Anderson Murray and family, Raiatea Helm, Kealoha Kalama, Aaron Sala, the Waimanalo Sand Band, Nalani Keale, and Leimomi Ho.
Four emcees — Brickwood Galutaria and Kimo Kahoano, alternating with Mele Apana and Davey D – will share the mike.
The house band will feature Ha‘alilo, Chuck Tilton, Vicky Hollinger, Kawika McGuire, and Aisley Haleamanu.
Recca’s sister, the Rev. Bettina Recca, will present the sermon.
Besides his wife Shirley, immediate survivors include their two daughters, Elan and Delys Recca, and one grandson, Andrew.
And that’s Show Biz. ….