Hawaiian Music Collection - Owens, Harry: Composer Biography

Harry Owens (1902-1986) was born in Nebraska, but got his musical start as a boy in Montana, where he learned to play the cornet in a small band on an Indian reservation. At 14, he was playing vaudeville acts and studying law in Los Angeles. During a break from his studies one night, he wrote a song that sold a million copies of sheet music in six months, and his career as a budding lawyer was finished.

In 1934, Owens was invited to move to Hawai'i and reorganize the orchestra at the posh Royal Hawaiian. Owens researched numerous old Hawaiian songs that had never been written but had instead been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Using modern arrangements, he gave the world a genre of hapa-haole music. By focusing on the steel guitar, with its sweet, rhythmic sound, Owens created songs with an alluring, tropical feel.

In 1936, Crosby arrived in Hawai'i for an upcoming role in the Paramount Studios musical "Waikiki Wedding." While dancing at the Royal Hawaiian one evening, he heard Owens and his band perform "Sweet Leilani." Crosby liked it so much that he told Paramount executives they had to include it in the film.

"Sweet Leilani" won an Oscar in 1937 for best song. Owens didn't remain in the Islands after 1941, when he ended a three-year Mainland tour. Owens was the host of a popular Mainland television show during the 1950s and its theme was "Sweet Leilani."

- adapted from Sunday, July 2, 2006 Honolulu Advertiser article [http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/150/sesq3owens]