HONOLULU Myra English, the bubbly Maui girl who went on to become "the Champagne Lady" of Hawaiian music, died last week in Honolulu after an illness that began two years ago. She was 68.
"Her kind of music was about all the things that were fun and good," said KPOA disc jockey Boy Kanae. "When you think of Myra, you remember not only her, but all our kupuna and how we used to sit around as children in the backyard or in the garage listening to them sing."
For those familiar with her legendary kolohe, or rascal, ways, it was almost hard to think of English as a kupuna, even though she had 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. In the minds of her fans, she will forever remain young and vivacious, a magnet of the Honolulu nightclub scene who zoomed to the top of the local charts in 1963 with her mega-hit, "Drinking Champagne," which became her signature song.
"Not too many left like her," said Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. "She was one hell of a lady. Music was not a money thing to her she just wanted to entertain."
Services will be held on Oahu and Maui. (For details, see the Obituaries on Page A2.)
English, whose family was originally from Hana, was born in Makawao and grew up in Paia. Soon after graduating from the old Maui High School, she headed for Oahu to attend business school, but already a performer, she went looking for the bright lights. She found them at Herman and Elsie Fong's Club Polynesia where, according to her Web site, English had to get special permission to join the floor show because of her young age.
Although she honed her art in Honolulu while getting to know such headliners as as Sonny Chillingworth, Genoa Keawe, Hilo Hattie and Linda Dela Cruz, English actually got the brainstorm that would define her career while working on the Mainland. During her daily commute in Seattle, English heard a particular country song over and over again. She thought it would play well back in the islands if she put a Hawaiian spin on it.
Her producer, Don McKiarmid Jr., of Hula Records, liked the idea, too. And that's how "Drinking Champagne" made English the toast of Honolulu.
"She had that kind of voice that was unique only to her," said Kanae. "It was that happy feeling, that kalohe kind with all the double meanings. You hear her singing, but you have to listen to what she means. She could sing the song one day and mean one thing and sing it another way the next day."
After "Drinking Champagne," English became a fixture in Waikiki. She found a kindred spirit in another up-and-coming star, Molokai girl Melveen Leed.
"She was my partner in crime," said Leed, trying to laugh through her tears when reached by phone Monday. "We'd run around the island, go to a restaurant and just start entertaining, making everyone happy. We'd literally sing for our dinner."
Leed remained close to English until the end.
"I just saw her just last week," said Leed. "She was my very best friend, I mean very, very best. She never said a bad word about anybody. I'm just gonna miss her so much."
English traveled the world as an ambassador of sorts, promoting tourism for Aloha Airlines, Hawaiian Air, United Airlines and the Hawaii Visitors Bureau. She was just as popular in Japan as she was in Hawaii.
Because of her rare talent and personality, the Haleakala Waldorf School had selected English to honor during its third annual Lei Day festival that will be held April 29. Previous recipients have been Kahauanu Lake and Keawe.Ê
"We like to do tributes to people important in Hawaiian musical history who the students don't get to hear a lot of," said Jocelyn Romero Demirbag, administrative director of the school. "We knew Myra was ill and had never been tributed so we wanted to do this for her. We were hoping she'd be here."
The tribute will go on as scheduled with the blessings of the family, said Demirbag.
English was not only a performer. She was married to Chelliot Gibbs for 46 years and had four children. She loved horses (she named one of them Champagne and another Chablis), and also had a longtime career as an administrative assistant to various lawmakers at the state Legislature. English never quit her job she took sick leave last year and hoped to return someday.
"They were waiting for her to come back," said daughter Pat Cabrera, who lives on Maui.
Even as a celebrity, English never forgot her roots and continued to give back to her home island. Maxwell recalls the times English would sing and play ukulele for Pukalani Hula Hale, the halau headed up by his wife, Nina. She also joined with Keawe to perform at political fund-raisers for her cousin J. Kalani English, who was elected to the state Senate last year.
Now, Myra English will forever be part of those sweet times when Hawaii was a more innocent place.
"The memory of her music will be when we were all safe, when you could leave your doors open and when people came by every night to talk story and sing," said Kanae. "She was about those good days and we will always have them because we have her music to listen to."