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King Benny Nawahi

From Openwaterpedia
(Redirected from Benjamin Keakahiawa Nawahi)

King Benny Nawahi (July 3, 1899 - January 29, 1985) was a blind musician and open water swimmer from Hawaii who crossed the Catalina Channel in 1946 from Catalina Island to the California mainland in 22 hours 20 minutes, guided by coach John Sonnichson and a bell on a lead boat.

Nawahi was an American steel guitar master from Hawaii, well-known throughout the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Celebrated as a virtuoso during his lifetime, his body of work has not garnered the accolades from later generations as have other Hawaiian musical stars of the era. He died in Long Beach, California on 29 January 1985.


Benjamin Keakahiawa Nawahi was born in Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, one of 12 children. While not of royal descent, he was eventually nicknamed "King" as many show business personalities are for their particular genre.

Nawahi learned to play guitar in the parks of Honolulu for pennies, often teaming with Sol Hoʻopiʻi, who would later become his rival for the title "King of the Hawaiian Guitar", along with Sam Ku West. He was also known as "King of the Ukulele". In 1919 Nawahi played with his brother Joe's band, the Hawaiian Novelty Five, on the Matsonia passenger liner that sailed between Honolulu and San Francisco. The group eventually became a staple on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit's North America tour.

Nawahi separated from the group and embarked on a solo career as a singing ukulele player. Master showman Sid Grauman proclaimed him "King of the Ukulele" and the nickname stuck.

By 1928 Nawahi had begun recording for multiple record labels, including Columbia, Victor, Q.R.S. and Grey Gull, under multiple names (including Red Devils, Q.R.S. Boys, Slim Smith, Hawaiian Beach Combers, Georgia Jumpers, Four Hawaiian Guitars and King Nawahi & the International Cowboys), with band mates that included soon to be Sons of the Pioneers, Tim Spencer (singer) and Leonard Slye (later to become cowboy star Roy Rogers).


One night in 1935 while driving home from a performance, Nawahi was suddenly struck blind. No medical cause was ever identified. The loss of vision was permanent, but he never allowed it to impede his life, as he continued performing and touring until the 1970s, when he was partially paralyzed by a stroke.


  • From Honolulu To Hollywood: Jazz, Blues & Popular Specialties Performed Hawaiian Style (2008) CD (The Old Masters)
  • Hawaiian String Virtuoso: Steel Guitar Rec 1920's (2000) CD 2055 (Yazoo)

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