Everybody Loves Al

by Susan Sunderland


He sings, tells jokes, dances a little and is always in demand. And he finds up and coming talent. Just don't call his highly entertaining shows with recorded music˜karaoke." Singer Al Waterson might be a celebrity, but to appreciate his true nature, you want to encounter him at a home-improvement warehouse, as Don Ho did on several occasions in the past.

Boy, what you workin' on? Ho would ask. I'm lookin' at tools, Waterson would reply. You have a good time now, Ho would bid his good friend. To have Waterson tell this story is to hear it in exact Don Ho characterization and voice inflection. It's as if Waterson is performing all the time. Ironically, Sunday evenings when Waterson was on stage at Don Ho's Island Grill, named after the show biz legend, as Waterson introduced singers in a popular talent showcase, Ho looked down from a smiling portrait on the wall as if to lend inspiration and approval to the proceedings.

It's a poetic scene because there are those who say Waterson is the heir apparent to Ho's reputation as the town's most-respected impresario. We reacquainted ourselves with this singer-emcee-actor-humorist-gourmet chef-graphic artist-celebrity handyman. That's all one person. Waterson is versatility personified.

Boy, what you workin' on?, we ask. As usual, there is plenty on his plate. In addition to his Al Waterson and You contests, he sang at Nick's Fishmarket; co-emceed with television personality, Emme Tomimbang at the Presidential Aloha Inaugural Ball at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and co-hosted with singer / actress, Cathy Foy at the American Lung Association's Breathe Concert at the Hawaii Theatre. Then, there are the usual demands for his talents at private socials, such as weddings and family parties, as well as corporate events. All of this is not surprising for a self-ascribed "workaholic" and a guy whom columnist Eddie Sherman declares is the best emcee in the biz in this town.

Waterson, is grateful he has been able to sustain a 50-year show biz career. Opportunities for his voice, both as singer and emcee, have kept him in front of audiences for most of his career. Remarkably, much of that fame has come right here in his home state of Hawaii. He didn't need to leave Paradise to get noticed. As a matter of fact, big-time talent scouts beat a path to his doorstep to check out his signature, entertaining style of presenting promising young singers. Long before there was American Idol, there was "Al Waterson and You".

It's become a brand, very capably supported by his wife and manager Nancy Bernal. Forced to substitute music tracks for a live band when hotels and restaurants tightened their entertainment budgets, singer Waterson claims he segued into the new musical format about 27 years ago. It had been done a long time, but it was new to me, he says. "I thought it's not bad if it means paying the rent. I started singing to music tracks and got used to it."

With Bernal, he started the Singing Machine Operation that hosted and showcased singers onstage with proper sound, lighting and introductions. Amateur and professional singers were welcome to perform and to share the featured spotlight with Waterson. Incidentally, what Waterson does for a living is not karaoke.  That term totally misrepresents the staging and musical format of the shows Waterson presents. Karaoke suggests bar-room settings where one pays for music, then sings for individual enjoyment or carefree warbling. This is hardly what happened at Al Waterson and You. Families and friends dined and sang in a wholesome, convivial atmosphere with someone eventually emerging with prizes for being the best singer. Serious contenders vied for the chance to be the season's grand champion. Numerous new, talented singers had gained opportunities in the entertainment industry through Nancy and Al's singing competitions or by getting noticed on their stage, says Bernal, Watersons wife of 34 years. Before moving to Don Ho's Island Grill, Waterson's show was based for 12 years at the Fisherman's Wharf Restaurant in Kakaako. It was the in spot for late-night kanikapila for celebrities and aspiring performers alike.