Mahalo, Freddie—Freddie Kekaulike Baker, the Hawaii-born singer and multi-instrumentalist who entertained a couple of generations of Albuquerqueans, passed away suddenly on Feb. 5, two days shy of his 86th birthday, leaving a hole in the city’s musical heart that will not be filled.
“He must have been sick, but he never complained,” said his wife, Jane Ong-Baker. “That’s, Freddie, you know. He just enjoyed playing and making other people happy. He had to have been not feeling good for a long time because he had pancreas cancer, and he never complained.”
A popular musician in Hawaii, Baker came to the mainland after WWII. Initially unable to work because of union issues, he depended on the kindness of friends quickly made and on his own resourcefulness, charm and curiosity.
“I have all this energy and willpower,” he said in a 2005 interview.
That energy and willpower soon had him teaching movie stars how to surf, playing small parts in the movies, headlining in some of the biggest rooms in Las Vegas and national tours as Hawaii-mania swept the country in the late ’50s.
In Albuquerque, he met his wife-to-be, Jane Ong, while eating at her family’s restaurants. “I’m lucky,” he said, referring to their meeting. “So I made my home here.”
A fixture on the Albuquerque scene since the mid-’60s—at the Ongs’ Tikki-Kai nightclub and their New Chinatown restaurant, and most recently at the Town House—Freddie brought a little island magic to the high desert. Crooning in his soft falsetto, he summoned up a bygone era of gracious sophistication and offered listeners a respite from harsher modern realities. When the vibe was right, he would play for hours without a break.
“I get so involved with the people because I enjoy them enjoying themselves, when they have family and friends and they come to a nice place. I just play nice, the songs they like, old songs. I enjoy watching their expressions,” he said.
The show was not about Freddie. It was about his audience, about remembering what song you liked, about finding the right tune for the moment, about creating a comfortable atmosphere.
His sweetness and generosity of spirit will be missed, but friends and fans will have at least one more opportunity to say good-bye and then take some memories home.
“There will be a memorial,” said Ong-Baker. “It’s going to be a little different. You know, Freddie never made a CD or anything like that. He didn’t want the pressure of time. Let it happen as nature would. But he was taped live by KOB and KUNM, and we have those tapes. We’re putting some songs together, and we’ll make a CD for people, in his memory.”
A memorial service for Freddie Kekaulike Baker will be held at French Mortuary, 10500 Lomas NE, on Saturday, Feb. 24, at 1 p.m. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to The Kawaiaha’o Church (www.kawaiahao.org), where Freddie first sang as a choirboy.