Elaine Haimakaokalani Ako Spencer has been singing all her life. In 1976 she released her first album Mele Hali‘a Aloha. Four years later in 1980 she and fellow artist Keith Haugen recorded an album of hula tunes entitled Lovely Hula Hands. It would be another 10 years before Spencer would record again. But Island Serenade showed that the songbird was still in the game. And in between she was always singing – singing at the Willows, at the Outrigger Canoe Club, at weddings, baby lü‘au, parties, singing for hälau in Hawai‘i and in Japan. Her last album released in My Hawaiian Souvenirs is a snapshot of her long career.
Spencer was the youngest of fourteen children born to James and Lily Ako, of Hölualoa on the island of Hawai‘i. The Ako home was the unofficial “music center” of this small town as the Akos and their children played a variety of instruments and entertaining was their avocation. Spencer was a young girl of eight when she first picked up the ‘ukulele. And as a child she liked to sing from the Charles E. King music collections and accompany herself on the piano.
At St. Andrews Priory in Honolulu she was known as the class musician and entertainer, and after graduation Spencer started singing casually. In 1963 she began her professional career as a featured vocalist with Danny Kaleikini and Jimmy Moikeha at the lü‘au shows at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. She sang with Kalani Kinimaka and Sonny Waiau at the old Biltmore Hotel where the Hyatt Regency Hotel now stands. She also sang with Nephi Hanneman and Sam Kapu at the Hana Ho (the Century Center now occupies the site), and at Yappy’s in Kapahulu and at Steamboats on Kaläkaua Avenue (the home to high end boutique shops today). In 1968 Spencer joined the Danny Poepoe Trio playing at the Canon and other military clubs.
Spencer performed at the Outrigger Canoe Club as part of the group known as the Hawaiians that included Ethelynne Teves, Cy Luddington, Tau Greig, and Jeff Teves. And for many years Spencer sang for diners at the O‘ahu Country Club, and later for 13 years at the renowned Willows Restaurant in Mo‘ili‘ili. A legion of fans remembers her strolling from table to table taking song requests. More recently she has performed casually at the Kähala Mandarin and Moana Hotels.
In recent years Spencer has also been performing in Japan. She sang in concerts featuring other Hawai‘i artists including Dennis Pavao, Uluwehi Guerrero, and Ray Fonseca. Spencer travels to Japan several times a year to sing for Japanese hälau. Hula is very popular with hundreds of hälau established throughout the country. The Japanese kumu hula admire her old-style way of singing.
In 2016 the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts honored her with its Lifetime Achievement Awards.
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