Arthur Lyman and his group are one of the pioneers of what is called the “exotica” genre, infusing sounds of Polynesian/Hawaiian music with his own individual flamboyance. The Hawaiian native learned to play marimba (a percussion instrument) when he was younger. That led to a professional career performing in local clubs. Then he met pianist Martin Denny and soon joined the latter’s band as a percussionist/vibraphonist. Denny was also one of the originators of the “exotica” and was very successful at that time. Not long after, the multi-instrumentalist Lyman split from Denny and formed his own career, this also became as successful as his former bandleader’s. Lyman’s 1959 album Taboo peaked at #6 on the Billboard’s album charts; his biggest charting single “Yellow Bird” came in 1961. Although the Polynesian craze faded, Lyman and his group continued to play for tourists in Hawaii as well as some places on the US mainland. Due to renewed interest in lounge music in the 90s, Lyman enjoyed some resurgence that indeed sparked reissues of his material. He died in 2002, aged 70, from throat cancer.
Lots of good music
Arthur Lyman was born in Kauai, Hawaii (which was then a US territory) on February 2, 1932. During his childhood days he was strictly weaned by his father with lots of “good music” such as that of Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton. Lyman’s first instrument was the toy marimba, which he used in his first competition (sponsored by Listerine) where he won.
First professional foray into music
Lyman then graduated into the 4-mallet playing style in which he became so adept. At only 14 years old, Lyman held his first professional gig by performing with the band the Gadabouts at a little local nightclub Leroy’s in Honolulu. He was making $60 dollars per week there, working until the wee hours of the morning.
As a member of Martin Denny’s band
After his high school graduation, Lyman put his music career on hold to take up a more practical job as a clerk. In 1954, he encountered pianist Martin Denny, who had been sent to Hawaii on contract to play at one of the Tiki joints owned by Don the Beachcomber. Denny had heard Lyman perform, and offered the young man a spot in his band. Lyman, who was at first wary of the offer, reluctantly accepted it because of the high pay.
Martin Denny and his band played regularly on evenings at Hawaiian Village’s the Shell Bar. Lyman was Denny’s percussionist/vibraphonist.
Denny was also a keen traveler, and he had been collecting exotic instruments from all over the world. He liked to incorporate them into his usual jazz repertoire. Lyman was the one who introduced the “bird calls” on one of their performances, and he did that on a (tipsy) whim. What he didn’t expect was the favorable response from the audience he had been getting. These bird calls eventually became one of Lyman’s trademark sounds.
Denny had a national hit with “Quiet Village” in 1957. This sparked a craze for all things Hawaiian, Polynesian, tropical and exotic. With the rise of popularity of the exotic, relaxing sounds, Denny was given the title, the “Father of Exotica.”
The Arthur Lyman Group
Lyman didn’t stay long with Denny though, and he left the ensemble in 1957, to pursue a solo career and start a band of his own, simply called the Arthur Lyman Group. Not surprisingly, Lyman’s work sounded quite like Denny’s music, but with a more relaxing feel. And as expected, Denny and Lyman became rivals (but friendly rivals).
In 1959, Lyman scored his first charting single with “Taboo,” the title track of his second album. It went to #55 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Two years later Lyman scored his biggest hit with “Yellow Bird.” Based on a Haitian song “Choucoune,” “Yellow Bird” became Lyman’s only top 10 pop hit, at #5. It also reached #2 on the easy listening singles chart.
The decline and resurgence of “exotica”
Lyman scored other minor hits: “Love For Sale” (#43 pop, #13 adult contemporary) and “Cotton Fields (The Cotton Song)” (#123 pop).
Three of his many LPs — Taboo(1959), Yellow Bird (1963) and I Wish You Love (1963) — all went to the Top 40 of the Billboard 200 albums chart, all of them earning a gold disc.
As music trends kept changing, the exotica music began to fall out of favor with the public. Nevertheless, Lyman kept himself active, particularly playing music to tourists at a ritzy Honolulu hotel every weekend nights.
The resurgence of interest towards exotica (as well as space age pop) occurred in the 1990s led the public’s interest to Denny’s and Lyman’s material (though to a lesser extent). During that decade, Lyman was still active in live performing especially to tourists in Waikiki. He died of esophageal (throat) cancer on February 24, 2002.