Jimmy Borges (third from left), conductor Matt Cattingub and Hawaii Pops friends.

Jazzman Jimmy Borges and His Rich History with the Rat Pack

Entertainment / The Hawaii Pops:

Jimmy Borges, 5/31, 7pm, Blaisdell Concert Hall

Kenny Loggins, 6/10, 7pm, Waikiki Shell

Vertical Horizon, 6/24, 7pm, Waikiki Shell

For tickets call 593-9468

The Hawaii Pops are taking it from the top, newly refitted in their first voyage out of dry-dock. Back at the helm is director Matt Catingub, who pulled together a very cool season on short notice. The next show is a sentimental voyage with Hawaii’s legendary gentleman of jazz, Jimmy Borges.

“The amazing thing about Jimmy is that he could have done what he does anywhere in the world, but he chose to stay home and do it in Hawaii,” Catingub said. “Jimmy is like my father. We go back to when I was 7 years old and my mom (Mavis Rivers) was performing with him. It’s because of him that I was invited to lead the Pops.”

Borges and Rivers are singers in a style now considered alternately quaint or hipster cool. They were protégés of Frank Sinatra and his friends, and that crew ruled the musical world for much of the 20th Century. Borges had his first big break when he was discovered by Shirley MacLaine, who arranged gigs for him in Vegas. MacLaine was the only female member of the famed Rat Pack, and soon Borges was hanging out with Frank, Sammy, and their crowd. They mentored the young Borges, sometimes not so gently. At a late-night party with Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr., the A-list of great performers, Borges was called up to sing. He was so nervous, he inexplicably started scatting instead of singing the words.

“About halfway through, Sammy Davis says to me, ‘Borges! Sing the fucking song!’”

Davis took the mortified Borges aside later and gave him a sage lesson about the beauty and importance of a well-written song. Over time, Cole coached him on timing and other greats helped to shape him into a world-class performer.

“Sinatra said, you’ve got to tell the story,” Borges recalls. “People are not going to remember your voice 10 years from now, but if you tell a good story, they’ll remember because they’ll relate it to their life. That’ll last forever.”

Sinatra gave Borges the rights to use his arrangements, something he did for no one else, and continued to stop by Jimmy’s shows in Waikiki for years. It was in Waikiki that Borges spent most of his career, though he had international offers and many international performances.

“I’ve left major agencies because they were marketing me as something they thought would make them more money,” he explains, “but not as what I really wanted to be. I love singing in saloons; they would have had me starring in Flower Drum Song in London.”

He spent many years playing small, intimate gigs with pianist Betty Loo Taylor throughout Waikiki, when he could have been anywhere.

His musical choices are unusual for a local boy. Borges became the man he is because of Pearl Harbor, which he watched as a 6 year old from his Kalihi home.

“I could see the Japanese pilots, their faces, the big red zeros on the planes,” Borges relates.

His mother and her aunties opened a hot dog stand, and the GI’s would bring presents to the hot young local women, including records of the Big Bands. Little Jimmy fell in love with the sound and his path was set.

Borges recently recovered from what was diagnosed as incurable liver cancer.

“I was cool with it in the sense that I had done so much in my life,” Borges says. “What I wanted to do was sing, and to have people pay me for it. And from 1955 to this moment, that’s what I did. Some people make more money, but they’re not any more successful.”

As word spread of his illness, people called him from all over the world to share memories.

“My music had touched their hearts. It had made a difference in their lives,” Borges relates, “and I realized this was more than just a job–it was the most humbling experience I have ever had.”

Borges credits his recovery to the music he loves and to his fans’ prayers. Life has purpose, he says, and he refuses to go quietly into old age.

“You are mandated to be responsible in life,” he says, “but you are not mandated to be an adult.”

So he tells young people in schools around Oahu. He speaks about career and self-image, and about remaining true to your dreams, definitely something from the Sinatra songbook. Borges turns 77 the day after the show, and he continues to, yes, do it his way.

“The way I like to be introduced is ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Hawaii’s own Jimmy Borges,’” he relates. “I sing The Great American Song Book, and my mentors were not Hawaiian, but I never want to give up my Hawaiian-ness. I am Hawaiian, and I will die here and my ashes will be in the ocean here. I am a keiki o ka ‘aina, Hawaii’s own.”