As Larry Rivera sits onstage and tunes his guitar, he takes a sip from a glass of red wine. The crowd at Cafe Portofino is chatting, watching, waiting.
Rivera, smiling, a gleam in his eyes, does not disappoint.
“Aloha,” he shouts.
“Aloha,” they shout back.
Rivera recites a long phase in Hawaiian. The words flow quickly. Most don’t understand what was just said, but it sounds important. So their host explains.
“That means thanks for coming,” he says.
People laugh. Rivera is just warming up.
“My name is Larry Rivera. What is my name?”
“Larry Rivera,” they respond.
Rivera is clearly delighted. This is his stage in more ways than one.
It’s his regular Wednesday night to perform at the Italian restaurant. It’s also a birthday party. His.
Rivera, due to turn 87 the next night, has been entertaining people for nearly all of those years. He’s happy to be here, playing for some invited guests, some who are there for dinner, and some who stop in when they find out that the man who is arguably Kauai’s most famous musician is in the house.
“Uncle Larry,” wearing white pants, shirt and shoes, proudly says he was born and raised on Kauai. He and his wife Gloria have six children, 17 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. He then, whether some like it or not, names all 19. When he’s done, he holds up that glass of wine.
“I can have one glass of wine every Wednesday,” he says. “The rest of the week, right out of the bottle.”
He gets the laughs and smiles he’s after. And he keeps getting them for the next 90 minutes as he jokes, tells stories, shares his life and, of course, sings and plays his guitar and ukulele.
Joined onstage by daughter Lurline Rivera Fernandez, he delivers some of his most popular hits: “Kamalani,” “Aloha Begins with Me,” and “Beautiful Coco Palms.”
He played at Coco Palms until it was damaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992 and never reopened. When he sings of the resort and his time there, it comes from the heart.
The birthday cake that comes out later that evening reads, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Coco Palms.’”
“Beautiful Coco Palms, where I want to be,” he sings. “Aloha is the spirit of beautiful Coco Palms.”
When he sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” with Lurline on keyboards and vocals, everyone joins in. It is Larry Rivera at his best. Warm, witty, friendly and sharp. Even on his last day of being 86 he is quick, smart and bright. He connects with people.
Rivera, one of the island’s Living Treasures, still commands the spotlight.
“I wish I had hula dancers here,” he says, looking out at his daughter and granddaughters standing in the back. “Please, for my birthday, come.”
Within a minute he and Lurline are playing “Waialeale” while others in the Rivera ohana dance gracefully, beautifully.
Rivera started at Coco Palms in 1951. He was a dishwasher, busboy, bellhop, waiter, bartender and manned the front desk. Eventually, he turned singer, performer.
He was a natural and he became popular with tourists staying at the iconic hotel made famous by Grace Guslander.
He recalled making good tips, $5 an hour. But more important than money for Larry Rivera then, and still today, is the people.
He wants to take care of everyone, it seems, and send them off better than when they came.
“When you leave Kauai, carry aloha with you and share it wherever you go,” he says.
Rivera’s musical career has spanned seven decades. He was friends with and played with Elvis Presley at Coco Palms. His songs have been about the people and places he has come to know.
He is storyteller, too.
He tells one of a little boy born at home, no doctor, a midwife, and the baby boy didn’t look right. He wasn’t going to make it, Rivera says, so the consensus was, toss him in the rubbish can.
After the boy, a baby girl came out. Someone went back, picked up the baby boy and slapped him. The baby responded.
“And here I am. True story,” Rivera says.
He speaks of receiving seven lifetime achievement awards and shrugs them off.
“Every time they think I’m going to die, they give me an award,” he says, laughing.
Lurline said being onstage with her father is “fantastic.”
“You can only imagine what it’s like to be playing with your own dad. It’s something I never thought I would be doing for this long.”
It was more than 25 years ago that her dad asked her to perform with him until he could find someone else. She said OK.
“He was 60-something, probably won’t be doing this very much longer, so I guess I can go along with it,” she said.
A few weeks went by. A few months.
“Did you find somebody?” Lurline asked.
“Yes,” her father answered.
They’ve been sharing the stage since.
Cafe Portofino’s Giuseppe Avocadi says Rivera is a rare man, talented, caring, humble.
“It’s unbelievable. He’s the true aloha spirit, this man,” he said.
People come from all over to meet him, see him perform. And he treats them all like family.
“Everyone is his friend,” Avocadi said. “He is an amazing person.”
Rivera was delighted Wednesday when so many of his ohana showed up at Cafe Portofino. Family is everything to this man.
“It’s a feeling that makes you want to cry. It touches your heart. They love you and you love them,” he said.
Most important to Rivera, he says with a big smile, “I’m still alive at this age.” He puts on several shows a week, including at the Kauai Museum and the Garden Island Grille.
And he still hits the road. Rivera traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota, this weekend for two shows, where he’ll be joined by Larry Rivera Jr.
If he has it his way, he’ll play as long as he’s on this Earth.
“I always tell the audience, they are the ones responsible for keeping me alive,” he said.
His music is about real things, real people, real places. People respond to it — with smiles, with applause, with tears of joy.
“It gives you life when you can see the people looking at you smiling,” he said.
Larry Rivera, you can bet, smiles back.