It was the early years of the Great Depression when Bill Bradway innocently stepped into a movie theater without realizing it would change the course of his life. Up there on the screen, larger than life, was Sol Ho‘opi‘i, a Hawaiian lap steel guitarist, playing the most beautiful music he’d ever heard, elastic and languid. Hawaii was ridiculously far and impossibly exotic for a boy who’d grown up on a farm in Haleyville, New Jersey—across a continent and an ocean, still twenty years from statehood. By the end of the decade, he had a career playing the music to East Coast audiences who had heard little like it on an instrument no one had ever seen before, a triple-neck lap steel electric guitar with eighteen pickups and three tunings.
Similarly, when a teenaged Jean Sigars tuned in the radio near the end of the ’30s to hear the weeping, whistling slide guitar played by Bill Bradway, by then known as the King of the Silver Strings, she never imagined that she was hearing her future husband, and she never imagined they would travel the entirety of America together playing Hawaiian music for the Lord.
It was an age before television, and her mother, father, and sister regularly gathered around the radio for entertainment, listening to the enchanting singing sounds of Bradway’s guitar. The Sigars family sang together after dinner, their dairy farm ringing with harmony, but music was more than a pastime for the family. Jean’s mother was a piano player for the local Methodist church, bringing in extra money as a piano teacher; she taught her young children, Jean and her sister Dorothy, how to play.
At the age of 11, her father paid for further music lessons for his daughters, “Our daddy said, ‘I don’t care how much money I spend on you girls, but I want you to make something of your talent.’ Every day he made us practice one hour,” remembered Jean. As they entered high school, the Sigars girls were good enough to go public with their talents: they joined the Tumbleweeds, a gospel and western group, and played the local Saturday night dances before performing on the radio in 1941. Though she’d long listened to Bill Bradway’s broadcasts, it was now his turn to hear her voice floating over the airwaves. He was so impressed by what he heard, he decided he needed the Sigars sisters in his band the Hawaiianaires: the beginning of a true radio romance. “We broadcasted over WSNJ in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Bill heard us,” she said. “He took us away from that other band.”
Bill had already established himself as a big name in the south Jersey music scene of the ’30s, playing the major tourist attractions of Hunt’s Ocean Pier and the Steel Pier. The piers were premier vacation destinations during the glory years of the Jersey shore. Ocean Pier was the first major entertainment pier on the Wildwood boardwalk, built in the early 1900s, featuring ballroom dancing and music. By 1935, it was converted to an amusement park with roller coasters, a Ferris wheel, and a radio station, WFPG, on which Jean had first heard Bill’s daily 45 minute broadcast. “The roll of the waves and the surf sound of the Atlantic Ocean contributed to the authentic Hawaiian atmosphere,” Bill later wrote in the liner notes of their first LP.
By the time Ocean Pier burned down—Christmas Day 1943—Bradway and the Hawaiianaires were already performing at the even-larger Steel Pier and broadcasting on its WSNJ station. Dubbed the “Showplace of the Nation,” Steel Pier was the biggest pier in the world at the time, a 2,000-footer built in Atlantic City in 1898. One of the most popular amusement venues in the first half of the twentieth century, it featured acts like high-diving horses and water-skiing dogs, in addition to musicians like Frank Sinatra, Al Jolson, and the Hawaiianaires.
“People loved his music and flocked to wherever he and his Hawaiian band were,” said Gina, Bill and Jean’s daughter. That included Atlantic City’s other most famous attraction, the Miss America pageant. Bradway provided live musical accompaniment for the 13th annual pageant in 1939, then little more than a bathing suit competition. “As the girls paraded by, he had to find a song that matched their gown as close as possible,” said his daughter Gina. “The winner in 1939 wore a blue evening gown and, of course, he played ‘Alice Blue Gown.’”
Jean, still learning the guitar as the newest member of the Hawaiianaires, was intimidated at first by the glitz and glamour of Atlantic City nightlife. It was a trial by fire, as she and her sister had never played Hawaiian music before, something that didn’t seem to bother Bill. “He said, ‘Tonight, you are going to play a Hawaiian song for the dance,” Jean recalled. “And, oh my goodness, he just about floored us and we said ‘We’re not playing.’ And he said, ‘Oh yes you are.’ So he pushed us.”
As Bill and Jean fell in love, he told her the stories of his life, he told her about his love of Sol Ho‘opi‘i. A Native Hawaiian guitarist, Ho‘opi‘i was a star in the 1930s and was a major innovator on the lap steel guitar, still considered to be one of the best players of all time. The new mass communication technologies of the phonograph, film, and radio made all this possible, just as it had Bill and Jean’s relationship. It was the first time in human history that a boy from New Jersey, or indeed anyone, might have encountered, learned, and loved a kind of music from another culture in another part of the world without ever going there or meeting someone from there. And it’s not unusual that someone who was as drawn to the lap steel guitar as Bradway was would end up playing Hawaiian music, despite such a chasm of geographic and cultural distance; the instrument had not yet assumed the place in country/western music that it occupies today and was most associated on the American mainland with the music of the Hawaii Territory, where it was ostensibly invented by a knife-wielding Joseph Kekuku delighting at the sound of his blade on the strings.
Ho‘opi‘i had been one of the first people to ever play an electrified lap steel guitar, a experimental novelty, but Bill, something of an electrical genius, built his own out of an old roast pot, a sewing machine, and the magneto from a Model T Ford. He then set about building what he claimed was the first double-neck steel guitar in the United States. After wedding Jean in 1948, he built an electric guitar for her too, with roses hand-carved into the fretboard, using a hypodermic needle to fill in the color. The roses and a nameplate were lit by electric bulbs and stayed in perfect tune despite the heat—an engineering feat Jean never quite understood.
“He never patented it,” said Gina. Instead, he mailed his notarized schematics to himself as a simple form of copyright protection and began selling home-built guitars and amplifiers through his own company, Bill Bradway Custom-Built Guitars, making single and double-neck steel guitars for up to $565 dollars. “Words will never describe the beauty of this guitar,” Bradway wrote in the company’s promotional materials. "Knowing that the steel guitar is the choice of the people and his love for this instrument has encouraged him to build and manufacture the most perfect steel guitar in the world with looks as well as tone. His greatest aim in life is to put the steel guitar on top, where it belongs."
Between performing, guitar sales, and music lessons, the Bradways were making a living. In 1948, when a few of their students moved out west to Denver, Colorado, the newly married couple decided to try the mountains for themselves. “It was a different lifestyle,” said Jean. “South Jersey’s the Garden State but out here we found more musicians, made friends.”
Big things happened amidst the mountains: Bill and Jean had two children, Billy and Gina, and the Hawaiianaires’ sound got noticed by some well-known names. When the backing musicians for yodelin’ country legend Slim Whitman and Minnie Pearl—the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw star—got stuck in a snowstorm on the way to Denver, it was Bill and Jean who filled in. “Even when we finished, they still hadn’t gotten into Denver. We played the whole show with Slim Whitman. We never had a bit of trouble, we played the whole show and backed up Minnie Pearl.”
By 1950, they were in Miles City, Montana, playing such venues as the Miles City Rodeo, the Montana State Fair, the Wild Horse Auction, and backing up Rex Allen, the singing cowboy of stage and screen. It was in Miles City that Bill put his genius to work and furthered the electric guitar innovations of his youth, building the triple-neck steel guitar that would become his signature. Copies of it sold through Brady Custom-Built Guitars for $750, a small fortune at that time.
Bill’s skill on the new instrument soon caught the ear of Horace Heidt, one of the most famous radio bandleaders of the ’30s and ’40s, a legend in the making. The Bradways traveled on tour and appeared on his broadcast shows as part of his hugely popular orchestra, the Musical Knights. “Horace loved the steel guitar so much, he asked Bill to join the band permanently…. He said ‘Horace, I can’t go. I’m married and I have two children,’” said Jean. “If I knew then what I know now, I’d say, ‘Bill, you go and just send me the money.’”
The Bradways had long been uncomfortable with the world of secular entertainment and their role playing nightclubs and bars, houses of immorality. “We never took the children in any place we played, whether it was clubs, dances, anything,” said Jean. But it wasn’t until 1955 that they fully transitioned to gospel music—at the prompting of a family tragedy, a broken guitar, and a prophetic voice. While Bill was working on one of his double-neck guitars for a client, word came from his sister in New Jersey that their mother was dying. Racing across the country, from the mountains to the plains to the shore, Bill made a fateful prayer, “Lord, spare my mother till I get back to see her.” She survived long to ask her son, on her deathbed, to play her the old Christian hymns he’d learned as a boy. Songs of praise and wonder filled her ears as she passed.
Bill returned home in anguish, finding his despair and existential grief manifesting themselves in his work on the double-neck guitar. “The bridge, the pull pieces, the head, nothing went right,” said Jean. “He got very, very despondent. So finally, he heard the voice of the Lord. He said, ‘Bill, I spared your mother and heard your prayer. What are you going to do for me?’ He came out of that room as white as a bed sheet.” Divinely inspired, Bill was born again and determined to use his gifts only for the Lord, to sing songs of worship instead of pop tunes in nightclubs—just like his hero. Ho‘opi‘i had long-since converted to Christianity and given up his secular career to perform gospel as well.
“He said, ‘Honey, are you going to follow me and be a Christian?’” said Jean. “And I said, ‘Honey, I have followed you all these years in the world of social entertainment, yes, I’m gonna follow you now.’” Though they had a standing date to perform at a local venue, they put in their two weeks notice like professionals. Playing those last days in a palace of sin tormented the newly devout Bill, as he felt torn between his faith and his professionalism, “He looked down his guitar in tears,” said Jean, “tears dripping from his eyes on the guitar neck because he had the love of the Lord in his heart.”
Daughter Gina had started singing harmony with her parents at home by the age of eight, and the Bradways’ new focus on churches, rivals, and other sites of faith and prayer allowed her join the rechristened Gospel Hawaiianaires. Though she raised her voice in praise, she was still so young she had to perform while standing on a box so the audience could see her. Soon, the Bradways were evangelizing around Denver, Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas, all over the mountain West and up to Canada, spreading the good word on radio, television, and vinyl. Bill had released a few Hawaiianaires’ 78s and homemade acetates on his own Rapture label, releasing a full length LP in 1959 with a family photo on the cover of Bill, Jean, and Gina crowned with leis, cradling their instruments. By 1963 they were on television sharing the gospel: their "Harvest-Time" television show aired live on CBS in Denver, sponsored by Filtex vacuum cleaners.
When the Bradways decamped even further west to California, Bill saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time—on the other side was Hawaii, now a state but still a land that filled his imagination with visions of paradise. They rented an apartment in Hawthorne so the kids could go to a regular school while the Gospel Hawaiianaires evangelized across the Golden State and landed a record deal with a gospel recording company, Christian Faith Recordings. The company eventually released two Gospel Hawaiianaires LPs in 1964 with overlapping but different track listings and nearly identical full-color cover photos of Bill and Jean, all accomplished in two days of work. The first day was a photo shoot for that cover—most of it spent applying makeup to their hands—and the second was an all-day recording session at Lorin Whitney Studio, with the band wrapping at 6 p.m. Overdubs were accomplished by playing the music down a hallway for reverb and having the band perform the new parts along with it, primitive even by the technical standards of 1964. It would be the Bradways’ first and only recorded material to see distribution.
As the Bradways’ children reached their teen years, their nomadic lifestyle as touring musicians slowed down so Billy and Gina could stay in one place and graduate high school like normal kids. The Gospel Hawaiianaires started taking only local engagements during the week, going further afield during weekends, while Jean worked in a Hallmark store to subsidize lost income and Bill pursued a long-held interest in chiropracty and massage.
Despite all the inspiration it provided him, Bill passed away in 1982 having never seen the islands’ sandy shores, having never heard the lap steel guitar played in its native setting. Left a solo act, Jean switched her main instrument to the Hammond organ and visited the youngest state three times, taking in the hula girls and guitar players, the swaying palms and breezy Hawaiian air that had lived like paradise visions in her husband’s mind for decades. A true performer, Jean felt Bill’s absence as a profound loss of harmony—not just personally but musically.
“I will say this, it was very hard,” she said. “When he passed away, there went my melody.”
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