Earl Love’s lean, 6’4″ frame is perched on to a high bar stool at Ambrosia in Kihei. His striped fedora is tilted slightly to the left and his aloha shirt unbuttoned halfway to his navel. Even sitting down he towers over the baby grand piano to his left. To his right is a small table holding a bouquet of flowers and a glass of brandy.
It’s shortly after 10 p.m., and a well-dressed, young crowd is packed into the intimate jazz lounge oasis. They’re sitting in pairs on overstuffed couches and tall bar stools, sipping pricey drinks from martini glasses and snifters, occasionally conversing but mainly watching Love’s soulful performance.
Love sounds a bit like Barry White, but doesn’t like to be classified with other singers just because he sings low and slow. At the moment he’s focused on the bluesy rhythm of the old song he’s singing, but manages to notice a pretty blonde walk in and pluck a pink rose from the vase. Joel Gold, Love’s backup on the piano, takes a solo while Love hugs and welcomes the girl, then finishes singing Sarah Vaughan’s “Don’t Go to Strangers” in a smooth, baritone.
“I just want people to come and relax, to listen to the music and leave the hard workday behind,” he says.
Love sings the music that he grew up with in the 1940’s”“Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Roy Hamilton. Love believes yesterday’s music has a quality that new stuff doesn’t.
“I don’t get down on hip-hop,” he says. “I just think that things that came out of yesterday were more meaningful. Back then, you had to be real good because it took a long time to cut a record and you didn’t have all the studio equipment that makes you sound better.”
He jokes that he was born singing, but Love first starting honing his deep voice, and adding a bit of gospel flavor to it, in the Sanctified Baptist Church choir in his home town of Akron, Ohio.
Earl’s got a hat full of stories to tell about his musical career, which got its start when he met his mentor Dexter Gordon, the great tenor saxophonist and actor, in an Ohio barbershop where Love was working. Love spent many days badgering Gordon to hear him sing. Finally, Gordon relented.
At 16 Love joined the U.S. Marine Corps and went to Korea. There he sang with a group called “The Longtimers,” in reference to their deployment sentence. They once took third place, he says, in a competition that included all four military branches. Then there was the time in Anaheim, California, when he somehow won a local talent show.
“It was at a hillbilly bar,” Earl says. “I traded my clothes for some overalls and a big cowboy hat. I knew they had my song because I saw it on the jukebox.”
He got on stage and rocked “For the Good Time,” by Charley Ritz for a room full of strangers. He ended up walking out with $500 in his pocket and a big smile on his face.
Several years ago, Love cut a record with long time friend and jazz musician Gene Walker. “After 7″ showcases Love’s style in 11 bluesy anthems and ballads. But today, Love spends his time spreading his beloved jazz on Wednesday evenings at Gian Don’s in Kihei.
He occasionally stops by the Kihei Senior Center and Youth Center, and a few days each week he heads to the beach near his house, where he sings to the waves and the sun. What was supposed to be a two-week trip to Maui turned into two years so far, and Love says wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.
“I wished for all this,” he tells me outside Gian Dons one recent night, as he looks around at the trees and the sky. “Then, when I finally got here, Maui gave me an extra little bit of soul.” MTW