To understand exactly how the gentle, ploink-a-plunk sounds of slack-key guitar manage to remain popular in the days of electronic music and beat-heavy hip-hop, one needs to understand the influence of artists such as Sonny Chillingworth. He grew up among Big Island paniolos (cowboys) and old-school slack-key guitar players. When he moved out of ranch country and into the big city in his late teens, he managed to bring the music of the old days along with him. It was to be his defining characteristic, as well as his legacy to future musicians of Hawaii.
Chillingworth got his start when his mother arranged a meeting with the great Gabby Pahinui. Pahinui was so impressed by the youngster's guitar playing that he welcomed him to Honolulu, where he achieved plenty of recognition -- and plenty of work -- from other Hawaiians in the music business. He sat in on many, many recording sessions and played all the big clubs and luaus in Hawaii before finally recording his first album in 1964. Commercial and critical success led to several other recordings, as a solo artist as well as a guest artist, and as a member of the Gabby Band. He continued recording until he died of cancer in 1994. Sonny Solo was released the same year on Dancing Cat Records. The label released Endlessly, produced by the legendary George Winston, posthumously.
Throughout the last decade of his life, Chillingworth worked as a teacher and lecturer, as well as a recording artist and performer. This, perhaps, is the main reason he managed to have such a great influence on future Hawaiian stars. He shared his love of the paniolo music with the next generation, probably in much the same way as his uncles and cousins did with him in his childhood. Thus, though casual fans of Hawaiian music might not know the name Sonny Chillingworth, they will certainly recognize his music, which has been played in countless hotel lobbies and restaurants, and his style, which has been adopted in some degree by current slack-key celebs such as Keola Beamer and Dennis Kamakahi.