Dick Jensen Calls it a Wrap

By Mary Young

    For a time between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, Dick Jensen was the hottest act out of Hawaii. The singer-dancer-comedian headlined at top showrooms across the country, from the Flamingo in Las Vegas to the Copacabana in New York. He performed on the Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, and Mike Douglas shows, and made a half-dozen appearances on
the Tonight show. Jensen’s show at the Oceania floating restaurant in Honolulu Harbor was jammed night after night for eight years.

    Some 35 years after his heyday, on April 29, Dick Jensen was named Entertainer of the Year by proclamation of Mayor Mufi Hannemann. In early April, the Kalihi native was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Hawaii Music Awards.

    It’s been more than a quarter century since Jensen reached the height of his show business career. But according to colleagues and fans who remember his performances, he still ranks in the top tier of Hawaiian entertainers.

    “This guy’s recognition is long overdue,” said Johnny Kai, president of the Music Foundation of Hawaii. “He was the real deal.”

All-Around Entertainer

    “As far as Hawaii is concerned, Dick has got more talent than anybody,” said fellow musician Eddie Suzuki, who was touring the mainland in those years with his own group. “To me, he’s like Tom Jones, Humperdink, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Michael Jackson put together.”

    In the late 1970s, bassist Kata Maduli toured with Jensen’s act as conductor and bass guitarist. “He could draw the crowds in an instant,” said Maduli. “He danced like James Brown and he was a good singer too – an overall showman.”

    To watch a video of Jensen’s show is to flash back to the glitz of 1970s pop-rock entertainment: The 6’2” Jensen - his stage moniker was “Giant” – is dressed in a white three-piece suit with smartly tailored jacket, his open collar showing a glint of gold chain around his neck. He’s performing an up-tempo version of “Try a Little Tenderness,” backed by a twelve-piece band. Disco-style stage lighting plays over the glittering scarf draped over his shoulders and the skin-tight Lycra his dancers are wearing. Jensen on stage has undeniable sex appeal, and his connection with the audience is evident.

    “Of all the performers that I’ve experienced in Hawaii, if you had to get a performer to appear before an audience that knew nothing about Hawaii, knew nothing about Hawaiian entertainment, I would have picked Dick Jensen,” said Tom Moffatt, the former impresario who “discovered” Jensen and later brought The Rolling Stones to Hawaii and chose Jensen as the opening act for them here.

    Still handsome at 63, Jensen reminisced over lunch recently in a Waikiki coffee shop. Asked what set his show apart from the rest, he said, “Energy. High energy, from the beginning of the show to the end. I started with a tie, ended up with my shirt tied at the waist. And the dancers with me, we didn’t know any better. We just went for it.”

    He doesn’t mind being compared to Englebert – a good friend – and to Tom Jones, the Welsh heartthrob and pop phenom of “What’s New Pussycat.”

    “I have no problem with that,” said Jensen. “The bottom line was that I was already doing it, and both Englebert and Tom Jones opened the door into mainstream America, in the Las Vegases, the hotels across the country that never played rock and roll before. But now they realized this had some kind of a niche out there.”

Life as an Evangelist

    Jensen lives in Honolulu with his wife, Toni. It’s a comparatively quiet life, but not an anonymous one. People recognize him on the street, often because of his current work as an evangelist and counselor. “They would say ‘you don’t know me, but I sat in your class when you came to the prison. And you changed my life,’” said Jensen.

    His own life changed dramatically in 1981. A 20-year habit of substance abuse - alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and barbiturates – ended shortly after he was convicted on nine drug-related felony counts. Jensen got probation and paid a fine, but the publicity surrounding the trial put his career on “temporary hold,” he said. “Nobody wanted to touch an addict.”

    By 1983, he had become a born again Christian and revived his career. Performing regularly at clubs in Waikiki, he began preaching and evangelizing during the day.

    “The bottom line is that I used whatever talent I had in the entertainment business,” he said. “I brought that and I called it the ‘junk in the trunk.’ I would take what I had and bring it to the forefront no matter where I was. If it had to do with church, if it had to do with entertainment, I had a junk trunk that had all my props, had all my things, whatever I needed to grab to sell the message, I used it.

    “Like in churches, they would look at me and I would use comedy as an opening: “I’d say, ‘It’s great to see you here, I was born and raised of Hawaiian-French-Danish-English-Irish parents…one of each…in the valley of Kalihi. How many of you are from Kalihi? You notice very few hands went up. That’s because no one ever gets
out of Kalihi.’ I’d do the comedy thing, one story after another, and it puts them at ease.”

    For a few years, Jensen was a minister at a non-denominational church. But as a self-described “fire and brimstone” preacher, he realized evangelizing was a better fit. “I was primarily an evangelist at heart, rather than a pastor,” he said.

    Pastor Keith Ryder of Light of Promise Ministry has known Jensen since the entertainer’s early days of preaching. Ryder says he calls Jensen occasionally to speak to his faithful. “He’s very knowledgeable of the scriptures, and he articulates well,” said Ryder. “And to boot, he has his past lifestyle compared to the lifestyle he
has now.”

    No longer the Giant, Jensen evangelizes as the “Giant Killer.” The idea came from televangelist Rod Parsley, who helped Jensen launch his career in the ministry.

    “It’s a reference to the biblical story of David and Goliath,” said Jensen. “In the Christian realm, the whole story about the giant going back to Goliath. It took a young boy named David to come along with a slingshot to drop this giant. So the connotation in the Christian realm was that the giant always connoted a negative . . . so when they saw the things that were in my information packet, they said, you may be the giant in the entertainment world, but in the Christian world, you are the giant killer.”

    Ryder said he has known Jensen since shortly after the entertainer became an evangelist. “When I first invited him to speak at our sunrise service, he still had a little bit of show biz in him,” said Ryder. “He spoke well, and he sang a couple of songs, and you could see the moves still in his steps. He had that way, and all of that from the entertainment world.” Now, Ryder said, “I can honestly say that I have seen great changes in his life from the time I’ve met him till now, and tremendous growth in his delivery of the scriptures, and a greater passion. He has a great passion for truth.”

    These days, Jensen moves slowly and walks with the aid of a cane after a series of mini-strokes he suffered last year. He recently decided to retire from the entertainment business. “I’m not saying that I won’t sing or record,” he said, “but the majority of that would only be done for myself.” The decision, he said, was “very difficult. But it’s a reality when you look at the fact that the success of my show in the past has always been high energy because of the dancing. So this leg does not help me in that arena, and actually I just made up my mind that I’ve got to give it up.”

    He talks with enthusiasm about his current project, renovating and furnishing a recently acquired condo in Waikiki.

    And the Giant’s career keeps evolving. He will continue to evangelize, but now he devotes more and more time to counseling. “People have a hard time trying to get by,” he said. Also, he added, “I’d like to be a better mentor to kids.” “Maybe I’m really not giving up anything,” he said. “Maybe I’m just channeling my efforts to another area.”