Willie with ZZ’s Billy Gibbons
There was no one like Uncle Willie K, not on Maui, not in Hawaii, not in the world. He truly defined the meaning of legend, with his extraordinary virtuosity, brilliant showmanship, and effortless command of so many musical styles.
It was another legend, Prince, who once anointed him at his 2003 Maui Arts & Cultural Center concert. “We’ve been looking around this island for some funky music,” Prince announced on stage. “Willie K, he’s funky.”
Born William Awihilima Kahaiali’i, he died peacefully at the age of 59 on Monday night at his home in Wailuku after enduring a lengthy battle with lung cancer. “Thank you to everyone for all the love, support and prayers you have given,” his family posted on Facebook. “Although he was in positive spirits and doing okay, he was looking forward to performing again. He then suddenly turned for the worse and lost his battle.”
Through the course of his illness, experiencing great pain, Willie demonstrated remarkable resilience, continuing to perform and post hopeful, inspiring videos on Facebook.
His most recent post on May 11, featured “something for the soul,” a beautiful new song where he sang: “Create your heaven, your paradise, it’s up to you, it’s a beautiful place, such a beautiful place.”
“He was a gladiator, talented above all imagination,” says Mick Fleetwood, who played with Willie at blues festivals, in his Island Rumours Band, and at his Fleetwood’s on Front St. restaurant. “We couldn’t believe he could be that challenged with his illness and still play. I don’t know where it came from. It’s unbelievable. It really demonstrated the power of Willie K.”
Fleetwood recalls hearing about Willie’s prodigious talent from musician friends (“it might have been Paul McCartney”) before moving to Maui. “Have you heard about this guy, this player, this singer? It was like when people back in the day in England would say, ‘you’ve got to go and hear Jeff Beck. He’s fucking unbelievable.’ It was that sort of a vibe. You had to seek him out if you’re going there. So I did. Willie would often say on stage, ‘this strange, tall guy came in and walked up to me and introduced himself.’ I think I jammed with him that night. That was the beginning of our relationship. Years later I moved here and we all came up (to Mick’s Kula estate) and we formed Island Rumours.
The novel Island Rumours Band featured Fleetwood on drums joined by Willie K, Eric Gilliom Molokai’s falsetto star Raiatea Helm, Nashville-based guitarist Rick Vito, and percussionist Lopaka Colon.
When Willie was initially approached about the idea of fusing classic Fleetwood Mac with Hawaiian music he was a little skeptical. “I raised an eyebrow at that,” he recalled at the time, “but that’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years, rocking and Hawaiian, and they’re really into the two genres.”
“It’s awesome, it’s fantastic,” he enthused. “I never rehearse, I have not rehearsed in 30 years. I give them credit for getting me out of the house.”
“Through the years we played a lot,” Fleetwood continues. “I was so glad I played his last blues festival here. He was a truly amazing talent with the voice of an angel. “His direct channel to these islands and heritage was very important to him. He was a guide, there was always, ‘well what does that do for the island?’ As a visitor you took it on board. He was sometimes very uncompromising and that was part of his legacy.”
Fleetwood says he would often marvel at Willie’s brilliance. “Every time I saw him I would find myself almost stopping playing, did I just hear that?”
He especially loved hearing Willie solo, singing and playing acoustic guitar. “For me his acoustic stuff was where I felt his fullest power, just him and his guitar, it would make your mouth fall open. He was unique. The ultimate uniqueness was hearing him alone, with his voice and a ukulele or acoustic guitar. No one else in my life that I’ve admired ever had that.”
Willie with Bobby Ingram
Hosting many shows with Willie at the Maui Arts & Cutural Center, CEO Art Vento marvels: “There has never been such a unique combination of musical, comedic (yes Willie K was hilarious) and vocal talent. What a devastating loss for the world, the world of music, the world here in Hawai’i and the world beyond these shores. In the twenty five years of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, we have been fortunate to have presented some of the most talented musicians in the world. However, none could surpass the incredible ability of our local boy from Maui who effortlessly could take ANY song that appeared in his head and seamlessly make the notes appear via the tips of his fingers and through his wonderful resounding voice. Willie was an absolute wonder!”
Born in Lahaina to a musical family, Willie first played vibes professionally at the Maui Surf Hotel, and for 8 years played bass with his father, Manu Kahaiali’i, starting at the Sheraton’s Black Rock Terrace.
It was San Francisco East Bay guitarist Joe Cano who first instructed Willie in lead guitar technique. “Until I met Joe I didn’t even know how to pick,” said Willie. “He taught me some of his licks at the Travelodge.” Jamming at Lahaina’s old Travelodge, Willie joked: “Then I could only play ‘Little Grass Shack’ and ‘Blue Hawaii’.”
Anyone who saw Willie play in the early 1980s might have imagined Jimi Hendrix had reincarnated on Maui. The rock guitar god was an obvious influence in technique and even stage presence. And like Hendrix he would pick an electric guitar with his teeth – he said he learned how in 1978 while garage jamming. “Some people thought that I wanted to play like Jimi Hendrix, mainly heavy rock,” he recalled in his formative days. “I like versatility on the guitar, the weirder the sound the better.”
Known for his impersonations, Willie could perfectly imitate the cast of stars on the “We Are the World” benefit song. “Because I was doing impersonations of Willie Nelson that’s how I ended up on the road with Willie Nelson,” he recalled.
Years later he recorded a brilliant duet with the country star on the “Willie Kalikimaka,” album, with the two Willies combining talents on a transcendent country bluesy style rendition of “Away In A Manger.”
“I really had a good time recording it, especially when I sang with Willie Nelson,” he said. “He’d seen me at Hapa’s and told me, ‘great picking boy.’ We talked story and I told him I was doing a Christmas album and asked if he would like to sing on it. Without any hesitation he said, he’d love to. He asked what song, and I said ‘Away in the Manger,’ and he said ‘that’s my favorite song.’ He called me up and said ‘I got the CD, it’s awesome, I love it.’”
Willie earned a pile of Na Hoku Hanohano Awards for his first three albums in the early 1990s, then in 1993, he began collaborating with Amy Hanaiali’i Gilliom, beginning as producer, then as a duo they released two hit albums which earned them four Na Hoku Awards, including Hawaiian Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Duo or Group of the Year. A recording of their 2003 concert tour, “Amy & Willie Live,” was nominated for a Grammy Award.
“I wouldn’t have made it without him,” Amy noted at the time. “Willie molded me as an entertainer. I come from musical theater and I’m used to the third wall being in front of me, in that you don’t ever talk to the audience, you perform and they’re not really there.”
Willie provided Amy with a key to success blending contemporary arrangements with her classic style of falsetto singing, while she provided a vehicle to nurture his Hawaiian roots.
“Mountain Apple asked me to produce her first album and I was scared,” he recalled. “But becoming a producer was a blessing actually. It’s hard to find my identity around Hawaiian music because it’s basically all around the Sons of Hawaii, Hui Ohana and Gabby Pahinui. If I put it out on an album everybody would say he’s doing something like Gabby did 20 years ago. But if you see it live on stage you end up missing music like that. So that’s why I hold back on recording Hawaiian music. But the blessing was I got to put it behind someone else. It was very comfortable because it wasn’t featuring me.”
Toning down a bit to accompany Amy, Willie learned patience from his female partner. “I’m one of the most frustrated individuals and I’ve learned a lot of patience,” he said. “Sometimes at concerts she’s doing all this beautiful Hawaiian music and I just want to – (he begins singing the Hendrix classic) – ‘Hey Joe, you going around with the gun in your hand’ – I just want to break it out, raise some eyebrows.”
Besides stellar musicianship, part of the genius of Amy and Willie on stage was their inspired comedic interplay, as Hawaii’s Sonny & Cher.
Performing at L.A.’s House of Blues before a sold-out crowd, the duo cracked up their audience so much with their repartee some folks thought they’d wandered into the Comedy Store by mistake. “Jim Belushi thought we were a comedy team,” Willie recalled. “He said, are you guys performing at the Comedy Store, you’re pretty funny.”
Willie reported he had avoided producing his own music for a long time because of disgruntlement with the music business. “I had never been allowed to say even anything in the recording studio when I did my last four albums,” he said. “It was everyone else’s ideas, they weren’t mine. I could throw in ideas but I had no control. That was one of the reasons why I didn’t record for a long time. I didn’t think I would be able to handle it again with someone else controlling the album. Now I’m at the helm. I went through the whole Jawaiian scene with everybody else and did my own thing. I wanted to move on to something different.”
Near the close of 2014, Amy and Willie reunited for the memorable Hoku-winning album, “Reunion.” “It took us about a year just processing what avenue we wanted to go with, and how to be a little different,” Willie explained. “We wanted to upgrade it for a new generation, for younger ears.”
Some of his best loved songs include “Katchi Katchi Music Makawao,” “Rains of Ko’olau,” “My Moloka’i Woman,” “Spirits in the Wind,” and “You Ku’uipo.”
In his later years Willie most came alive fronting the Warehouse Blues Band. “I love playing the blues and I don’t think that’s ever going to change,” he reported. “Blues is so special to me because it’s the only type of music where both vocals and guitar can become emotional at one time. I remember singing the blues when I was like 6 or 7 years old, singing old standards that my father used to sing. I remember the first time I heard ‘The Thrill is Gone’ as a kid, and I thought this is cool stuff. I was lost after that.”
In 2012 he released “Warehouse Blues,” a brilliant album of original material that paid tribute to some of the musicians he admired from John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Muddy Waters, to Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Carlos Santana.
“It was with the intention of paying homage to all those I’ve enjoyed listening to,” he said. “Some songs were written 20 years ago, some 30 years ago and some were written the day of the recording. I’m just rocking out til I check out.”
Over the course of 17 compositions he explored many shades of blues from the ZZ Top grind of “Howling at the Moon” to the searing Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac influenced “Heart Aching Blues.” “That was because of Mick,” he said.
And there was opera, when he would mesmerize audiences with a jaw-dropping “Nessum Dorma.”
“I’ve always been a fan,” he said of his love for opera. “It’s just that it’s been tucked away in a closet in my head for years. Mario Lanza did a movie about Caruso, and I remember watching it when I was about 9 years. Ever since then I’ve loved (the aria) ‘Vesti La Giubba.’”
Among some of his favorite musical memories he jammed with B.B. King, Prince, and Willie Nelson, and he performed with stars like Steven Tyler, Alice Cooper, Mick Fleetwood, Taj Mahal, Pat Simmons, and ZZ Tops’ Billy Gibbons, at his annual blues festivals.
Willie with Steven Tyler
“You left us with a legacy of music that we will always treasure, as we treasure your memory,” says Pat Simmons. “It was unbelievable what he accomplished in the last two years. He was still a spark plug for the community.”
Playing with Willie always kept you on your toes because like Bob Dylan you never knew what he would play next says Warehouse Blues Band guitarist Tom Conway. “You really had to listen because he never told you what he was going to do. He would just start playing. You had to live in the moment and use every skill in your tool kit to try to hang with him. I always felt supper alive being on stage with Willie. It was always exhilarating and I was extremely proud to be on stage with him. A lot of people play the same songs the same way, and he would always play something that we had never played. You had to tune in the best you could and follow him.”
Watching one of his shows at the King Kamehameha Golf Clubhouse I remember being awed by his versatility thinking how it was highly unlikely that one could experience anything like a Willie K show anywhere else in the world.
He was raw, uncensored, unpretentious, soulful, and really funny, recalling how playing the Israeli national anthem in Egypt was probably not the greatest idea.
As for music we heard a jaw-dropping, Judy Garland (not Iz) version of “Over the Rainbow,” an emotionally-wrenching version of The Ink Spots’s “If I Didn’t Care,” sung as a homage to Nina Simone, Waylon Jenning’s country classic “Good Hearted Woman,” Hawaiian yodeling, a taste of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” and Tony Lindsay’s local standard “Blue Darling,” all topped off with some Texas style blues boogie with ZZ Top’s signature hit “La Grange.”
A regular performer at Mulligan’s on the Blue, owner Mike O’Dwyer was with Willie at his passing. “I got to say goodbye and thank him. He passed away pretty peacefully. The strength and humility he showed fighting this illness has been incredible. His last show was Valentine’s Day at Mulligan’s. His faith in Christianity tripled in the last year, and he never preached or pushed it on anybody. But you could tell his strength in religion and belief in God.”
Willie’s most recent recording, “Tropical Plantation Blues,” paid tribute to the plantation days with catchy songs like “Rooster Crowing,” “Cane Truck Hauling,” and “Amber Sky Blue.” “It’s all acoustic Uncle Willie, laidback, fun,” he noted.
While Willie has passed on we’re likely to hear new music from him in the future. “We recorded 12 songs live in the studio about 6 months ago, a rock album,” Tom Conway reveals. “He seemed really happy and I know he wanted to put it out.”
Mick Fleetwood said he would love to assist with any unreleased recordings. “I spoke to Debbie (Kahaiali’i) some time ago and he has loads of music that never came out. I’d love to be of some help. How cool would it be to find and explore and create something that would be a stellar presentation of his work.”
Performing with Willie for 7 years as the Hoku-winning Barefoot Natives, and with Mick Fleetwood’s Island Rumours Band, Eric Gilliom praises Willie as, “a shooting star of talent like no other. He intensely loved to play music, and he was literally going to play until the day he died. What a tour de force performance as a human being.”
Among his fondest memories of their time together, Eric recalled when a famous concert promoter flew the duo first class from Maui to Venice, Italy, for a birthday party.
“There were maybe 300 people from all over the world, and I looked out into the room we were going play and it was mostly Hasidic Jews. I said, Willie you need to look out there. What are we going to play?
“In classic Willie K style he laughed and said, ‘just watch and listen. Just keep playing A minor.’
“He starts singing in Hebrew, and I looked at him, thinking, oh no, he’s finally done it, he’s faking it. But within a matter of minutes the whole front row of these Hasidic Jewish men stood up and started dancing like ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ That’s a classic Willie K moment. He was an American Express, good to go anywhere for anything. There was nothing he couldn’t play.”
Willie with ZZ’s Billy Gibbons and with Steven Tyler – all Photos by JW