Hawaiian legend and, to quote his own lyrics, “an island one of a kind,” Willie K died in his Wailuku home on Monday, the family announced Tuesday.
Diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in January 2018, Uncle Willie, as he was widely known, was hospitalized for pneumonia this past February, which further complicated the cancer.
“He was in positive spirits and doing OK, and he was looking forward to performing again. He then suddenly turned for the worse and lost his battle,” the announcement said. He was 59.
Born William Awihilima Kahaiali‘i, he enthralled audiences with his singing and songwriting abilities, seamlessly stringing traditional Hawaiian music with blues, jazz, reggae, rock, country and opera.
Willie K’s spirit for giving brought him back to Kaua‘i time and time again to do performances hosted by the Kaua‘i Lifeguard Association, Kaua’i Hospice and others.
In 2012, promoter Andy Melamed enlisted musicians’ help for the KLA Second Wave Celebration to Help Save Lives benefit. The show started with John Cruz, then into Henry Kapono, then Kalapana.
“But then Willie comes on, this whole show was building to him. He comes out and performs a solo sitting down, singing opera,” Melamed said. Willie K performed all night long, transitioning from a flamenco guitar to ukulele to utilizing a full band.
“He played until the cops were called,” Melamed said with a laugh. “I told my wife I didn’t need to listen to music for another week or two after that show.”
Though it was expected, Melamed said Kahaiali‘i’s death is still a devastating loss.
“He meant so much to all of us on Kaua‘i,” Melamed said. “He provided pride to being Hawaiian.”
When Sue Kanoho at the Kaua‘i Visitors Bureau heard he was sick, she produced the video “Willie K – Kaua‘i Loves You,” with a song written by Chucky Boy Chock and tributes from admirers including Mayor Derek Kawakami, Koko Kaneali‘i and Christian Martson, owner of Tahiti Nui.
“It was always an honor to see Willie K perform throughout the years, and every single performance has stayed with me to this day,” Kanoho said. “I was pleased to know Willie K was able to see this message before he passed. Willie K will be remembered as the iconic legend that Hawai‘i and the rest of the world adored.”
With a half-a-century-long career, Willie K began performing with his father, Hawaiian jazz guitarist Manu Kahaiali‘i, at 8 years old. Willie K released his debut album, “Kahaiali‘i,” in 1991, which won him five Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in 1992.
In 2005, Willie’s reunion album with Amy Hanaiali‘i Gilliom, “Amy & Willie Live,” was nominated for a Grammy in the first year of the now-defunct Best Hawaiian Music Album award. Willie K performed with the likes of Prince, Mick Fleetwood, Stephen Tyler, Willie Nelson and Santana.
The recipient of the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, Willie K humbly accepted 18 Na Hoku Hanohano awards ranging from Album of the Year for “Kahaiali‘i” to Rock Album of the Year for his “Warehouse Blues” in 2012.
Musician Larry Rivera affectionately remembers meeting Willie K by chance at a show in Waikiki. “Nobody could sing like him,” he said Tuesday afternoon.
The night they met, they performed Rivera’s “Love and Aloha” on stage. “He played my ukulele and sang back up,” Rivera recalled. “He was a fantastic, natural talent. So many people will really, really miss him, but his music will last forever.”
These are sentiments that Dickie Chang echoed, calling Willie K a “human jukebox.”
“He shared his music with the world,” said Chang, who met Willie K over 40 years ago. “He is a part of graduation ceremonies, weddings and even funerals.”
One of Willie K’s last performances on Kaua‘i was at the Kaua‘i County Farm Bureau Fair as the Saturday night headliner in 2017.
“He was a remarkable guy. I don’t know if there will be another Willie K,” Chang said. “He’s at peace now.”
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz recalled Willie K as a trailblazer who “redefined music in Hawai‘i and helped other local artists succeed.”
“Rest in aloha, Willie K,” Schatz said in a statement. “We will long remember his energetic spirit, his passion, and the music he shared with Hawai‘i and the world. While he will be greatly missed, his music will live on.”
Gov. David Ige and his wife, Dawn, sent their condolences to family, friends and all those who felt Willie K’s music.
“Willie K was a unique talent whose huge voice effortlessly ranged from Hawaiian music and the blues to opera — all in one performance,” Gov. Ige said in a Tuesday statement. “Recognized locally and nationally, his songs touched our hearts.”
Willie K is survived by his wife, Debbi Kahaiali‘i, and their four children: Karshaun, Max, Lycettiana and Antoinette. A celebration of life will be announced at a later date.
Sabrina Bodon, public safety and government reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.