Mahalo Willie K
Ohana and friends come together to help with health care costs
To help Willie K deal with mounting health care expenses resulting from his lung cancer diagnosis, a “Mahalo Willie K Benefit Concert” will be held from 1 to 8 p.m. Saturday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Centers’s A&B Amphitheater and Yokouchi Pavilion in Kahului.
Musicians performing include the Kahaiali’i Brothers, KB the Next Generation, Kalani Pe’a, Pono (Kaleo Phillips, Josh Kahula and Pi’ilani Arias), Na Koa, Na Ha’i, Marty Dread, Jesse Tanoue, Ata Damasco, Arlie-Avery Asiu and Ho’Aikane.
In celebration of Maui’s brilliant, beloved musician, we’re taking a look back at some of his career highlights over the last 10 years.
Taking inspiration from the incendiary teaming of guitar virtuosos John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia, in 2008, Willie debuted the Lima Wela trio. The combined acoustic guitar power of Willie, Joe Cano and Avi Ronen evoked standing ovations, including their debut opening for War, where they generated more electricity than the famous rock/funk headliners.
“People are just going nuts over it,” Willie reported. “We’re getting standing ovations after every tune.”
Willie and Cano shared a musical history that reached back more than 30 years to the days of jamming at Lahaina’s old Travel Lodge.
“Then I could only play ‘Little Grass Shack’ and ‘Blue Hawaii,’ “ Willie joked.
A year later he unleashed his remarkable opera ability with a jaw-dropping “Nessun Dorma,” in concert with the Hawaii Youth Symphony.
“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 (Enrico) Caruso, and I remember watching it when I was about 9 years old. Ever since then, I’ve loved (the aria) ‘Vesti la giubba.’ “
Also in 2009, our legendary virtuoso toured Germany as a solo artist opening for the UK pop/soul band Simply Red to tremendous acclaim — German audiences are notorious for booing opening acts offstage. Willie was such a hit that the tour’s promoters suggested he record an album for the European market.
“They had never seen an opening act get two standing ovations at a stadium in Berlin,” Willie explained. “The idea was to focus on the ukulele, creating a pop album out of Germany.”
On “Twisted Ukulele,” Willie unleashed his formidable talent on an array of gems from U2’s “With or Without You” and Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately,” to the standard “Fly Me to the Moon” and the Hawaiian classic “Waimanalo Blues.”
Having dazzled us for years with his extraordinary talent and versatility, Willie finally felt it was time to tap his love for blues in 2012 with an album of all-original material that paid tribute to some of the musicians he admired, from John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, to Muddy Waters and Albert Collins.
“It was with the intention of paying homage to all those I’ve enjoyed listening to,” he said about the Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning “Warehouse Blues.” “It’s not a traditional blues album, because it’s got flavors of every other genre I’ve enjoyed.”
The same year, he had his own ukulele named after him — the Willie K Signature Ukulele. Made by Oscar Schmidt and crafted from Hawaiian koa wood, it was designed by Willie and Ronen.
Other highlights in 2012 included the official opening of Mick Fleetwood’s Fleetwood’s on Front St. in Lahaina, which featured a Barefoot Natives’ reunion with Eric Gilliom, and Steven Tyler dueting with Willie on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Just into 2013, Willie debuted his “Blues on the Blue BBQ,” featuring acclaimed guitarist Elvin Bishop, at Mulligans on the Blue in Wailea.
“There have been combined jazz and blues festivals, but no just home-style, lowdown blues festivals,” Willie announced. “After I won (the Hoku) Rock Album of the Year for the blues CD I produced, it was time to do something.”
Following this highlight, Willie’s 2014 blues fest featured headliners ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Mississippi blues legend Robert “Wolfman” Belfour.
“I listened to his songs and I said, ‘This is what a blues festival in Hawaii needs,’ “ Willie reported. “His style reminds me of Gabby Pahinui for Hawaiian music fans.”
Near the close of 2014, a historic reunion with Amy Hanaiali’i was announced. Concerts and a memorable Hoku-winning album resulted.
“It took us about a year just processing what songs to use, 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.”
These two pioneering musicians first worked together in the late 1990s, beginning with Willie as Amy’s producer; then, as a duo, they released two hit albums which earned them four 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.
“On the next one we’re going to try and pursue more world music,” Amy said. “We’ve got some really cool world music sounding stuff.”
By the summer of 2015, Willie had landed a regular gig at Waikapu’s King Kamehameha Golf Course Clubhouse, which offers a spectacular setting for any entertainment event — let alone his mighty talent.
“I’m still flying high from the first show there,” Willie enthused. “I’m stoked. The location is great. It’s a whole new world. We want to put this club on the map.”
In the space of his two-hour show, you could hear a jaw-dropping version of Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow;” an emotionally wrenching cover of The Ink Spots’ “If I Didn’t Care”; HAPA’s beautifully sung “Ku’u Lei Awapuhi”; some Tahitian and Mexican mariachi; Waylon Jenning’s country classic “Good Hearted Woman”; Hawaiian yodeling; a taste of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” and the scorching, original blues-rocker “Howling at the Moon.”
It’s the blues that he most loves performing.
“I love playing the blues and I don’t think that’s ever going to change,” he said. “Blues is so special to me because it’s the only type of music where both the 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.
“I knew nothing about Hawaiian music until much later in life. The first thing for me was blues, soul and R&B — Sam and Dave, the Four Tops, Aretha Franklin. When Stevie Ray Vaughan came into the picture, that was it.”
The death of Prince in 2016 prompted Willie to recall his time hanging out with the rock/funk legend. Prince even mentioned Willie (“he’s funky”) at his 2003 MACC show.
“He came up and jammed right after the concert,” Willie recalled. “It was surreal. We became friends and every once in awhile we’d hang out.”
With many irons in the fire, Willie has talked about releasing a spectrum of albums.
“I’ll definitely be creating another blues album, and I’m going to pursue my heavy-metal project and my Pink Floyd project.”
Inspired by the PBS series, “American Epic,” which explored the roots of modern American music — including Mississippi Delta blues pioneer Charley Patton — Willie composed more than an album’s worth of new songs.
“Blues guys like Charley Patton would take the train and stop off at every plantation, and play for all the workers,” he explained. “It brought back memories of being a teenager in Lahaina. I wrote songs about working in the sugar cane and hard life on the plantation.”
When he feels well enough, Willie has been in the studio recording this new acoustic blues album that recalls the plantation days. New songs include “Roosters Crowing in the Morning,” “Cane Truck Haulin’,” “Amber Skies” and “Big Ole House of the Sun.”
The “Willie K & Friends Bluesfest” concert at the MACC opened 2018, where Willie was joined by Alice Cooper, Michael McDonald and Pat Simmons, plus Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson and Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band saxophonist Alto Reed.
And finally, Willie just performed with Tyler, Fleetwood and Marty Dread at the sold-out “Concert for Our Lives.” Having successfully completed rounds of chemo and radiation treatment, he was introduced by U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard.
“It’s a special privilege to introduce someone who has, throughout his life, opened his heart and shared his love though his music with the world,” Gabbard said. “So many of our hearts and prayers have been with Willie. Even through his own hardship in fighting to beat cancer, he continues to give, to serve and do all he can to share his love and his aloha with all of us.”
In a recent Facebook post, Willie thanked everyone who has helped him.
“I’m a lucky guy. The whole state of Hawaii is amazing. I’m really blessed. God bless you all.”