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A hui hou, Willie K

Legendary musician dies at 59; ‘There was nothing he couldn’t play,’ a friend recalled

Legendary entertainer Willie K, shown in this promotional photo from 2016, died peacefully Monday night after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. He was 59. Through his illness, experiencing great pain, he demonstrated remarkable resilience, continuing to perform and post hopeful, inspiring videos on Facebook. Tony Novak-Clifford photo

Legendary entertainer Willie K, known for his extraordinary virtuosity, brilliant showmanship and effortless command of so many musical styles, died peacefully Monday night after a lengthy battle with lung cancer.

Born William Awihilima Kahaiali’i, the 59-year-old musician and 1979 Lahainaluna graduate passed away in his Wailuku home “surrounded by his ohana.”

“Thank you to everyone for all the love, support and prayers you have given,” his family said in a Facebook post early Tuesday morning. “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.”

He had been diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2018.

Through the course of his illness, experiencing great pain, Willie demonstrated remarkable resilience, continuing to perform and post hopeful, inspiring videos on Facebook.

Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler leans on Willie K while he plays the classic guitar riff from Aerosmith’s song “Walk This Way” during the “Concert For Our Lives” at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on March 24, 2018. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

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.”

It was another legend, Prince, who once anointed him at his 2003 MACC concert.

“We’ve been looking around this island for some funky music,” Prince announced. “Willie K, he’s funky.”

On Tuesday, friends and fellow performers remembered him for his musical talents and strength in the face of cancer.

“He was a gladiator, talented above all imagination,” said 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. It really demonstrated the power of Willie K.”

Amy Hanaiali‘i and Willie K snap a selfie with residents and staff at Hale Makua Kahului after performing on Dec. 13, 2018, as part of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Artist in the Community program. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Fleetwood recalled hearing about Willie’s prodigious talent from musician friends before moving to Maui.

“It was like when people back in the day in England would say, you’ve got to go and hear Jeff Beck. You had to seek him out,” Fleetwood said. “Through the years we played a lot. He was a truly amazing talent with the voice of an angel.”

Hosting many shows with Willie over the years at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, CEO Art Vento marveled that “there has never been such a unique combination of musical, comedic (Willie K was hilarious) and vocal talent.

“In the 25 years of presenting some of the most talented musicians in the world at the MACC, none could surpass his incredible ability,” Vento said. “Willie was an absolute wonder!”

Born in Lahaina to a musical family, Willie first played vibes professionally at the Maui Surf Hotel, and for eight years played bass with his father, Manu Kahaiali’i, starting at the Sheraton’s Black Rock Terrace.

Willie K riffs with bandmate Avi Ronan during a post-Super Bowl performance at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on Feb. 2, days after the announcement that his lung cancer was considered terminal. “I’m still going to be rocking on. I’m not going to stop,” he said in a Facebook video. The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

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,” Willie said in previous interviews with the author for The Maui News. “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.

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 once during a concert.

In 1993, Willie began collaborating with Amy Hanaiali’i Gilliom, beginning as her producer. 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.

Near the close of 2014, the two legendary artists 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 in a previous interview. “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.”

Some of his favorite musical memories he jammed with included 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.

“You left us with a legacy of music that we will always treasure, as we treasure your memory,” said Simmons. “It was unbelievable what he accomplished in the last two years. He was still a spark plug for the community.”

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,” O’Dwyer said. “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 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 in a Facebook video.

While Willie has passed on, fans are likely to hear new music from him in the future.

“We recorded 12 songs live in the studio about six months ago, a rock album,” Warehouse Blues Band guitarist Tom Conway revealed. “He seemed really happy and I know he wanted to put it out.”

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,” Fleetwood said. “I’d love to be of some help.”

Performing with Willie for seven years as the Hoku-winning Barefoot Natives, and with Mick Fleetwood’s Island Rumours Band, Eric Gilliom praised 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,” Gilliom said. “What a tour de force performance as a human being.”

Among his fondest memories of their time together, Gilliom 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,” Gilliom recalled. “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.”

* Jon Woodhouse can be reached at jonwoodh@gmail.com.

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