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Willie K’s voice lives on in Kaleo Phillips’ new album

‘First Dance’ features range of styles, new duet with late musician

Kaleo Phillips worked with Debbie Kahaiali‘i, wife of the late Willie K, to transform a rough home recording of Willie K’s unreleased song “Strawberries and Wine” into a duet with Phillips.

Nominated for Na Hoku Hanohano Awards for his last two albums, Kaleo Phillips’ latest release, “First Dance,” showcases this versatile Maui musician across a spectrum of styles from soulful pop and island reggae to traditional Hawaiian, and as a special highlight it features a new song with Willie K.

Before he died last year, Willie had suggested they record “Strawberries and Wine,” a song that he had composed but never released. Through the wizardry of studio technology, Willie’s rough home recording was transformed into a version with both musicians sharing lead vocals.

“This is one of the songs he wanted to do together,” Phillips said. “At his last performance at Mulligans where I opened for him, he said he had this song ‘Strawberries and Wine,’ and we should go in the studio.

“After he passed we searched for the track and finally found it. It was really rough with him playing guitar and singing. Debbie (Kahaiali’i) told me to write another verse or two and record it. Amazingly we were able to take his voice off of the rough draft and he sang the first verse and I sang the second, and we harmonized together towards the end of the song. It was amazing. I feel so blessed and thankful for what he’s done for me.”

Willie K was a beloved mentor for Phillips. They toured together on the Mainland and he treasured the time they spent on and off stage.

“I carry his legacy on,” he said. “Every performance I’ll do at least one Willie K song. Our families had known each other for years and our fathers played together in Lahaina. He often told me, ‘Don’t put yourself in a box. Think outside the box.’ “

“Growing up our fathers could play anything from Hawaiian and rock ‘n’ roll to country and R&B. That’s what I like to showcase when I perform live, and on my albums I do a little Hawaiian and some country and little rock as a tribute to him. All three of my albums have a bit of everything.”

Taking Willie’s advice to heart to not limit himself to one genre, he opens “First Dance” with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s soulful ballad “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” with Ron Kuala’au contributing vocals.

“Ron Kuala’au is another mentor of mine and he had done a version of that (Wonder) song,” Phillips noted. “When I first started playing I only played bass and ukulele and Ron gave me my first guitar. We had always wanted to do something together and we had fun recording it.”

A number of songs seem destined for local radio airplay, from the album’s romantic title song, which he composed as a tribute to his wife, and the Ka’au Crater Boys-flavored island reggae of “She Makes Me Wanna Sing,” to the memorable duet with Willie K.

The first Hawaiian song on the album, the gorgeous “Ala I Wailuku,” was composed by former Maui resident Kumu Hula Kawaiola Deguilmo-Banner, who now lives in Reno, Nev.

“She wrote that as a farewell to her mom and dad,” he explained. “It was very deep and poetic. It’s a very beautiful song about Wailuku and the area, and the hidden meaning was that she wasn’t going to return home to live anymore. She was going to stay in Reno.”

Deguilmo-Banner also composed the lovely traditional Hawaiian song “Nani Alau,” embellished by Kaulike Pescaia’s piano playing.

“Alau is a small island off Hana and it was written about her love and her partner’s love for Hana and what it meant,” Phillips said. “It’s the signature song for their halau.”

Changing pace, as a tribute to his late father, he includes the jaunty Hawaiian/Latin-flavored tropical instrumental “Hinano,” with Wailau Ryder on guitar.

“He was a fun-loving guy with a great voice, always joking, and I wanted the song to reflect that,” Phillips said.

To close the album he features another cover, the Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why,” which he updates with a lilting reggae arrangement, joined by KPOA DJ Shane “Hawaiian Home Boy” Kahalehau.

“I had done it a couple of times with Willie and he liked the groove,” he said.

A Lahainaluna High School graduate, Phillips has played music most of his life.

“My mom and dad were entertainers and I always loved music,” he recalled. “It’s a blessing that I love what I do and I do what I love.”

His debut album, “E Mama,” was honored with three Na Hoku nominations in 2019, for Hawaiian Single of the Year, Instrumental Composition of the Year and Promising Artist(s) of the Year. He followed up with “Take Me Home,” which was nominated in 2020 for Contemporary Acoustic Album of the Year. Undoubtedly “First Dance” will add to his accomplishments.

For the future there are plans to launch a Willie K tribute tour.

“We’re putting together a tour of all the places he performed around the nation using his Warehouse Blues Band,” he said.

Phillips currently performs at the Royal Lahaina Resort from 5 to 8 p.m. Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, and at the Tommy Bahama Marlin Bar in Lahaina from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays. On April 3 he will perform with Ryder in a show featuring his wife, hula dancer Pakalana Phillips, as part of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s free Live @ the MACC series. “First Dance” is available as a digital download on all the usual platforms, including the iTunes Store and Amazon Music. A CD version will be released Feb. 28.

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