Like most of 2020, this holiday season has been full of challenges and changes. One of the traditions I will greatly miss is emceeing Willie K’s annual Christmas show and taking part in that chicken-skin moment when his extended ‘ohana joins him on the Castle Theater stage for the “O Holy Night” finale.
Every holiday season, Willie touched thousands of hearts across the Hawaiian Islands, with his incomparable voice and musicianship. On stage, he never failed to give his all, even when suffering from extreme pain and exhaustion. His passion for performing was as evident as his immense talent. But most in the audience never knew the rest of the story, the true extent of his generosity.
Willie used his Christmas shows to help feed our communities. Through organizing the collection of nonperishable foods and donating concert proceeds, he and his Maui Tribe ‘ohana have provided more than 60,000 pounds of food on each of the major islands and 450 Christmas dinner boxes on Maui annually.
Year-round, Willie supported numerous other charities through his concerts and music festivals, including his annual Blues & BBQ Fest. At a mahalo party for folks involved in the 2018 BluesFest, Willie stunned family and friends with the announcement of his cancer diagnosis. Yet he continued to perform and contribute to the community, even as the disease slowly ravaged his body. With a few close friends including Gus Hoeft and Stacey Smith, Willie set up Stage 4, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping musicians and their families in need.
Willie passed away May 18. Still in mourning, Stage 4 and Maui Tribe organized a seven-hour benefit concert online to celebrate what would have been his 60th birthday Oct. 18. The show raised thousands of dollars as well as numerous pleas from viewers for more, specifically, a holiday concert. Understandably, the ‘ohana was unsure about proceeding with a Willie K Christmas show without Willie.
Then came the letter. Willie’s sister Rae Kahaialii shared the story in a recent Facebook post:
“We thought long and hard about doing a Christmas Live (event) on Braddah’s FB page. To say it’s been a rough year is a serious understatement, not only for our ‘ohana, but for the world. . . . The letter was about a man who (decided) to commit suicide. He is a huge fan of Willie’s and actually picked Willie’s birthday to do it. He sent his wife to a day spa, sent his kids to his parents. As he was getting ready to kill himself, his wife called. So as not to alarm her or alert her that anything was wrong, he answered.
“Wife: Baby, guess what Willie K’s family is doing right now? . . . They are celebrating his birthday with a FB Live concert. You should watch it.
“He did, and got so caught up in it . . . his wife was home to watch the ending with him. He told his wife what he (had) decided to do and he and his family are now in counseling. . . . His letter was to thank us.”
Rae, sisters Doreen and Donora, and Willie’s widow Debbie agreed — the Christmas show must go on.
Working with Stage 4, Maui Tribe will use this year’s proceeds to help feed folks in the music industry, which has been virtually squelched by the pandemic. Because they are self-employed, most musicians and others in the industry do not have medical insurance, nor do they qualify for unemployment or other assistance programs. If you or people you know are in the business and need help, you may apply for a grant by emailing email@example.com or messaging Raenette Kahaialii.
The “Aloha Kalikimaka” concert will be livestreamed on the Willie K Facebook page this Friday from to 4 to 8 p.m. Viewers may contribute to the cause, during the concert or at any time between now and then, by going to paypal.me/mauitribeproductions or mauistage4.com and clicking on the “donate” link.
We’ll miss Willie’s physical presence, of course, but we’ll hear his and the angels’ voices Friday night. His legacy shines on, as brightly as the stars he so joyously described in song.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM and KEWE 97.9 FM/1240 AM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.