Remembering Willie K

Willie K passed away this week after a long bout with cancer. In remembrance, here is my profile from my column of nearly a decade ago also found on page 129 in my latest book.

PERFORMER
Willie K.
Wondrous Willie K. Revealed

PERHAPS MAUI’S MOST TALENTED, versatile, and popular entertainer as well as onetime Hawaiian Grammy nominee often asks during his performances, “Are there any Willie K. fans out there?” Usually, the crowd goes wild.

Willie K., now past 50, strums at lightning speed and plays on guitar or use almost any kind of music (Hawaiian, falsetto, jazz, rock and roll, blues, R&B, Broadway, and now opera).

He has shared stages with Jimmy Buffet, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Mick Fleetwood, Crosby Stills and Nash, and Prince, and he has been nominated for a Hawaiian music Grammy.

He could be equally as famous nationally as the stars he has played with if he wanted to be.

Willie the last few years has come into his own not only as a musi- cian but as a performer. At eight he played on stage for the first time and was immediately hooked. Asked if he strummed much in high school, he said, “Oh yeah, and in elementary school too.”

Willie grew up living in a kind of shack near a mango tree (one of the subjects of the many songs he has written). For years he played for what could be called a pittance. Today, with good paydays, he no longer has to worry about money and chooses to give many performances for free to benefit good causes.

He played at a festival for Women Helping Women. He sponsors an annual Willie K. Charity Golf Tournament, luring in celebrities he knows to play to help cancer victims.

Some 30 years ago, this son of Lahaina went to San Francisco to learn to play rock and roll. “All they wanted me to play there was Hawaiian music,” he joked in an all-too-short interview. Learn rock and roll, and much more, he did. With his musical apprenticeship complete, Willie returned to Maui in 1990.

He’s been here ever since except for musical forays to perform on the mainland, and in China, Japan, Guam, Tahiti, Israel, Italy, and Germany. He often goes back to Germany.

Maui’s luck is that Willie rejected the allure of national stardom to play a number of years at Hapa’s in Kihei, the Maui Cultural Center, Mulligan’s on the Green, and numerous other venues here.

Rarely appearing in Ka‘anapali the last few years—at 14 he played at the Sheraton’s old Discovery Room and at the former Maui Surf—he now plays regularly at Kimo’s and at Hard Rock Café.

Why does Willie live, play, write, and produce music on Maui? His response is a question: “Would you live anywhere else?”

Today, Willie has a new twist. Although his joy has been to play whatever he wants and play and play and play, he also now talks story during his two-hour show, regaling audiences with funny tales about the early days in Lahaina or experiences on stage.

Willie’s personal hero is his father, Manu Kahaiali‘i, a crooner and a giant of a man at six foot four who supported many Hawaiian causes and did the Jackson Five with Michael Jackson eight better. Manu had all of his 13 keiki, with Willie the second oldest, perform on stage. The family work ethic—practice, practice—was a daily requirement.

The talented Manu exposed Willie to Waikiki crooner Don Ho and guitar legend George Benson. Willie went on to spend eight months listening to and emulating the many styles of guitar great Joe Cano.

In high school he also mimicked his idol Jimi Hendrix. Eric Guillom, also a fast strummer who partnered with Willie for a while and said playing with him is like playing with Michael Jordan.

His music soars, feet tap, and the laughter during Willie’s talk stories would do justice in quantity to a TV laugh track. The wondrous Willie K., a musician’s musician, through his talk story, has also become a comedian.

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