The legendary voice of Willie K has gone silent.
His family posted on his Instagram page that the music legend passed away Monday night, May 18 “surrounded by his ohana.” He was 59 years old.
Willie Kahaialiʻi, better known as Willie K, was diagnosed with limited stage small cell carcinoma in his right lung in January of 2018.
Earlier this year, he announced that his cancer was terminal. In February, “he was hospitalized for pneumonia which caused complications with his lung cancer,” his family said in the Instagram post. He seemed to be doing “okay … then suddenly turned for the worse and lost his battle.”
Throughout his two-year battle with cancer, Kahaialiʻi continued to perform around Hawaii, much to the delight of adoring fans. Just three months ago, he announced the cancellation of some of his shows due to his battle.
Born on October 17th, 1960 , the legendary musician, producer and vocalist who would go on to win 19 Na Hoku Hanohano awards grew up in Lahaina in a family of 9 boys and 4 girls. His father was respected guitarist Manu Kahaialiʻi, but musical talent was not all Willie inherited from his father. He also shared the same eclectic curiosity.
“He was just as diverse as I am,” Willie K said. “The guy knew how to play everything: jazz, blues and Hawaiian.”
His father’s influence bloomed into the genre-defying experimentation that earned Willie K such nicknames as “The Hawaiian Hendrix” and “The Polynesian Pavarotti.” Fans knew to expect the unexpected at a Willie K show, from classic Hawaiian to jazz to rock n’ roll to opera. No matter what kind of music he played, it was always imbued with the heart and soul that can only come from a deep love of the music.
There is perhaps no greater example of Willie K’s ability to bend sound and stun listeners than his 2018 national anthem performance before a University of Hawaii football game at Aloha Stadium. Flipping the usually brass-driven roars of “The Star-Spangled Banner” into softly-picked ukulele melodies, his vocal crescendos echoed with piercing beauty. The performance went viral.
“If the music would come into him, he digested it and make it his own. It became something just out of this world,” said renowned artist Amy Hanaialii Gilliom.
Gilliom says Willie K produced her first four albums and the duo worked together for years.
“We were kind of known as the Sonny and Cher of Hawaii,” she said. “He really taught me how to be a showman, showwoman you know. It’s a different ball game when your up on stage.”
Willie K continued to captivate audiences and fans even through his battle with cancer.
“I knew he was in a lot of pain but I knew music was his drug. And I knew that it made him feel better,” said Gilliom. “His legacy in music nobody can even come close to it.”
Kahaialiʻi has been a favorite of Hawaiian music lovers for decades, having performed signature songs including: “You Kuʻuipo,” “Katchi Katchi Music Makawao” and a haunting rendition of “O Holy Night.” He has also performed alongside Prince, Mick Fleetwood, Stephen Tyler, Willie Nelson, and Santana over the span of his career.
He received 19 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, one Grammy nomination, and in 2018 he received the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award. He is survived by his wife and four children.
A celebration of life will be announced later, according to his family.
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