On December 3rd, 1966, musician and singer-songwriter Kui Lee died of cancer in Mexico. He was 34 years old.
Kuiokalani Lee was born in Shanghai into a family of local entertainers. His mother died when he was four years old, and he moved to Hawaii with his father and sisters shortly after. He attended Kamehameha Schools before graduating from Roosevelt High School.
He moved to the continent and performed there for 10 years, including a stint as a knife dancer and choreographer in the Hawaiian Room of New York’s Lexington Hotel, where he would meet his future wife, hula dancer Nani Naone. They went on to have four children together.
They moved back to Hawaii, where Lee worked at Club Jetty on Kauai and Kanaka Pete’s on Maui before settling on Oahu. There, he started performing at Honey’s nightclub in Kaneohe, owned by Don Ho’s mother Emily “Honey” Ho. The two singers met and instantly hit it off, becoming close friends and musical collaborators throughout the rest of their lives. They shared a vision of creating a new, modern brand of Hawaiian music; Lee wrote three of the 12 songs on Don Ho’s 1966 album “Tiny Bubbles.”
Lee was a pioneering force in island music. He fused jazz, blues and rock and roll instrumentation and contemporary music production with the timeless aesthetics of Hawaiian music. He was also a poetic and prolific songwriter, penning more than 40 original songs and drawing comparisons to Lenny Bruce for his philosophical and socially conscious lyrics. His most famous songs were popularized by other singers, most notably “I’ll Remember You” which was performed by Don Ho, Elvis Presley and Andy Williams.
Lee’s popularity grew in the islands and nationwide culminating in a standout performance at the Waikiki Shell on October 18th, 1966. However, this would end up being one of his final appearances. Shortly after he went to Mexico to seek out treatment for lymphatic cancer. He died at the Guadalajara Hospital in Tijuana. His ashes were scattered in the waters off Waikiki Beach. His only album, aptly titled The Extraordinary Kui Lee, was released on vinyl days before he died.