Hawaii music legend Willie K. died this week surrounded by his family. He had been battling cancer for the last two years. William Awihilima Kahaiali’i was 59.
“We are sad to announce that Willie K has passed away on Monday night (May 18th) in his home in Wailuku surrounded by his ohana,” according to an announcement on his Facebook and Instagram accounts.
“He fought hard for over 2 years while still performing. In mid-February of this year, he was hospitalized for pneumonia which caused complications with his lung cancer,” his family wrote in the social media posts. “He was in positive spirits and doing okay, and he was looking forward to performing again. He then suddenly turned for the worse and lost his battle.”
The family thanked everyone “for all the love, support and prayers you have given.”
Willie K was born and raised in Lahaina, Maui, among his large musical family. The award-winning and Grammy-nominated singer and musician was known for the wide range of music genres he was able to revel in. He was noted as a Hawaiian blues artist but he was equally comfortable singing Hawaiian folk songs or opera.
The Honolulu Pulse wrote: “Willie K can play or sing almost anything an American audience might ask for,” that wasn’t hype, it was the literal truth. The Hawaiian phenomenon Willie K is undoubtedly the only artist in the world who can go into an Irish pub in the middle of Maui and play anything from indigenous acoustic Hawaiian music to jazz, reggae, rock, country and even opera—and not only get away with it but leave everyone within earshot slack-jawed in astonishment. No less than Prince was a huge fan, calling Willie K a “funky mother#%@&er.”
Musically versatile, blues was his favorite genre. “I love playing the blues and I don’t think that’s ever going to change,” he reported. “Blues is so special to me because it’s the only type of music where both vocals and guitar can become emotional at one time.”
Some of his favorite musical memories he jammed with included B.B. King, Prince and Willie Nelson, and he performed with stars like Steven Tyler, Alice Cooper, Mick Fleetwood, Taj Mahal, Pat Simmons and ZZ Tops’ Billy Gibbons, at his annual blues festivals.
Below, Willie K’s versatility is demonstrated in the videos below:
Willie K. was not just a unique artist with diverse range – I also considered him a friend. Whenever we met, he would sing my favorite aria – Nessun Dorma – which is not a song found on the set list of many artists,” said US Sen. Mazie Hirono. ” I will miss Willie, his exuberance, and his talent. I join all of Hawaiʻi in extending my deepest condolences to Willie’s family. Aloha, my friend.”
US Sen. Brian Schatz recalled the late artist as a man who had “bridged blues and Hawaiian, local and mainstream, music and culture. Willie K blazed a trail that redefined music in Hawai‘i and helped other local artists succeed. … While he will be greatly missed, his music will live on.”
Hawaii’s Gov. David Ige accurately described him as “a unique talent whose huge voice effortlessly ranged from Hawaiian music and the blues to opera — all in one performance.”
Music historian Harry B. Soria Jr. spoke for many in saying simply, “There may never be another Willie K, with such raw yet polished talent.”
In describing himself, he said, “I am unlike any other Hawaiian that’s ever been seen or heard before.” Indeed!
Willie K is survived by his wife, Debbi Kahaial’i, as well as their four children, Karshaun, Max, Lycettiana and Antoinette. A celebration of his life will be announced.
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