Hawaiian Music Icon Willie K Dies After Lengthy Battle With Cancer
By Wendy Osher
Legendary Maui Musician and Hawaiian music icon Willie K died on Monday night after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 59.
A message to his fans notes he passed away in his home in Wailuku, surrounded by his ʻohana.
The popular Hawaiian entertainer Uncle Willie K, born Willie Kahaialiʻi of Lahaina, was diagnosed with small cell carcinoma lung cancer in January of 2018.
“Initially in January 2018, he was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. He fought hard for over two years while still performing. In mid February of this year, he was hospitalized for pneumonia which caused complications with his lung cancer,” according to the message.
“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.”
In January of this year, he announced that his cancer diagnosis was terminal, but vowed to keep “rocking.”
He recently performed on Maui at his annual Willie K & Friends 2020 Bluesfest on Jan. 4, 2020. At the same venue a year earlier on Jan. 5, 2019, he collapsed while on stage during the show and attributed the incident at the time to dehydration.
In October of 2019 he released a new cd, Tropical Plantation Blues. He also appeared at several recent shows at Mulligans on the Blue in Wailea on Maui and other private events around the islands.
Mayor Michael Victorino extended his prayers and condolences to the ʻohana of Willie K saying, “Willie remained positive as he fought cancer bravely for two years, still choosing to perform and entertain fans even while ill. He was generous with his time and immense talent that spanned musical styles from Hawaiian to rock, to blues and opera. Joycelyn and I extend our prayers and deep sympathy to Willie’s family, friends and countless fans and admirers. We mourn a great loss for our community. He will truly be missed but never forgotten.”
Governor David Ige said, “Willie K was a unique talent whose huge voice effortlessly ranged from Hawaiian music and the blues to opera – all in one performance. Recognized locally and nationally, his songs touched our hearts. Dawn and I extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends.”
US Senator Brian Schatz released a statement saying, “Rest in aloha, Willie K. I extend my deepest sympathy and aloha to his ohana. With his voice, he 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. We will long remember his energetic spirit, his passion, and the music he shared with Hawai‘i and the world. While he will be greatly missed, his music will live on.”
US Senator Mazie Hirono said, “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. It’s not the only aria he performed, as people will also remember his renditions of Ave Maria. Willie’s talent allowed him to expand beyond Hawaiʻi into national and international venues, but I think it’s safe to say he was most comfortable performing home in Hawaiʻi. Two of his most memorable performances, to me, were a sunset performance he held at a private residence on Maui, and his amazing show in Washington, D.C. with Amy Hānaialiʻi at Hawaiʻi on the Hill in 2015. At both, his connection to the crowd was evident, and that connection made for great performances. 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.”
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell also offered his condolences saying, “We have all known and loved the musical genius that is Willie K,” said Mayor Caldwell. “What he revealed in his last years was the sheer courage and stamina that it takes to perform while seriously ill. Last year, Honolulu hosted the US Conference of Mayors, and we asked Willie to perform for an audience that included mayors from around the world. They loved him, and I think they also came to understand the talent and magic of artists from Hawaii through Willie’s performance. He was obviously tired, but powered on for a hana hou. Honolulu is mourning the loss of a great man, a son of Hawaiʻi, but we are also feeling privileged to have known his grace.”
Willie K has won multiple Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards, most recently in 2012 for Rock Album of the Year for “Warehouse Blues.” He has also been nominated for a Grammy. He’s known for performing several styles of music, ranging from Hawaiian to rock to blues to opera.
A celebration of life will be announced at a later time.