Kui Lee: 'One of the all-time geniuses of Hawaii'

By Catherine Kekoa Enomoto

Thirty-one years - almost to the week - after the debut of Kui Lee's first album, HanaOla Records today re-releases "The Extraordinary Kui Lee" in compact disc.

"I am very, very happy about this. It's very, very good news to me, and very touching too," his widow, Nani Lee Meadows, 65, said by phone from her Big Island home. "I get very, very sentimental whenever I've heard the songs throughout these 30 years. When I travel I always hear one of his songs in airports; it's really chicken skin. If he were still around, I think he would be most pleased."

The singer/songwriter/1960s enfant terrible of Hawaiian entertainment would have been 64 if he had survived cancer of the lymph glands. Lee died Dec. 3, 1966, leaving a wife and four young children.

Press accounts of the period credit Lee with composing up to 80 original songs, some of which were recorded by more than 100 artists worldwide. Songs like "Lahainaluna" ("Maui no ka oi is the only place for me"), "Tiny Bubbles" and "Suck 'Em Up."

He was born Kuiokalani Lee in Shanghai, China, the third child and only son of Hawaiian entertainers Billy and Ethel Lee. Kui's mother died when he was about 4 years old, Meadows said, and he returned to Hawaii at age 5. He went to Kamehameha Schools and graduated from Roosevelt High School.

Lee performed on the mainland for 10 years - the last year and a half in the Hawaiian Room of New York's Lexington Hotel. He was a choreographer and knife dancer in the Lexington show, where he met Nani, a hula dancer.

Lee returned to Hawaii, to Club Jetty in Nawiliwili, Kauai, in 1961. Then he became a part-time performer and doorman at Honey's nightclub in Kaneohe - launching pad of Don Ho.

Three years later Lee wrote his definitive hit, "I'll Remember You," signed with Palm Records and opened at the Surf Lanai at Queen's Surf. His composition was recorded that year by Tony Bennett and Andy Williams, and later by Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass, Roger Williams and others in Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Tagalog.

That year Lee also contracted cancer.

While battling the disease, he recorded two albums for Columbia Records in New York. The first premiered May 22, 1966, on Dave Donnelly's K-POI morning show; the second on Dec. 2, 1966, the day before Lee's death.

Jack de Mello, principal at the Music of Polynesia recording company, also recorded and released two Lee albums in July and October of that year. The second featured a full orchestra and 14-voice chorus playing 24 Lee originals.

"His form of writing fit that period. It was a fusion of rock 'n' roll and a fusion of contemporary," de Mello said by phone from Las Vegas, where he writes for a production music company.

"Kui was very brash, very positive about his songs," said Kimo McVay, owner of Duke Kahanamoku's nightclub from 1961 to '71 and manager/promoter of Don Ho from 1963 to '66. "He gave them to Don, and Don, of course, made them hits. When Don became a star because of that material, a national star, that's what launched Kui. And Kui became the star of Queen's Surf."

Honolulu three-dot columnist Eddie Sherman described Lee as a "lovable, tough rebel" and a "tough little monkey."

"I think he will emerge as one of the all-time geniuses of Hawaii," said Sherman, who wrote a screenplay about Lee's life. "There was something special about him. He loved Hawaii with a tremendous passion. If you listen to his lyrics, you'll hear the soul of a poet, and that was covered up by his seeming toughness. He was tough - he would get into a scrap at the drop of a hat, you know. But some of his songs had absolute words of beauty and meaning. Those (songs) that were of Hawaii showed such tenderness and love of place and feeling.

"It was a whole other time," Sherman said. "He introduced another kind of music and it's lasted, like 'One Paddle Two Paddle.' "

Crooner Ho said he and Lee bonded philosophically during Honey's nightclub days, when they would discuss their aspirations: "We both felt that the people of Hawaii should try to create their own music - take it to a different level from the hula-type music, into a more cosmopolitan level."

In a halting reverie, Ho recalled the night Lee unveiled his hit song.

"He walked in with a song called, 'I'll Remember You.' I sat up all night (with him) absorbing the essence of what he was writing about. The next day I wrote down the arrangement of the song at the club. That night I said that this was written by a friend of mine. At that time he had cancer in his throat. I sang it with the Aliis. I'll never forget that night. At that moment everybody had tears in their eyes. Then I introduced Kui. He came on stage and he sang it. Then, everybody really had tears. The rest is history."

Ho said Lee's songs began to click when Lee himself wrote the music to go with his lyrics. "The more simple it was, the more perfect it was," he said.

"He and I have a very, very," Ho paused here, "thing between us that nobody even knows about - how much we love each other. I was there when he was in Tijuana (Mexico) and when he was just almost gone, just unable to even pick up the guitar because his fingers . . . he was down to bones.

"I think it's too bad the cancer had to interfere with our plans, you know what I'm saying? So I kind of felt like the Lone Ranger after that, because we had kind of planned that (future) together."

Kui and Nani Lee had four children. Daughter Wailana Lee, 40, is a floral designer and singer in Las Vegas. Daughter Mahealani Lee, 38, produces a Polynesian show in Kona. Son Kimo Lee, 36, works in construction in Hawaii and Las Vegas. And daughter Maile Lee Tolentino, 32, is on staff with the Punana Leo O Kona Hawaiian-language immersion school. Kui would have been the grandfather of seven.

Nani Lee remarried 4-1/2 years after his death, to Barney Meadows, a retired U.S. Air Force major from Canada.

And, what would the brash Lee have said on the occasion of the re-release of "The Extraordinary Kui Lee" in CD form?

Sherman laughed, " 'What took them so long?' "

Remember these words?

I'll remember you,
Your voice as soft
As a warm summer breeze.
Your sweet laughter,
Mornings after,
Ever after, ooh, I'll remember you

- I'll Remember You

If your ma-in-law starts
getting huffy
She's walking 'round your pad
with a long face
Just go out and buy her one-way
passage and tell her
'Go join the astronauts in outer
Cause she ain't, no she ain't,
ain't no big thing.

-Ain't No Big Thing

If I had to do it all over again
Every scene and every dream
I'd relive
For this masquerading soul
Has played out every role
And I'd do it all over again

-If I Had To Do It All Over Again

Collection reflects an extraordinary talent

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin

The Extraordinary Kui Lee By Kui Lee (HanaOla Hawaiian Legends Series Vol. 2) Sony Music Special Projects, CD and cassette

In the three decades since his death, Kui Lee has gradually been pigeonholed as a composer - first and foremost as "the guy who wrote 'I'll Remember You' for Don Ho." The rerelease of this long out-of-print album reintroduces Lee as a talented song stylist as well as one of Hawaii's greatest contemporary songwriters.

It's quality work. Well-packaged and full of information about Lee and the circumstances of the recordings, "Extraordinary" will be an eye-opener for anyone too young to have seen Lee on stage with Ho or as the star of his own show at Queen's Surf.

The collection includes three of his most popular compositions - "I'll Remember You," "Ain't No Big Thing" and "The Days of My Youth." Others are less familiar these days but reflect different facets of his personality. There's a sense of social consciousness in "Goin' Home," playful optimism in "Rain Rain Go Away" and a streak of sarcastic anger in "Get On Home."

Yes, this balladeer could also snap, snarl and rock!

Hindsight makes it easy to read things into the recordings of artists like Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison or 2 Pac - artists who didn't know they were going to die young. Lee knew he was dying, and that this would be his only album. None of the songs he completed is more poignant than "If I Had It To Do All Over Again." It may have been for effect, but it certainly sounds like he came close to losing it. He could break your heart.

Make no mistake. Kui Lee and Don Ho & The Aliis had a very productive symbiotic relationship - Ho had Waikiki's premier nightclub and the incomparable Aliis as his band; Lee was a composer-performer who envisioned modern Hawaiian music fueled by the energy and cosmopolitan outlook of the first years of statehood. Don Ho & The Aliis were uniquely adept at interpreting Lee's ideas, and their recordings are classics, but someone at Columbia Records discovered Lee just in time to freeze-frame a glimpse of the composer doing his music his way. What treasures these are! Kui, we hardly knew you.

John Berger has been covering the local entertainment scene since 1972.

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