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Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, November 18, 1999

Willie K: Taking success on his own terms
Photo by Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin


By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin


WILLIE K isn't a guy who tiptoes around an issue. Ask him what he'd do differently as an entertainer and he goes straight to the point. "Stay away from the drugs and the alcohol. People should know that drugs are illegal, but alcohol is always there and it can manipulate your decision-making too.

"And don't jump on the first $1,000 bill you look at because that might be the last."

The most versatile local recording artist of the decade, Willie K has a new album, "Willie Kalikimaka," his first solo project in four years. It was released simultaneously with "Nostalgia," his third album with Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom. They perform tomorrow at Hawaii Theatre.

"I didn't know anything about the business side of what I was doing. All I did on Maui when I came back from San Francisco was breakfast, surf, surf, lunch, surf, go home, dinner, play music at night. Seven days a week. I was in it for the love of the music, and I'm still in it for the music.

"I'm not here to compete with anybody, but it is a very competitive business. We have a problem today with musicians losing their identities because they don't have one so they try to impersonate someone else. My advice: Be yourself," Willie said during an interview in the offices of the Mountain Apple Co. The label is third he's been signed with since he returned to Hawaii.

Amy Gilliom and Willie K.

Willie appeared to be an overnight sensation when he surfaced on Oahu at Malia's Cantina in Waikiki, but he had already been working as a professional musician for almost 30 years. He'd spent years sharpening his skills on the mainland, while absorbing as much of the American music scene as possible.

He says he played "anything to do with rock and roll -- never played in a Hawaiian group," and lists influences as diverse as European classical music, country, jazz, Top 40 and the blues.

It didn't take Willie long to see that the local bar crowd wanted to hear Jawaiian music. He gave the crowd what it wanted but, given the opportunity, he'd slip in anything from flamenco to Hendrix to something from "Cats" or Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen."

More recently he entertained the audience at the Aloha Jam '99 Live Cyber-Cast, singing a song from "Phantom of the Opera" with Amy.

He still enjoys going back home to Maui one night a week for a bar gig where he can play whatever strikes his fancy.

"I remember seeing soloists in the '70s and '80s who would do the same thing I do -- anything to keep a crowd on its toes. That was my school.

"I always had an interest in watching Rich Little do his impersonations so I kind of adopted that."

Willie recorded three albums for KDE. His first, "Kahaiali'i," which he co-produced with Pierre Grill, received four Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in 1992: Album of the Year, Male Vocalist, Most Promising Artist and Contemporary Album.

Moving to Round Island Records turned out to be a bad move. His experiences left him so disenchanted by the local record business that he lost interest in recording. Then came the alliance with Amy Gilliom. It turned out to be perfect for both of them.

She had introduced herself with an expansive modern pop album, "Native Child," that was too sophisticated for local radio and completely ignored by the members of the Hawai'i Academy of Recording Arts. Her grandmother told her she should record a traditional Hawaiian album. Gilliom asked Willie to produce it.

"When I first met Amy I already knew (she had talent). The first album was just a little too progressive for Hawaii. When Mountain Apple asked me to produce (her second album) I was actually shocked. For most of my recording career I was never the one telling anybody what to do. Now I was in the position to share my ideas and my mana'o with what I've learned of Hawaiian music. All the (Hawaiian) music that I'd missed prior to that album came out in hers."

Amy and Willie were a huge success as surprise guests with the Brothers Cazimero at the Waikiki Shell in 1997. The album, "Hawaiian Tradition," officially a solo project by Gilliom, won her three Hoku Awards for Album of the Year, Hawaiian Album of the Year and Female Vocalist.

Their second album together, "Hanaiali'i," won Hawaiian Album of the Year and Group of the Year honors, while a song from the album, "Palehua," won Song of the Year honors at the 1999 Hoku Awards last May.

Amy and Willie have been a hot concert attraction ever since.

"I think the secret to Amy & Willie K is that we let the audience get involved with us. We say things on stage that they probably say behind closed doors. It's the real deal!"

Tomorrow: Reviews of "Willie Kalikimaka" and "Nostalgia."

On stage

Bullet What: Amy Hanaiali'i & Willie K
Bullet Where: Hawaii Theatre
Bullet When: 8 p.m. tomorrow
Bullet Cost: $25, with $5 discount for students, seniors and military
Bullet Call: 528-0506 or charge by phone at 526-4400

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