Gilliom was born
to perform

Third in a series

Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom is standing just off stage in a dark corner at the Blaisdell Center, towering more than 6 feet in 4-inch heels and looking nothing less than intimidating as she prepares for a performance with the Honolulu Symphony Pops orchestra.

Grammy week

In the days leading up to Sunday's Grammy Awards, we will present daily profiles of the artists nominated in the new Hawaiian music category.

Monday: Charles Brotman, producer of the compilation "Slack Key Guitar Vol. Two"
Yesterday: Tuesday: Ho'okena; nominated for "Cool Elevation"
Tomorrow: The Brothers Cazimero; "Some Call It Aloha ... Don't Tell"
Friday: Keali'i Reichel; "Ke'alaokamaile"
Saturday: The Grammy process, demystified
Sunday: Hawaii's artists partake of the L.A. experience leading up to the Grammy Award ceremony.

Like the Red Sea parting before Moses, men and women, girls and boys, even symphony executives step aside in every direction when this Hoku Award-winning singer moves.

Gilliom neither smiles nor grimaces nor speaks until conductor Matt Catingub introduces her. Then she springs to life, all grins and waves and shakas to an adoring sold-out audience. After a modest bow, Gilliom begins singing and the crowd goes silent. Her trademark hai -- female falsetto -- creates chicken skin all around.

"It's a voice that inspires dreams," someone says backstage.

And lots of recognition.

Gilliom and sometimes musical partner Willie K together are one of five nominees this year for the first Hawaiian music category in the Grammy Awards for their CD "Amy and Willie Live."

"I am just overwhelmed to receive such a high honor and to be with all those people who played (Hawaiian) music even before I existed," Gilliom says. "I think about my grandmother Jennie, auntie Genoa (Keawe), uncle Gabby (Pahinui), all these pioneers of Hawaiian music.

"This Grammy is a voice for the Hawaiian people."

That's the way the award must be considered, she says. "There's an understanding that the kupuna come first, no matter what; the culture comes first," says Gilliom, whose genealogy reveals a continuous thread of music.

Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom and Willie K performed together at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards seven years ago.

Grandmother Jennie Napua Woodd was one of the original Royal Hawaiian Girls that helped define the perception of Hawaiian music and dance in the 1930s and '40s. She performed in New York City, Hollywood and Las Vegas, and was the choreographer on every Hawaiian motion picture made during that time period.

While performing at the Lexington Hotel in New York City, Woodd met Gilliom's grandfather, Lloyd B. Gilliom, first trumpet with Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye. He also played with Tommy Dorsey.

"I really had no choice of what I was going to do with my life because all my family were entertainers," Gilliom says. "I sang before I even spoke. My dad thought I was going to be a go-go dancer. Performing is my calling."

Gilliom grew up on Maui, at first hoping for a New York musical career. Her early Hawaii success came from performing the songs of 1930s and '40s New York, "the Golden Age of my grandmother's Hawaiian music," she says.

A versatile performer, Gilliom has done just about everything from a theater production of Eva Peron in "Evita," to singing in the Big Island's Pahoa Lounge, and was a house singer at Maui's Ritz-Carlton where she sang jazz, musical theater and Hawaiian for four years.

"My grandfather played straight-up jazz with big bands, so why wouldn't I emulate him?" she asks.

Gilliom studied European classical music and musical theater at the U.S. International University near San Diego as a voice major. That's where she met Jamie Foxx, nominated this year for two Academy Awards, and who Gilliom calls "my first serious boyfriend."

"We would go down to the practice studios all the time to play music together," she says. "Jamie taught me how to sing rhythm and blues."

But Gilliom returned home to Maui, without knowing what she wanted to do. "All I knew was I had this raw instrument."

Her grandmother inspired her to continue with Hawaiian music and arranged a meeting with Keawe, who introduced her to hai.

Gilliom recorded her first album, "Native Child," in 1995. Mountain Apple's Jon de Mello reportedly signed her after hearing her songs over the telephone. But he wanted to merge her vocal talents with Hawaiian music. That solution came one night when Gilliom sat in with "Uncle" Willie K.

"I was, like, shocked that this haole-looking lady could hold her own," Willie said. "I tried to shake her up musically, but there was nothing she couldn't handle. Amy knew the lyrics, and where I was going with my arrangements. No way could I trick her."

Their first album, "Hawaiian Tradition," which featured hai, made the World Billboard Charts, a first for an album written completely in Hawaiian.

"I was stunned," says Gilliom, who credits Willie for showing her how to connect with the audience beyond singing.

"Willie helped me make the audience laugh and cry," she said. "Some people called us the Sonny and Cher of Hawaii because of our interaction.

Gilliom hopes to release two CDs this year, a traditional Hawaiian album and a cross-over in English produced by "a major label." The demo tracks are being recorded in Hanalei with former Shaka Khan music director Michael Ruff.

"You'll definitely know I'm from Hawaii. I have a lot to say to the world about being Hawaiian and Hawaiian music.

"The hardest thing for me has been to myself," she said. "To sing music from where I come from in my own language, I realized a large part of my life I played a role, and now I'm playing myself."

Gilliom has other pressures: She must choose her Grammy gown from one of four designers, although she says she is leaning toward a Roberto Cavalli gown.

"They're Hawaiian contemporary and chic," she says. "Hey, it's not like I'm one of those anorexic haole babes. I've got meat on my bones."

Gilliom will also wear a "priceless" 200-year-old Niihau shell necklace from her great-great grandmother.

The hard part will be finding shoes for her "luau feet," she said. "That will be a feat in itself."


Willie K swears he’s
just being himself

Subtlety isn't one of Grammy nominee Willie K's virtues. But honesty? Now you're talking.

"I'm (a jerk)," the singer-songwriter says, using an expletive and laughing. "Really, I am. I've become one. I wasn't always this way. It's sort of a survival thing."

Since Willie K -- the K is short for Kahaiali'i -- was nominated for his live CD with Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom, he's noticed some fans and friends are hesitant to congratulate him.

"Being (the jerk) that I am, everyone seems to be extra careful of taking that last step to talk to me," Willie says from his Lahaina home. "People on Maui know I love my privacy; always have."

It's got nothing to do with ego or the nomination. Like many entertainers thrust into the spotlight, he just wants to play "my music the way I want to play it and that's it."

"All I know is music, not this other stuff," he says. "My life has been music since like 8 when I performed with my dad."

Willie hesitates to answer when asked about the accolades and other trappings of fame.

"OK, brah, here's the real importance of this nomination thing. Plain and simple, I think for all the nominees this is for all of those Hawaiian musicians like Gabby (Pahinui) who came before us; for every one of them."

Those who have seen Willie perform know that when he often pays tribute to slack-key legend Pahinui by performing "Ki Ho'alu Man" and the Pahinui classic "Hi'ilawe."

This seems uncharacteristically sentimental for a self-proclaimed jerk known widely for an eclectic auditory appetite that has resulted in his being dubbed the "Hawaiian Hendrix."

Willie loves the Hawaiian slack-key guitar style, but his interests and influences include jazz, R&B, rock, reggae, blues and flamenco. Reflecting that versatility, he has shared the stage with performers including B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Prince, George Benson, Carlos Santana, Mick Fleetwood, Jimmy Buffett and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Gifted with a three-octave range, Willie is the son of Manu Kahaiali'i, a musician who insisted that Willie perform with his brothers. By the time he graduated from high school, he was in as many as eight bands covering country and western, R&B, salsa, rock and Hawaiian. He lived in California for about eight years to advance his career, but eventually returned to his beloved Maui.

Willie became a major force on the Hawaiian music scene as a writer, musician and producer. His first three albums, beginning in 1990, won several Na Hoku Hanohano awards including Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Producer of the Year. Then, after performing as a duo with Gilliom for five years, both decided to go solo.

"Here was my life pre-Hokus," Willie says. "Wake up and go surf five or six hours, then come home and eat, sleep a bit, go watch the sunset or grab a sunset surf, then play music 'til, like, 1:30 a.m., then go back home to sleep," he says, grinning. "That was my life seven days a week. It was the bomb.

"I was doing my own thing with my music and I didn't have to be the Willie K personality. I could just be Willie."

Willie liked the idea of recording "Amy & Willie Live," a product of their 2003 "Aloha Live Tour" of the West Coast.

"Everyone thinks when you go on tour all you do is come out and say a few alohas and mahalos, sing, then you go back to the hotel to party," he says. "This album and an upcoming DVD shows what happens behind the scenes."

The CD was recorded live in cities from San Francisco to Seattle. It's filled with Willie's jokes and Gilliom's family stories. Most songs are from their first album together, "Hawaiian Tradition." Others are "You Ku'uipo" and "Katchi Katchi Music Makawao" from 2000's "The Uncle in Me."

Willie says he hasn't thought much about how winning a Grammy would affect him.

"Anything that falls my way, I guess, will be some career advantage," he said. "But there's no such thing as a free lunch, and one way or another an artist has got to pay, and for me the worse payment is my time.

"Nominees do have that title forever and that's sort of cool."

The "scary part," Willie says, is the likelihood of more performances, attention and pressure.

"I really love what I do over here on Maui, a couple gigs a week, including a jam session. I love that jam session."

Then Willie shares his vulnerability over his fall from commercial grace years ago, and feelings of betrayal.

"For three years I tried to make all the fans happy and in the end a lot of people didn't appreciate it. Then when the career started to dwindle, everybody forgot about me."

It sent him into "a major, major low, and deep depression."

"It took me over and when you're using substance ... to try to escape, it only gets worse," he said. Eventually, "you know you gotta grow up or die."

He says it took four years to grow up and it helped that Mountain Apple Co.'s Jon de Mello called to ask if he would produce Hanaiali'i's album.

"My career started again."

These days Willie rarely takes song requests but he does "talk story" with the audience about his background and his songs.

"Maybe that's the new Willie K. But, still, people think if they bought your CD they own a piece of you, the right to ... your personal space."

With the nomination, Maui's son is readying for another onslaught. "I guess it comes with the territory, but I'm the landlord of this territory and the landlord is (a jerk)," he says.

Then he backs off and laughs at himself.

"Here's what's so ... funny about this nomination thing," he says. "Today, I'm more talented than yesterday and I'm still playing the same old (stuff)!"

After a bon voyage party with his brother and sister, Willie will arrive in Los Angeles on Saturday, and, as always, is packing light. "I'm gonna wear pants, aloha shirt and real shoes to the Grammys."

And what will he say if he wins? Willie bursts into a long laugh:

"Thank you and good night."

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