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Willie the great at Kimo’s

By Staff | Mar 24, 2011

Willie K wows the crowd at Kimo’s.

KIMO’S ON FRONT STREET — There is King Kamehameha the Great, written about in this space last summer. And then there is Willie K the Great.

Six times six months ago, 91-years-young Esther Ross, an amazing person in her own right, came to TS Restaurants’ flagship Maui eatery to hear the iconic entertainer, who she said “is marvelous, out of this world.”

She asked if this columnist was going to write about the appearance.

Good idea… even if delayed. For Willie K will be recording a new CD and a video live at Kimo’s each Sunday afternoon in March.

With Willie getting standing ovations in mid-performance, one concludes the audience feels as warmly about another Lahaina icon: Kimo’s.

For it is Kimo’s that signed Willie to a regular gig, ending an eight-year drought and finding a hometown venue that would showcase his many talents.

TS Restaurants has a reputation for supporting the community. This may be one of its best contributions.

“Reputation.” That’s what Willie K said held him back — ironically just locally. At a weekly jam session at another venue a few years ago, he sometimes wouldn’t show up.

The birth of a daughter his wife, Debbie, brought into the world a couple of years ago turned him into a doting father and apparently a new man.

It is no secret that Willie, alluding to it from time to time on stage, has had his struggles over the years.

No Kamehameha, though he would have competed in size (the king was taller), Willie has not conquered in battle. But he has conquered the guitar, the ukulele and won international acclaim.

Repeatedly asking friends Carol and Bob to see Willie perform resulted in these first-timers within ten minutes being hooked, vowing to return again and again.

Their eyes opened wide when Willie sang opera, a request made by this columnist at the cost of providing the performer with a special martini ceremoniously delivered.

Aside from his signature “Moloka’i Woman,” a personal favorite of mine is Willie singing “We are the World.” With this, he amazingly duplicates the sounds of each artist, male and female, including Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick.

Renditions like this, his lightening fast strumming and ability to play any genre of music have made a believer out of a Lahaina woman, clearly mesmerized as she stood to applaud again and again.

Willie’s ability to duplicate the musical styles and voices of others comes from untold hours of repetitive practice.

“He is gifted, the best, the most fabulous in the world,” the fan enthused, as Willie performed continuously for two straight hours. “He should be known worldwide.”

“He can do Rod Stewart — he can do them all,” she added. “But they cannot do Willie.”

Willie, she added, has a heart of gold, once thrilling her frail mother (brought to a performance) by singing in her ear.

Want Willie to sing happy birthday to you? Be careful. Willie, being Willie, knows exactly what his playing agenda is, so better not interfere.

Like this columnist sometimes, Willie can be feisty. Anything you want, Willie.

Have a request? Write it on the back of a $50 bill, he jests. Yet another friend was so impressed, he reported that he dropped a $100 bill in Willie’s lap because there was no tip jar.

As Kimo’s longtime impresario Jack Starr hustles about finding chairs and aligning them in a row, Willie plays on and on. The smiles rarely disappear from the throng.

As the last string is twanged — no broken ones this time — Willie’s last words at the performance’s end capped a day of song and laughter: “Well, I hope

you enjoyed your day with Willie K. Put your hands together for Kimo’s.”

Picking up that now warm martini that he didn’t take time to drink before, Willie concluded: “Here’s a toast for all of you who are Irish.”

Columnists Note: The Bailey House Museum bookstore, with one of the finest collections of Maui- related books on the island, now sells the book “Voices of Maui” exclusively in Wailuku. The museum on the road to Iao Valley is well worth a visit.