Kui Lee – The Composer

Kui Lee. I never met him. (Many of his most ardent fans never had a chance to meet this iconic figure whose life was cut too short – given over to cancer – at the tender age of only 34.) But his presence in my life was very strong from the moment I was born. He was a friend of our family long before I came along. His record played constantly in our home – my mother’s favorite until the day she died. And mom would sing me to sleep with “Ka Makani Ka`ili Aloha” – a song she learned by wearing out Kui’s one and only commercial release, “The Extraordinary Kui Lee,” ironically released only a day before Kui’s death on December 3, 1966. 

Kui’s story has been chronicled over and over again. (I have heard that there has long been a biopic about him in the works, and this, too, would be most welcome.) But most of what I learned about him I learned by spending endless hours talking story with his widow. To the world she was Nani Lee. But to me she was simply “Auntie Frances.” Through her I came to understand Kui’s life, his work, his motivation and inspiration, his politics, his time… Kui was a complex – dare I say “enigmatic” – figure. Like many local Hawai`i musicians before and since, he divided his people. Many thought that Kui wrote of the modern Hawaiian in a style to which his generate could no doubt relate. Others felt he had abandoned his roots – admonished him for writing songs in English. Unlike some other local musicians, Kui didn’t care. He pursued fame – it was in his blood – but was fairly certain he couldn’t find it in his Hawai`i home. He cared about being true to himself – the hallmark of an artist. 

Kui was born into a family of entertainers who were constantly on the move. Wherever the show went, so, too, his family would follow. His father, Billy, was a natural comedian, a drummer, and – of tremendous interest to me – a fine falsetto singer who performed in groups led by such illustrious names in Hawaiian entertainment as Ray Kinney, Pua Almeida, Val Hao, and Tommy Castro. His mother, Ethel, was a singer and a dancer. And so Kui was born in Shanghai while the family was on tour. A child of the sand and the surf – a real beachboy, Hawaiian style – Kui and school were not a good “fit.” He eventually dropped out – or perhaps was kicked out - of both Roosevelt High School and Kamehameha Schools and joined the Coast Guard. But Kui’s desire for fame – and his wanderlust – eventually led him to the west coast to try his hand at fire knife dancing and – in case you didn’t know – a turn as a Hollywood stunt man. He eventually made his way east performing from Miami to New York City where Kui settled by the early 1950s. 

Kui was not merely an amazing stage presence and musician. He was also an astute businessman. Kui continued to assemble his portfolio until he was appearing in the finest showrooms in New York City and making appearances on the Steve Allen Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Arlene Francis Home Show, and the Patti Page Show. But Kui was also practical. He combined his love of music and his need for a steady income by taking a position writing songs for other singers – and even commercial jingles – in the famed Brill Building in NYC where he rubbed elbows with such up-and-coming songwriting legends as Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Neil Sedaka, and Carole King. If you have never been able to locate or hear any of the songs Kui wrote during his Brill Building period from 1955 through 1961, it may be because he wrote and published these tunes under his pen name, “Kimo Lee.” 

Long before the association Kui had with Don Ho in which Kui wrote the songs and Don presented them to the widest possible audiences around the world, Kui had much earlier found a similar relationship with a then up-and-coming jazz vocalist, Mark Murphy. The two would become great friends, and Mark honored Kui by recording two of his compositions on his debut album, “Meet Mark Murphy.” These are the two Kimo Lee tunes you hear in this set – “I’m A Circus” and “I’ve Got Two Eyes.” It doesn’t take multiple listens; you should understand immediately that the type of music Kui was writing – in its harmonic and melodic complexity as well as its lyric content – was unlike anything being done in Hawai`i when he walked away a few years earlier. At this point in his too short life and career Kui would have been ahead of his time pretty much anywhere he went. His songs were a little pop, a little rock-and-roll, and whole lot jazz. 

More about Kui tomorrow… Until then, I hope you enjoy these lost compositions from the pen of “Kimo Lee.”

~ Bill Wynne

Direct download: Kui_Lee_1.mp3
Category:Artists/Personalities -- posted at: 9:56am EDT