Kui Lee - The Man

I have already described the relationship that Kui shared with Don Ho – best friends, a friendship rooted in mutual admiration and, perhaps, later a rivalry that propelled each of them to greater heights, achievements neither could have known without the other. A symbiotic relationship. But nowhere did this evidence itself more than in one of the rarest recordings from my collection.

Don graduated from Honey’s Kane`ohe to Honey’s Waikiki (at Lili’uokalani and Kalakaua Avenue) to – finally – what was then one of the biggest showrooms in all of Hawai`i – Duke Kahanamoku’s which, in the early 1960s, opened in the location that was Don The Beachcomber in the International Marketplace. At this same time Kui was down the street in Kapahulu with his wife, Nani, headlining the Surf Lanai at the Queen’s Surf. Don’s star was shining ever brighter by performing a repertoire comprised largely of Kui’s compositions, while Kui – performing the same songs – was at the smaller, far more intimate room well off the Waikiki strip. But Kui held no grudges as we hear in this rare clip. He continued to write, and he continued to give Don his best material – which Don did not squander in his ascent to the worldwide fame that Kui would never know.

Various sources credit Kui with writing his biggest hit – “I’ll Remember You” – in 1965, while others credit him with writing it in 1964. But in this clip, Kui himself states that he wrote the song “a year and five months ago.” And this recording dates to 1964 – early in Don’s tenure at Duke’s. We know this only because Kui – among his many comments – congratulates Don on having recently opened at Duke’s, which happened in 1964. So if “I’ll Remember You” was written “a year and five months” before Don opened at Duke’s, then the song dates back at least to 1963. We also have the even earlier recording of “I’ll Remember You” that Flip McDiarmid II captured at Honey’s Kane`ohe (later released as the LP titled “Waikiki Swings,” discussed here earlier). What does this mean? Not necessarily that the documentarians got it wrong, but that we should not confuse when a song gets published with when it was written. Many songs are written without ever being published.

So what makes this clip so rare? Its origins are unknown. Don made many live recordings – at least three at Duke’s. But this is not one of them. By its sound quality we might assume that it was a bootleg – that someone was brazen enough to walk into Duke’s one evening with a portable tape recorder which, in that era, were open reel tapes, meaning that the machine could not have been fewer than 18 inches by 10 inches by 10 inches, an 1800 cubic inch monster of a box, difficult (if not impossible) to conceal. So it is likely not a bootleg. Perhaps this was a local telecast (as opposed to the national Don Ho TV specials sponsored by Singer Sewing Machines, most released later as LP records). And perhaps somebody captured it with the monster open reel tape recorder sitting next to their television speaker. Regardless of the dubious origins, the “taper” could not have known that they would capture pure magic – a rare moment regardless of the artist. And that is the debut of a brand new composition, sung by its composer. It is also rare because it is one of the few recorded examples we have of Kui speaking and – in this case – speaking from the heart, about his life, about his craft, and about his friend. And, finally, it is rare because it is possibly the only tape of Don and Kui singing together.

In a somewhat roundabout poetic way, Kui talks about what it means to “remember” and the writing of “I’ll Remember You.” What he does not tell you is that he did not compose the song because he knew he was dying. (From the timeline above, you now know that the song was written long before Kui’s diagnosis.) Kui wrote “I’ll Remember You” for the first of many occasions when Auntie Frances – I’m sorry, I mean Nani – got disgusted with Kui and split – leaving Hawai`i and heading home to her sister, Libby, in New Jersey. Kui says “Why do I have to remember?” What he means is “Why did I give her so many reasons to go? I would not have to remember if she were still here.” And that is the genesis of the song that Kui and Don debut here – “She’s Gone Again,” written after Nani returned to Hawai`i, gave Kui another chance, and – ultimately – came back to New Jersey again. Nani was indeed gone – again. In writing “She’s Gone Again,” Kui used what is essentially the same harmonic structure (i.e., the chords) from “I’ll Remember You” but wrote a new melody to fit his new lyric. This means that the now classic interpolation (that is, the combining of two related songs) of “I’ll Remember You” and “She’s Gone Again” was indeed no accident. Kui wrote the two songs to be sung this way and debuted it this way, as you will hear. It has since become a classic duet – typically for a man and a woman – which Don reprised in his act over and over again, a staple of his repertoire. But what we didn’t know was that the first time the two songs were ever sung this way was by a two gentlemen – Don and Kui. And we know by Don’s patter here that they had just worked out the arrangement late the night before (possibly after the 3am set ended), early that morning (unlikely after being on stage until the wee small hours), or in the minutes right before the live show. There was not much to arrange except – as Don states here – the “turnaround,” and he apologizes in advance should The Aliis mess up that section. But they don’t, and what you have here is a magical moment when composer and singer debut a classic composition together. And I cannot recount any other song that has debuted so publicly by being sung jointly by the composer and the singer for which it was intended – not in Hawai`i, not in any other musical genre, not even Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick.

Finally, the real tone of the friendship between Don and Kui may be revealed in this all too short clip. Kui speaks genuinely about how proud he is of Don – referring to Duke’s as a “gigantic room” and Don’s contract as a “major breakthrough” in an era when Waikiki was not host to “too many brown people.” After the debut of the new composition, Kui walks away most humbly – huge fanfare, without encore. And Don shouts after him, “You’ll be here one day.”

He never was. Kui was gone only two years later.

Next time: A few more Kui Lee compositions that helped but Don Ho and The Aliis on the map…

~ Bill Wynne

Direct download: Kui_Lee_3.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:36am EDT