Sun, 2 November 2014
Like Don Ho, Kui Lee’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 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 generation 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 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.
Kui returned to Hawai`i in 1961 bringing with him great success and an even greater prize – a wife. He met singer and hula dancer Rose Frances Leinani Naone – a Hawaiian girl born in New Jersey – when she auditioned to perform in the famed Hawaiian Room of the Lexington Hotel in New York City where Kui spent the last year and a half of his mainland career as a choreographer and knife dancer. The couple was earning $1,700 a week when Kui decided to pack it in and go home. The couple started over much more modestly in Hawai`i – at a small mom-and-pop joint in the neighborhood they made their home, Kane`ohe. The place was called Honey’s. Should it matter that the club was owned by a family named Ho and that the house band was led by their then unknown son, Don? It turns out it matters a great deal. In fact, it is the very definition of “serendipity.”
It would be an understatement to say that in the early running Kui made a nuisance of himself at Honey’s. According to Jerry Hopkins’ “Don Ho: My Music, My Life,” Kui would show up at the club at 10 o’clock in the morning and urge Don to hear a new song he had written, and Don would tell Kui that the songs – because of their complex melodies and harmonic structures – weren’t “Hawaiian” enough for Honey’s local audiences. And the criticism was mutual. Kui – no stranger to large mainland showrooms – would offer Don unsolicited advice on everything from lighting and staging to his singing, remarking, “When you sing, you look like you’re constipated.” It is difficult to conceive that a relationship born in perpetual appraisal and fault-finding would culminate in a lasting friendship and artistic collaboration that endured until Kui’s early demise. But both became huge stars through this no doubt symbiotic relationship. With this bickering, each propelled the other on to greater heights – each becoming a legend in his own right, but the whole always remaining greater than the sum of its parts. Don needed Kui’s songs to become legend. And Kui – despite being the consummate showman – needed Don’s charisma and universal appeal to bring his songs to a worldwide audience.
Despite Don joking to Nani that he would hire her for the band but “definitely not your husband,” both became regulars in the Honey’s Kane`ohe group – eventually moving with the venue and its entire entourage to Honey’s new location in Waikiki.
Occasionally, Don would allow Kui to emcee the evenings at Honey’s, but he did so with great trepidation. Despite being first and foremost a musician, Kui was sharply funny – often turning his rapier wit on the audience, earning him the nickname “Hawai`i’s Lenny Bruce.” (In the Jerry Hopkins book on Ho’s life, comedian Eddie Sherman recounted that one evening at Honey’s in Kane`ohe, Kui spotted a haole couple at the front of the audience and quipped over the microphone that in Kane`ohe “the haoles sit at the back of the room.”) You will hear some of Kui’s political incorrectness on the first tune in this set – his own rewrite of the folk tune “Cotton Fields” which he recast for local audiences as “Taro Patch” – as well as near the end of the set, a duet with his wife, Nani, on Bina Mossman’s “He `Ono” during which Kui takes time out to provide some revisionist history of the "discovery" of Hawai`i and explain some of the ethnic make-up of Hawai`i (perhaps for the haole at the back of the room).
But there are tender moments here too. Many of Kui’s fans believe that some of his finest compositions take on their poignancy because he composed them after he was already diagnosed with cancer. He knew that his life was to be cut short, and this resulted in such lyrics as “If I Had It To Do All Over Again,” made popular by Don. But more poignant than this is hearing him sing his own “When It’s Time To Go.”
When it’s time to go
Will I be a bore
And react, my friend
Like a fool once more
I listen to this song and can't help but highly suspect that this is one of those songs that Don would not have liked when Kui brought it to him - with its meandering jazz chord structure and an unexpected shift from major to minor and back again. Don told Kui, "Just play five simple chords and you'll be surprised how beautiful the song can be." And yet I cannot imagine a more beautiful song in any genre from any land.
And Nani sings her husband’s “Where Is My Love Tonight?’ like the seasoned pro she was – a vocal performance that would have stood comparison to such jazz chanteuses of the era as Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone, and Morgana King.
Kui and Nani would go on to headline their own act in Waikiki – most notably at the Queen’s Surf. And Kui would record one full-length LP of (mostly) his own compositions with New York City’s finest studio musicians. The Extraordinary Kui Lee was released in late November 1966, but he would never fulfill the promise of its title. He died less than two weeks later on December 3, 1966.