June 27, 1997 – Israel “Iz” Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole was born on May 20, 1959 in Honolulu, Hawaii, three months before the Hawaiian Islands would become America’s 50th state. In Hawaiian his last name translates to “the fearless eye, the bold face”. Notable Hawaiian musician Moe Keale was his uncle and became a major musical influence. He was raised in the community of Kaimuki, where his parents had met and married. He began playing music with his older brother Skippy and cousin Allen Thornton at the age of 11, being exposed to the music of Hawaiian entertainers of the time such as Peter Moon, Palani Vaughn and Don Ho, who frequented the establishment where Kamakawiwoʻole’s parents worked. Hawaiian musician Del Beazley spoke of the first time he heard Israel play, when, while playing for a graduation party, the whole room fell silent on hearing him. Israel continued his path as his brother Skippy entered the Army in 1971 and cousin Allen parted ways in 1976 for the mainland.
A Biography by his closest friend.
In his early teens, he studied at Upward Bound (UB) of the University of Hawaii at Hilo and his family moved to Mākaha. There he met Louis “Moon” Kauakahi, Sam Gray and Jerome Koko. Together with his brother Skippy they formed the Makaha Sons of Niʻihau. A part of the Hawaiian Renaissance, the band’s blend of contemporary and traditional styles gained in popularity as they toured Hawaii and the continental United States, releasing fifteen successful albums. Kamakawiwo’ole’s aim was to make music that stayed true to the typical sound of traditional Hawaiian music. During that time period, the songs that many people associated with Hawaii, typically, were not traditional-sounding songs.
The Makaha Sons of Niʻihau recorded No Kristo in 1976 and released four more albums, including Kahea O Keale, Keala, Makaha Sons of Niʻihau and Mahalo Ke Akua. In 1982, Kamakawiwoʻole’s brother, Skippy, died at age 28 of a heart attack related to obesity. In that same year, Kamakawiwoʻole married his childhood sweetheart Marlene. Soon after, they had a daughter whom they named Ceslie-Ann “Wehi”.
The group became Hawaii’s most popular modern traditional group with breakout albums 1984’s Puana Hou Me Ke Aloha and its follow-up, 1986’s Hoʻola. Kamakawiwoʻole’s last recorded album with the group was 1991’s Hoʻoluana. It remains the group’s top-selling CD.
In 1990, Kamakawiwoʻole released his first solo album Ka ʻAnoʻi, which won awards for Contemporary Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year from the Hawaiʻi Academy of Recording Arts (HARA). Facing Future was released in 1993 by The Mountain Apple Company. It featured his most popular song, the medley “Somewhere over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World”, along with “Hawaiʻi 78”, “White Sandy Beach of Hawaiʻi”, “Maui Hawaiian Sup’pa Man”, and “Kaulana Kawaihae”. The decision to include a cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow was said to be a last-minute decision by his producer Jon de Mello and him.
Facing Future debuted at #25 on Billboard magazine’s Top Pop Catalogue chart. On October 26, 2005, Facing Future became Hawaii’s first certified platinum album, selling more than a million CDs in the United States, according to figures furnished by the Recording Industry Association of America. On July 21, 2006, BBC Radio 1 announced that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World (True Dreams)” would be released as a single in America. Facing Future became the best-selling Hawaiian album of all time.
In 1994, Iz, nicknamed Bruddah Iz was voted favorite entertainer of the year by the Hawaiʻi Academy of Recording Arts. E Ala E released in 1995, featured the political title song “ʻE Ala ʻE” and “Kaleohano”, and N Dis Life (1996) featured “In This Life” and “Starting All Over Again”.
In 1997, Kamakawiwoʻole was again honored by HARA at the Annual Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards for Male Vocalist of the Year, Favorite Entertainer of the Year, Album of the Year, and Island Contemporary Album of the Year. He watched the awards ceremony from a hospital room.
Alone in Iz World (2001) debuted at #1 on Billboard’s World Chart and #135 on Billboard’s Top 200, #13 on the Top Independent Albums Chart, and #15 on the Top Internet Album Sales charts.
Throughout his life, Kamakawiwoʻole was morbidly obese and at one point weighed 757 pounds (343 kg; 54.1 st) standing 6-foot-2-inch (1.88 m) tall (body mass index = 97.2). He endured several hospitalizations because of health problems caused by his weight. Beset with respiratory, heart, and other medical problems, he died at the age of 38 in Queen’s Medical Center at 12:18 a.m. on June 26, 1997.
The Hawaiian state flag flew at half-staff on July 10, 1997, the day of Kamakawiwoʻole’s funeral. His koa wood coffin lay in state at the state capitol building in Honolulu. He was the third person in Hawaiian history to be awarded this honor, and the only one who was not a government official. Approximately ten thousand people attended the funeral. Thousands of fans gathered as his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean at Mākua Beach on July 12, 1997. Scenes from the funeral and scattering of Kamakawiwoʻole’s ashes were featured in official music videos of “Over the Rainbow” released posthumously by Mountain Apple Company. As of October 2016, the two videos as featured on YouTube have collectively received over 279 million views.