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Q & A with IZ: Voice of the People Author, Rick Carroll on May 18, 2017
Why Did You Want To Write This Book?
Always looking for a good story, this one had it all: Talented island boy’s rags-to-rich story with sex, drugs, lots of music, and love, lots of love, and joy and sorrow, secret angels, “overnight" celebrity, instant wealth, global fame, lost by his own hand and voracious appetite. A late 20th Century tragedy.
Call me an eye-witness. Much of it played out before all our eyes in Hawaii. The story began the year he was born and Hawaii became the 50th state. Why Netflix hasn’t made a bio-pic, I have no idea. Maybe, pitch producer of “The Descendants.”
Where And When Did You “Find" The Story?
Fun story, how [the] book came to me.
Had just finished writing Huahine Island of The Lost Canoe for Bishop Museum Press. A great South Seas mystery.
Time to look up, surround myself with fresh faces. My friend, Brian Meltzer, who owned Honolulu Books on Bishop Street, was about to open Best Sellers, the first Hawaiian book & music store at Honolulu International Airport. Open at 7 a.m., close after last flight out. Seven days a week. Tough to find staff in a dawn-patrol town. Nobody wanted [the] early bird shift. I volunteered. Brian called me “author-in-residence.”
Every morning, Japanese tourists going home bought stacks of Hawaii children's books. I thought those books were for their kids. Not. They took them home as English language text books. For themselves. Hit record sales on Hawaiian children's books. Brian thought I was magic.
He loaded a 500-disc Sony carousel with Hawaii CDs. I could dial up any song, remote control. One morning Israel’s “Rainbow” song stopped everyone in the shop when they heard “ooo ooooooo” and asked, “who?” Point to CD cover on wall, turn volume up. Sold out every IZ CD that day, and every day thereafter. Like spearing trout in a tide pool. I played Over the Rainbow every morning as outbound Japanese tourists came in to buy Hawaii music and books. Imagine. Japanese tourists discovered Israel in our bookstore.
I knew then a biography of Israel would be a best seller.
When Did You Start Writing?
When the bookstore got a Retailers Award for selling most Iz CDs in Hawaii in 2001, I began a first draft of a manuscript:
“In 1983, you could, for the price of draft beer, spend Saturday night at the Ranch House…and hear the voice of the Hawaiian people. Only nobody called Israel Kamakawiwo'ole that yet.”
Kept writing what little I knew, hoping to discover all the wonderful characters who played a significant role in Israel’s life. I had no idea I already knew the most important one. Uncle Moe Keale.
What Was Your First Impression of Israel In 1983?
What caught my ear, the night I first heard Israel, was his angelic voice, but he caught my eye by refusing to sing for a tourist [an] Andy Williams wedding song. I remember thinking he will amount to something more than another Hawaiian singer nobody ever heard of on the Mainland.
The host culture was rebooting and Israel was in tune with the times.
Why Did You Reach Out To Marlene Kamakawiwoʻole?
To win her support, discover her role. I only knew Marlene was a hula dancer who didn’t dance anymore. Wondered why.
I’d sketched a rough draft of Israel’s early childhood based on interviews with Moe Keale. She had read it.
In Honolulu, met Marlene to seek her blessing on book. First thing after “Aloha,” she asked:
“You got that small-kid stuff from Uncle Moe, right?”
She knew the details of Israel’s boyhood and so did I, thanks to Uncle Moe.
The book was on.
Marlene told me about how and when they met, and about their wedding, and what it was like to be Israel’s wife. And why she quit dancing (his demand: “Only one entertainer in our family”) to become wife, mother, caregiver and chief roadie.
“My challenge was get him from A to B.” It wasn’t easy. He often went X to Z.
Marlene contributed family photos and funny stories and revealed the human side of a sudden celebrity out of a dead-broke-poor rut.
“…to fill some gaps for the people around the world just now discovering Israel,” she wrote in the Foreword.
Who Were The Essential Characters?
So many folks, but especially Moe Keale, who I met in 1983. Introduced by the late Rike Weiss of One Thousand Friends of Hawaii. She said I needed to know Moe. She knew I was exploring Hawaii music. He was a singer, a musician, a composer, an actor, a Waikiki legend. First Hawaiian I met who was born on the so-called "forbidden" island of Niʻihau.
A full-blooded Polynesian, Keale exhibited quiet, noble strength, part warrior/part kahuna; he looked like old photos of royals you see in Hawaii history books today. I did not know then that he was Israel’s uncle. It never came up. We talked music. Israel was not much to talk about then. Uncle Moe, an early role model for young IZ, took Israel to Niʻihau to discover his family roots. Which is how Makaha Sons of Niʻihau became the name of the first band.
Without Uncle Moe (who died in 2002) nothing would be known today of Israel’s happy boyhood in Palolo, his epiphany on Niʻihau, his grudging adolescence in Makaha, or his early adventures in Waikiki, a ukulele player on tourist boats at 16. Singing Tiny Bubbles and Pearly Shells.
Was There Any Pressure To Get Story Right?
Always, but knew I would find the right people to tell their part of Israel’s story.
How Did You Find Sources?
Asked around. Musicians, disc jockeys, music reviewers, writers, photographers. Some I already knew. Keith Haugen, John Berger, Jerry Hopkins, De Soto Brown, Wayne Harada Wade Kilohana Shirkey (who was there at the end), Anne Harpham, Charles Maxwell, Dennis Oda, Brett Uprichard, Jon de Mello and Leah Bernstein-all had a role in my discovery of who IZ was, and how to tell his story.
Who Shaped Israel’s Career?
Four people I call the Coach, the Confidant and Patrons.
Jacqueline Leilani “Skylark,” auntie of the ohana, guided Israel’s trajectory from a backyard Makaha Beach band to center stage. She drove him to gigs “because no one’s car ever worked” and talked him out of old jeans and t-shirts to create a fresh style with hand-made Hawaiian print shirts. She coached him on stagecraft, spun his records on the radio.
Betty Stickney, early admirer at Hank’s Place in Kaimuki, became Israel’s “haole mom," a fan who soothed upset in midnight phone calls. She urged him to write his life story (he managed six pages). Painted his merry portrait in pastels that became the cover of Ka’Ano’i, released in 1990. Vital in his life, mine, too. An inadvertent creative director.
He was broke, in and out hospital (9 times that year), too weak with pneumonia to perform. Medical bills mounting. No insurance. His first attempt to cut a solo album on his own Big Boy Record Company fizzled. Oswald Stender, Office of Hawaiian Affairs and former Bishop Estate trustee, learned of his plight from Moe Keale and with Honolulu business man Dwayne Steele, “decided to do something for that Hawaiian boy.” They gave Israel $50,000 to solve the money problems, and with Mountain Apple, he recorded and launched Facing Future, featuring “Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.”
Did You Think The Song Would be a Hit?
Not like it became. But nothing in the music world then is like it is today, with no more record stores, download and streaming. Technology enabled the song to spread around the world like cane fire.
Facing Future, released in 1993, sold more than a million copies, first for a Hawaiian artist to go Platinum. Catapulted Israel into his future.
“It was one our our miracles,” Marlene told me.
His patrons, who sought no recognition, are listed in liner notes as "The Wizard of Oz and The Man of Steele.” Their secret was never revealed until the day I sat down for lunch at the Pacific Club with Oz Stender.
What Question Do You Wish You Could Have Asked Israel?
How did you ever think to combine Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” with Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” into a new hit classic. I never believed it just popped into his head after midnight.
Any Surprises Writing Book?
Only that Israel kept devouring roast pork smuggled into Queen’s Medical Center in his final days.
What Surprises Readers?
That he is dead. So many beyond the reef and even in Hawaii today think because his voice is everywhere, he’s still alive. He died at 12:16 a.m. June 26, 1997, Queen’s Hospital of "refractory ventricular tachycardia due to respiratory failure".
Why Is That Song So Loved?
His angel voice over four-string ukulele touches that tender spot in everyone that makes you laugh, cry, sing along, dance, remember old friends and good times.` All that emotion by blending two of America's best known songs into one. Genius.
For those who have never read IZ Voice of The People it is more than a biography of a Hawaiian singer. It is a story of a young Hawaiian man born in America’s version of Polynesia, in an invented culture designed to attract tourists. His up-from-nothing life in a make-believe world paralleled the ongoing myth of Hawaii as paradise in its first four decades of statehood. He came of age as elder Hawaiians sought to revive their own moribund culture and achieve dignity as native people. He became the voice of the people by voicing native woes in song.
Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World may be his global hit. But every time I hear Israel chant in Hawaiian, “I Ka Pono…” and sing “Cry for the people, cry for the land that was taken away”-I cry.