At what age does one learn the universal truth that we should never assume anything in this life? I’m certain it comes at different times for different people, and there’s a good chance that some never learn this critical lesson at all. However, the earlier we comprehend this reality, the better it will serve us.
During my years as a deejay, I was fortunate to be exposed to a wide variety of artists and just about every genre of music available at the time. Over the years, we’ve seen and heard a multitude of talented entertainers who rightfully gained worldwide notoriety, fame and fortune.
However, let me tell you about a true artist who left us before he reached his full potential. He gained a worldwide following of loyal fans who included such notables as Jimmy Buffet, Paul Simon and Bette Midler.
Try to pronounce his name or glance at his picture, and you’ll know just a few of the many barriers he overcame to gain global fame in the short time he was with us. Let me share a few interesting facts about this gentle giant and you’ll soon realize you may have made a few false assumptions as you saw his picture for the first time.
- His name is Israel Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole.
- His friends, family and fans called him “IZ.”
- IZ was born and raised in Hawaii and seldom left the islands.
- He stood 6 ft., 2 in. and weighed 770 lbs.!
- He was a consummate ukulele player, songwriter and singer.
- He was known as the “Bob Marley of Hawaii.”
- He had a very gentle, passionate voice, which could float through higher registers with an ease that reminded many of Johnny Mathis.
It’s said that IZ one day called his producer and said that there was a song he felt he had to record. He showed up at the studio at midnight with his trusty ukulele and, in a mere five minutes, created his renowned version of “Over The Rainbow/Wonderful World.” This haunting medley was later played over the closing credits of the film Meet Joe Black starring Brad Pitt and other movie soundtracks including Finding Forrester starring Sean Connery and 50 First Dates. That same rendition also received airplay on the TV shows ER, Cold Case, Jon & Kate Plus 8, Life on Mars, and Scrubs.
You may have seen an etoys commercial that ran on network television for quite some time. It began with a young boy chasing fireflies and ended with his wise and loving father ordering a firefly “kit” from etoys. It was a cute ad, but what made it so successful and believable was the soothing sound of IZ playing his 4-string ukulele in the background. That simple melody being hummed (no words) created mental snapshots of home, love, country, and security … images of a world in which everything was as it should be! In fact, that’s exactly what you’ll experience when you hear the texture of his voice, his songs, and the sound of his resonant ukulele.
In 1990, Iz released his first solo album which won awards for Contemporary Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts (HARA). Three years later, Facing Future was released featuring his most popular song, the medley “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.” It debuted at #25 on Billboard Magazine’s Top Pop Catalogue chart and became Hawaii’s first certified platinum album, selling more than a million CDs in the United States. In 1994, IZ was voted favorite entertainer of the year by the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts (HARA).
IZ endured several hospitalizations and finally died of weight-related respiratory illness in June of 1997 at the young age of 38. It has been suggested that a genetic disorder was responsible for his obese condition.
The Hawaii state flag flew at half-mast on the day of Iz’s funeral. His koa wood coffin lay in state at the Capitol building in Honolulu as more than 10,000 fans came to say goodbye. He was only the third person in Hawaiian history to be accorded this honor and the only non-politician.
Thousands of fans gathered at Makua Beach on the Pacific Ocean where IZ and his friends had camped out and played over the years. His friends paddled a double-hulled voyaging canoe into Makua Bay and thousands cheered as his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean. It continued for an hour. To be with IZ one last time, family members and friends ran into the ocean. And the music continued into the night. It still does.
Check out his rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” in this video.
Do a favor for yourself and a friend by passing this link on to friends and family. IZ the man may be gone, but his music has made him immortal. May he live on and bring some culture and peace to mainstream music.