Honolulu Star Bulletin
Thursday, February 12, 2004
By Rosemarie Bernardo

Isle musician made
mark with his strum

Solomon "Sonny" Kamahele Jr. touched many with his falsetto voice and the distinctive strum of his guitar.

"Everybody loved him," said his wife, Margaret. "Sonny was the most wonderful man and did so much for so many people."

Kamahele, a multitalented singer, musician and entertainer, died yesterday at his Hilo home. He was 82.

Kamahele was born in Nuuanu in 1921. His career started when his father, who was a famous entertainer, heard him sing "Ka Le E" while he was playing in the front yard of his grandfather's home on School Street.

Soon after, his father taught him how to sing and play Hawaiian music. As a child, Kamahele was a performing mascot at the Honolulu Police Glee Club and serenaded visitors arriving on passenger liners. In 1933, he greeted President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he arrived in the islands.

After World War II, he moved to the mainland and spent a decade playing in Hollywood with entertainers who included Sam Koki and Harry Owens.

Kamahele returned to Hawaii in 1956 and joined Alfred Apaka's band at Kaiser's Hawaiian Village. Thereafter, he formed his own group and performed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. He was also part of the "Hawaii Calls" show until 1974.

"He was an entertainer's entertainer," said longtime friend Nina Kealiiwahamana, who performed with Kamahele on "Hawaii Calls." "He will be sorely missed."

From September 1983 to last August, Kamahele was part of a trio that performed traditional Hawaiian and hapa-haole music at the Halekulani Hotel's open-air House Without a Key restaurant.

"He would do a song that was on my mind at that moment," said former band mate Alan Apaka. "I never had a (musical) connection like I had with Sonny.

"He nurtured me as a musician." "Sonny was known for his distinctive strum of his guitar," said Harry Soria, of KINE Radio. "It was a distinctive strum that was reminiscent of that swing period."

Soria also noted that Kamahele was a vocalist who could sing from falsetto to deep bass.

Kamahele learned how to play by listening to older musicians and later learned how to read music. He danced hula and played several instruments that included the guitar, steel guitar and ukulele. Kamahele also helped guide many musicians.

"He was so giving and caring," said Margaret Kamahele.

Moments before he died, Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom sang "Sweet Little Baby" over the phone to Kamahele. The song was composed by Koki, Gilliom's step-grandfather. Soria said Kamahele sang the song with Koki while he was living in Los Angeles.

Singer Melveen Leed also sang "Kanaka Waiwai" to Kamahele over the phone yesterday. "It was one of his favorites," said Leed, a longtime friend.

Kamahele received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts in 1996.

In addition to wife Margaret, he is survived by brothers Frank, Kenneth and Valentine Kamahele; sisters Anita Roberts and Iwalani Kamahele-Stone; adopted son Solomon "King" Kamahele III; five stepchildren; 12 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Contributions on behalf of Sonny Kamahele can be made to St. Francis Hospice-Nuuanu at 24 Puiwa Road, Honolulu 96817.

Biographical material from Tony Todaro, The Golden Years of Hawaiian Entertainment (Tony Todaro Pub., 1974).