I’ll Remember You
By N Mark Castro
A momentary break from all the political turmoils and natural disasters around the world … to reminisce on the beauty of music that brings home the soul …
ONE of the most poignant songs I’ve ever come across is this ballad from Hawaii … not so much for the song in itself, but the story behind it: one man’s testament to his undying love for his family, his life, and what he would leave behind.
Written in 1964, the song I’ll Remember You was a popular hit song penned by Kui Lee (Kuiokalani Lee) and made famous at the time in Hawaii by his friend Don Ho at the Honey’s Nightclub where Lee worked as a doorman and was owned by Don’s mother.
Singer-songwriter Lee formed a musical partnership with Don who performed his compositions, providing international fame for both; however, Lee’s early death at the age of 34 cut short that partnership but continued to bring recognition for Lee. His compositions have now become standards in Hawaii.
According to stories, Nancy Sinatra — daughter of Frank Sinatra — visited Honey’s Nightclub then and heard Don Ho perform with ease with the patrons of the club. She reported Don’s uniqueness to her father who had just started his own record label.
At this time, Nancy would also sing what would become her 1966 signature song: “These Boots Are Made For Walkin‘.”
With Nancy being the apple of Frankie’s Blue Eyes, Don Ho and his musicians recorded their first 45rpm for Reprise Records the following year: ‘Tiny Bubbles’ and ‘I’ll Remember You’ on the flip side.
Tiny Bubbles … the torture of my youth.
Perhaps there isn’t a girl or boy of my time that didn’t know that silly ditty.
RISE TO FAME
With the popularity of Hawaii as a destination point for Americans, it didn’t take long for various popular artists to cover the song with their own versions: Andy Williams, Tony Bennett, Herb Alpert, and Roger Williams.
Moreover, Hawaii was the last U.S. soil many personnel left, and the first when returning home. The United States military afforded combat-duty personnel a two-week leave in mid-tour. Often the military allowed Military Air Command flights for both husband and wife to meet.
For those service personnel about to be sent back into war and their wives soon to be thousands of miles away, this song resonated with many. Elvis Presley had an affinity for the Islands and gave the song a broader audience. An ‘insert’ in a mid-1960s movie, it was a stunning benefit concert in Honolulu two years later that catapulted the song’s popularity. Within the next few years, the song had been recorded by several well-known singers of the period.
Even though the song was already popular at that time, it was Elvis who cemented it in a much larger stage and his version continued to be a part of his musical repertoire, echoing the sentiment of those moved by the song.
KUI AND NANI: A LOVE STORY
Born in Shanghai, China, Lee lost his mother Ethel in 1936 and his widowed father took him to Hawaii when he was five years old. He lived and studied in Hawaii until he moved to New York where he met and married singer-hula dancer Rose Frances Naone Leinani, known to everyone as Nani.
They both returned to Hawaii and worked with Don Ho at Honey’s. They would have four children together – Wailana, Mahealani, Maile and Kimo.
By 1961, his partnership with Don would launch a symbiotic relationship that transcended Kui’s early death. Recording Kui’s songs made Don a star, and it was from Don’s on-stage patter that most people learned of Kui Lee. Onstage, Don gave Kui full crediT for creating island music for a new generation.
Kui Lee only achieved fame for his own musical compositions toward the very end of his life.
Knowing of a late-diagnosed terminal illness, Lee wrote the song as a dedication to his wife and three young daughters.
He died a few years after writing the song
In 1973, Elvis Presley gave the Aloha From Hawaii concert with $75,000 proceeds going to the Kui Lee Cancer Fund, which had been created shortly before the concert to honor the late singer-songwriter Kui Lee.
An amazing song, an amazing recognition, a lasting legacy …