Danny Kaleikini, legendary musician and ‘ambassador of aloha,’ dies at 85
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Danny Kaleikini, a legendary musician and entertainer in the islands who rubbed shoulders with dignitaries and stars over his long career and was widely known as Hawaii’s “ambassador of aloha,” has died. He was 85.
Kaleikini is survived by his wife of 64 years, Jacqueline; daughter Leonn, grandson Nicholas, and a sister.
Family members said he died peacefully Friday morning at St. Francis Hospice, where Hawaii entertainers have been flocking over the last month to offer their aloha and their music.
‘Truly a treasure’: Hawaii musicians, dignitaries remember Danny Kaleikini
“Growing up, he was my hero,” said grandson Nicholas Kaleikini. “He always put others before himself. Even with his talent and fame, he always put Hawaii close to his heart.”
Gov. Josh Green remembered Kaleikini as the “warmest person that I’d come to know in Hawaii.”
“That was his magic,” he added.
‘The key to success’
Kaleikini’s childhood was a humble but warm one.
He was born and raised in Papakolea, and once recalled eating hot dogs for “all the holidays.”
“Hot dog for Christmas. Hot dog for New Year’s,” he quipped.
Despite the hardship, he also remembered his parents providing a loving home. His father worked for the city Refuse Department and his mother was a cocktail waitress.
And at school, Kaleikini excelled, becoming student body president at Kawananakakoa Intermediate.
His real passion, though, was show business.
“They would say, ‘Eh you are the two brothers from Papakolea come over here sing us a song. And we would sing, ‘O Kala Mapua.’ After we sing our song, we’d pick up $2 or $3,” Kaleikini told Hawaii News Now.
After school, Kaleikini went to work in Waikiki ― first at the Wakiki Sands and Royal Hawaiian Hotel and then at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, where he became the headliner at the Tapa Room in 1960.
In 1967, at just 29, Kaleikini headlined two shows nightly at the Kahala Hilton’s Hala Terrace.
“I learned in life you can be the smartest guy, you can have all the degrees in the world, but if you don’t have that association, that’s the key to success,” he said.
The magic of aloha
Kaleikini also embraced the power of aloha ― a lesson he learned from Rev. Abraham Akaka.
“Kahu, he was really the one who taught me the magic world ‘aloha,’” he said.
Kaleikini entertained for 30 years ― six to seven nights a week ― and he says it never got old.
Along the way, he mingled with presidents, foreign dignitaries and Hollywood celebrities. He was the first non-Japanese entertainer to sing at Hiroshima’s Peace Music Festival and drew crowds to a Carnegie Hall performance.
In 1959, he and Duke Kahanamoku had a very special opportunity ― that was also an eye-opening one.
“We went to open the Sheraton Dallas Hotel,” he recalled. “I was so honored because Duke Kahanamoku had been ‘ambassador of aloha’ and I had the privilege of working with Duke.”
But they had to enter through a back entrance and needed permission to eat in a dining room.
“1959 ― we weren’t even a state yet and they had no idea what Hawaiians were,” he said.
The ‘ambassador of aloha’
Despite the reception and his hardships, Kaleikini never wavered from his message of peace and love.
And in 1988, he was honored as an “ambassador of aloha” himself by then-Gov. John Waihee.
That spirit of aloha was further honored last year, when the Kahala Hotel dedicated the area in front of the resort as “Danny Kaleikini Square.”
Kaleikini also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, was named Salvation Army’s “Humanitarian of the Year,” and awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Hawaii.
“I’m very honored to share this aloha. Not only here but around the world. And I can honestly say I’ve seen the world,” he said.
Memorial services are pending and the family has requested privacy.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.
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