Vocalist Jimmy Borges, 'Hawaii's Frank Sinatra,' dies at 80

Vocalist Jimmy Borges, 'Hawaii's Frank Sinatra,' dies at 80
Published: May. 31, 2016 at 4:50 PM HST|Updated: May. 31, 2016 at 7:53 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Jimmy Borges, the versatile jazz vocalist whose dulcet tones and warm personality endeared him to generations of Hawaii audiences and earned him the title "Hawaii's Frank Sinatra," died Monday at the age of 80, his family confirmed.

Borges was diagnosed with terminal lung and liver cancer in 2014, but was determined not to let his illness slow him down.

In October 2015, hardly acting the part of an octogenarian, he released his first studio-produced album. A month later, he headlined a Hawaii Pops concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra's birth.

And in December, he taped a special performance for PBS Hawaii, called "Faced it All," in which he sang for a hand-picked audience of friends and spoke openly about his terminal cancer diagnosis for the first time.

Friends said Borges' push to go public with his illness was among his last great acts: It not only prepared his fans for his death, but prompted a broader conversation about the choices people make about how they want to live when they're dying.

'Learning how to die'

"Tackling a heavy subject like this head-on was quite remarkable," said Jon DeMello, CEO of the Mountain Apple Co., the Hawaii recording label that released Borges' album in October 2015. "It's part of him being honest with himself and his fans, and I think that's going to be a part of his legacy."

In a December 2015 interview with Hawaii News Now, a still-spry Borges talked about how he was "learning how to live … and learning how to die."

"Everybody has a point where dying becomes a part of their thought process where they have to deal with that," he told HNN's Jim Mendoza. "The people that really suffer the most are the people who love you."

In a statement Tuesday, Borges' wife said the family is grateful for the support from friends and fans "throughout the world during these final months of life."

"His decision to live his way until the very end was exactly the right thing for Jimmy," said wife Vicki Bergeron Borges, "and both a gift and a lesson for the rest of us."

Hawaii concert promoter Tom Moffatt called Borges a fan favorite: A man who made a name for himself with his voice and with his likability.

"He was always a good guy, very exuberant," said Moffatt, who met Borges in the 1960s when the singer was performing at a club in Kalihi.

"I can't recall a single negative thing about Jimmy. And, he sings like an instrument. He's a singer singer."

That singer's singer dominated the Waikiki entertainment scene in the 1970s, drawing the attention of more than a few visiting celebrities, from Tony Bennett to Sammy Davis Jr. to Frank Sinatra.

Over the years, Borges kept his loyal fans and built on his following, uniting listeners across generations with his unique approach to jazz favorites, and happily serving as a mentor to young artists.

The mark he left on the Hawaii music scene was evident Saturday, when he won four Na Hoku Hanohano awards, including for Entertainer of the Year. His eponymous album won Hokus for Jazz Album of the Year and Album of the Year. Borges also won a Hoku for best male vocalist.

Borges' daughter and wife accepted the awards on his behalf. Attendees at the event were told he was watching the show at home.

'I wanted my existence to be important'

Borges was born on Self Lane in Kalihi, right across from the Kalihi Fire Station, where he played tag football in the streets and made friendships that would last for a lifetime. He grew up in a household where music was everywhere. His father played piano and ukulele and sang; his mother listened to big band records.

By the age of 20, Borges was supporting himself with his singing in San Francisco. Before long he was performing in Las Vegas and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Shirley MacLaine, Dean Martin and Sinatra.

He said his early success was as much about drive as about talent.

"I wanted my existence to be important," Borges told Leslie Wilcox on PBS Hawaii's "Long Story Short." "I wanted to be important in some way or another, as long as I did something that was worthwhile in life."

Over the coming decades, his career would take him around the world – and it would take him home, to Waikiki, where he quickly became among the hottest acts for visitors.

Borges also branched out into the small screen, appearing in 15 episodes of the original Hawaii Five-0, and in several episodes of Magnum P.I. When the Hawaii Five-0 reboot launched, Borges was a natural pick to guest star. He made his final appearance on the show in March.

A final act

Borges' struggle with cancer began in 2011, when doctors discovered a large tumor in his liver. He had surgery and beat it, but the cancer returned a few years later.

And this time, Borges decided not to seek aggressive treatment.

In that December interview with HNN, Borges said he had come to terms with his cancer – and was determined to make sure that the time he had remaining was well spent.

He even joked that perhaps he'd like to go out doing what he loved best.

"Singing my last note," he said. "Everybody standing up and cheering and yelling."

Borges is survived by his wife and a daughter, Steffanie Borges-Juergenson. The family is planning services.

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