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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This morning, as part of NPR's series 50 Great Voices, we bring you the story of a brilliant voice, a brilliant song, and how they came together.

(Soundbite of song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow")

Mr. ISRAEL KAMAKAWIWO'OLE (Singer-Musician): (Singing) Ooooo, oooooo, ohoohohoo. Ooooo, ohooohoo, oooohoo. Somewhere over the rainbow...

MONTAGNE: This is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, the late Hawaiian musician who did something rare in music. He redefined a beloved classic. His version of "Over the Rainbow" has the poignancy of Judy Garland's and the shimmering vulnerability. But these days it's heard so often on TV and in the movies, a younger generation may know only Israel's version.

Mr. KAMAKAWIWO'OLE: (Singing) Somewhere over the rainbow blue birds fly. And the dreams that you dared to, oh why, oh why can't I? Oh-oh, I...

Mr. DEL BEAZLEY (Musician): It's not only the voice. In Hawaii, we talk about this thing what we call mana.

MONTAGNE: Del Beazley is a musician and childhood friend of Israel.

Mr. BEAZLEY: Mana is like an energy that you get. We believe we get ours from all of the elements first. Yeah? Your Earth, your sky, your ocean, your God, and all that is inside of us. And when we open our mouth to either speak, to sing or to play, that's what we let out.

MONTAGNE: Del Beazley remembers the first time he heard Israel sing. They were teenagers and Israel showed up with his older brother, Skippy, at a graduation party.

Mr. BEAZLEY: They set up with instruments that were kind of beat up. In fact, one of the ukuleles was held together with bubble gum. What happened was, as soon as Israel Kamakawiwo'ole opened his mouth and sang that whole place went quiet.

Every great singer has something special about him, and that thing just cut right through the air. And, you know, stopped everybody in their tracks.

MONTAGNE: Israel was still a teenager when he and his brother formed a band called the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau. The 1970s was a time when young Hawaiians were rediscovering their language and culture. In music, that meant getting away from the kitschy hula tunes for tourists, like "My Little Grass Shack."

Israel's group was among those that embraced traditional melodies.

Mr. KAMAKAWIWO'OLE: (Singing foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Israel was the group's standout, for his voice and also his size. Both he and his brother Skippy weighed hundreds of pounds, the girth of sumo wrestlers. And Israel was tall with flowing black hair.

Then in 1988, on his own, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole recorded a song that made him a legend. It began at three in the morning.

Milan Bertosa was at the end of a long day in his Honolulu recording studio.

Mr. MILAN BERTOSA (Sound Engineer-Producer): And the phone rings and there's a client of mine. He said I've got Israel Kamacawacalawacalakakalakalaka(ph) here. He says, well, he wants to come and record a demo. Well, shutting down, come back tomorrow. And he said no, here, talk to Israel. So he puts Israel on the phone.

And he's this really sweet man. He's well-mannered and just kind. And, you know: Please, can I come in? I got this idea.

MONTAGNE: And that Bertosa relented and gave Israel 15 minutes to get there. Soon, there was a knock on the door.

Mr. BERTOSA: And in walks, like, the largest human being I had seen in my life. Israel was probably about 500 pounds. I put up some microphones; do a quick sound check; roll tape. And the first thing he does is "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

MONTAGNE: Meaning he just took his ukulele and started singing.

Mr. BERTOSA: He played and sang, and one take and it was over. The next day, I got Israel a copy and filed the tape away.

MONTAGNE: It would be five years before that tape came off the shelf. In 1993, Milan Bertosa was back in his studio with Israel making a solo album and Bertosa had an epiphany. He fished out the recording of "Over the Rainbow" and it ended up of "Facing Future;" still the bestselling Hawaiian album of all time, thanks to this one song.

Mr. BERTOSA: You know, there's a bunch of articles written about "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." He gets the lyrics wrong. He changes the melody. You know what? If you sat there with a book and a score card, you could count the mistakes or you could just listen to the song and smile.

Mr. KAMAKAWIWO'OLE: (Singing) Where trouble melts like lemon drops, high above the chimney top, that's where you'll find me. Oh, somewhere over the rainbow...

MONTAGNE: Israel would only see the beginning of his song's amazing success. As he grew increasingly obese, he was in and out of the hospital. His brother Skippy had died from complications of obesity, as did all Israel's immediate family.

Israel knew he was destined for a brief life. And for his producer, John de Mello, everything Israel sang and said became precious.

Mr. KAMAKAWIWO'OLE: And if you playing music with somebody that play, and you dont know the song - no play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHN DE MELLO (Producer): Every session, I would keep him for an hour afterwards and just tell story - tell me stories.

Mr. KAMAKAWIWO'OLE: I was scared when I lost my mother, my father, my brother, my sister. I guess this is going to sound kind of weird: I'm not scared for myself for dying. Because we Hawaiians, we live in both worlds. When our time come, don't cry for me cause don't cry for me.

MONTAGNE: In the summer of 1997, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, by then one of the most beloved singers in the history of Hawaiian music, died of respiratory failure. He was 38.

Israel's body lay in state at Hawaii's Capitol building, a rare honor. Days later, he was cremated and his ashes carried on a traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoe. His longtime friend Del Beazley and producer Jon de Mello were among those onboard.

Mr. DE MELLO: And going down the coastline, all the big semi-trucks on the island of Oahu had their air horns blowing. And from the ocean, we could hear the echo, the bounce off the mountain ranges.

Mr. BEAZLEY: In the old days, people would wail when the mo'i, or the king, passed away and cry. And that's really what it was. I mean this whole island came together just to say goodbye to this one Hawaiian. Hmm, he would have laughed, but I tell you that right now, he would have been laughing.

Mr. ISRAEL: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: There's more of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole and the series, 50 Great Voices, at our Web site.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

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