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Classic Tracks: Bruddah Iz “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World”

His full name was Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, but almost everyone called him “Iz” or “Bruddah Iz” (“Bruddah” being pidgin for “Brother”). A gentle giant who at one point weighed more than 750 pounds, he is responsible for the all-time best-selling record by a Hawaiian artist—a simple but haunting voice-and-ukulele medley of two standards, one from the 1930s and the other from the 1960s:

His full name was Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, but almost everyone called him “Iz” or “Bruddah Iz” (“Bruddah” being pidgin for “Brother”). A gentle giant who at one point weighed more than 750 pounds, he is responsible for the all-time best-selling record by a Hawaiian artist—a simple but haunting voice-and-ukulele medley of two standards, one from the 1930s and the other from the 1960s: Howard Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” written for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, was most famously sung by Judy Garland; and Bob Thiele and George D. Weiss’ “What a Wonderful World” was a late-life hit for Louis Armstrong in 1968 when it hit Number One on the UK singles chart, and then was a posthumous Top 10 success in the U.S. following Armstrong’s death in 1971. Iz’s version first appeared on his 1993 album, Facing Future, which went on to become the first Hawaiian album to top 1 million in U.S. sales, and the single was a hit in a number of other countries and has had an extraordinary life the past few years as a digital download, with more than two million copies sold. It has also been featured in several films, TV shows and commercials.

Iz was born in Honolulu in 1959 and grew up in the Kaimuki area of the city (north of Diamond Head crater). He first started playing music at the age of 11 with his older brother, Skippy. When Iz’s parents took jobs working at a Waikiki music club called Steamboats (in non-musical capacities) in the early ’70s, the brothers became even more fascinated by Hawaiian folk music, which was enjoying a serious renaissance on the Islands around that time, thanks to acts like the highly influential Sons of Hawaii (who had a weekly gig at Steamboats), the Sunday Manoa and many others.

As a young teen, Iz was sometimes called up onstage to play ukulele and sing with the greats who passed through the club. Even at a young age he was very large; in fact, it ran in the family—his father was one of those enormous guys who got nicknamed “Tiny,” and Skippy was also very heavy. As nearly full-blooded native Hawaiians (rare today; Hawaii has truly been a melting pot), the Kamakawiwo’ole family embraced the newfound pride in the Hawaiian language and the old music of the Islands, and later, Iz would be quite vocal in his support of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

In 1973, when Iz was 14, the family moved to Makaha, a sleepy but beautiful white-sand beach community on the western shore of Oahu, and it was there that both Iz and Skippy started their first serious musical endeavor: a five-piece traditional group called the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau. Formed in 1976, they quickly became one of the most popular groups in the Islands, playing a mix of songs in Hawaiian dating back to Queen Liliuokalani, hapa haole (half-white) tunes and a few more modern songs in both English and Hawaiian. The original version of the band lasted until 1982, when Skippy died of a heart attack at the age of just 28. Iz and the others soldiered on; though by the late ’80s, Iz was increasingly having weight-related health problems himself, which, coupled with his abuse of both hard drugs and alcohol, made him an occasionally unreliable bandmember. He also had “issues” with the group’s management, which led to his eventual departure to become a solo act in the early ’90s.

The story of this month’s “Classic Track” begins on a night in 1988, with an engineer named Milan Bertosa. The Chicago native had been active in Windy City recording for a number of years—based out of Tanglewood Recording, among other studios—but by 1987 he was looking for a change of pace. So he and a partner packed up their equipment and moved to Hawaii and opened what immediately became a top facility in the state, Audio Resources Honolulu. Bertosa had only been in Hawaii a few months when he got a fateful telephone call one night:

“I’d just finished this hellish session with a girl group, recording one syllable at a time for hours, and I’m wrapping cables when the phone rings. It’s 3:30 in the morning and all I want to do is go home, but there’s this jacked-up client who I’ve been doing some work with saying, ‘I’m at this club called Sparky’s with this guy named Israel Kaloka-loka-loka-loka-loka’—I had no idea what the name was—‘and he wants to come and do a demo right now.’ I’m like, ‘I’d be happy to record him; call me tomorrow.’ He says, ‘No, no!’ and then he puts Iz on the phone, and he’s got this soft voice and he’s really polite and really sweet, kind of the embodiment of what a nice Hawaiian person is like. I finally say, ‘Okay, you’ve got 15 minutes to get here. When you get here, you’ve got a half-hour and then it’ll be 4:30 and I’m done.’

“So he shows up—biggest human being I’ve ever met. And we record the songs ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and ‘What a Wonderful World,’ just Iz and his uke, two mics, one take. Beautiful. The other song he recorded that night was called ‘White Sandy Beach’ and he overdubbed another uke, so that was three tracks.

“I recorded dry to 2-inch 24-track tape on an MCI JH-24 or JH-16, through the studio’s Harrison MR4. The mics were Neumann KM84s, one on uke about a foot above the instrument, up the neck a little [so it wasn’t pointing directly at the sound hole and picking up what Bertosa calls the ukulele’s characteristic “bark note”], one on vox. Mic pre’s were in the Harrison MR4. EQ was minimal—maybe a light boost above 10k, highpass to get rid of unnecessary subs and most likely a small dip around 400 Hz on the uke mic. I may have used a UREI LA-4 on the vocal mic going to tape. I mixed the next morning using a blue Orban stereo compressor with an Idle function that kept the breaths from being sucked up too much. Reverb was courtesy of a Klark-Teknik DN780, which was a great digital box.” Bertosa mixed to both ¼-inch analog and Sony 2500 DAT, “and then the 2-inch tape was wiped—after all, it was just a demo! Doh!,” he says with a laugh. “I believe that the version that went to mastering [years later] was the DAT.”

The tape sat in Audio Resources’ storage library for five years before it was used. In the meantime, Iz launched his solo career (while still maintaining ties with the Makaha Sons for a while) with an eclectic 1990 album called Ka ’Ano’i, which actually included a version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” but done in a fully produced “Jawaiian” style—a blend of reggae and Hawaiian that has long been extremely popular in the Islands.

It wasn’t until 1992, when Iz went into Audio Resources with Bertosa and Mountain Apple Records producer Jon De Mello to make a second album—Facing Future—that the idea surfaced to use the old demo recording, as is. The medley’s beauty lay in its simplicity: Iz’s soaring tenor sounds vulnerable yet optimistic; the recording is intimate—you can even hear the light clicking of Iz’s fingernails on the ukulele’s strings and soundboard. At the top of the song he quietly dedicates the tune to Hawaiian folk music legend (and sometime member of the Sons of Hawaii) Gabby Pahinui.

Released in 1993, Facing Future was an immediate smash in Hawaii, with several different tunes from the disc dominating the local airwaves for months, including the “Rainbow/Wonderful World” medley, a tune associated with the Makaha Sons called “Hawaii ’78,” and Iz’s wonderful Jawaiian take (via Toots Hibbert’s reggae version) on John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Road,” which has “west Makaha” substituting for “West Virginia.”

Alas, Iz’s soaring weight eventually killed him—he died of heart failure in 1997 at age 37. However, as occasionally happens, death was just the beginning for what has become a superstar career. He was already lionized in Hawaii, and then, slowly but surely, his music started spreading eastward. “Rainbow/Wonderful World” was used in a national TV commercial for eToys, and then was picked up for the soundtracks of Meet Joe Black (1998) and Finding Forrester (2000), and later appeared prominently on a key episode of the hit TV series ER and in the soundtrack for the romantic comedy movie 50 First Dates (2004). Soon it became a top-selling digital track, which led to its re-release as a single and more TV and commercial uses.

Not bad for a 15-minute session. “After that 15 minutes,” says Bertosa, who has worked on recent albums with uke phenom Jake Shimabukuro. “I was thinking, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing for a living; not that other stuff, one syllable at a time.”