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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, April 15, 2005

Vocalist Jessie Leinaala Haili dead at 82

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Jessie Leinaala Haili, a longtime Hawaiian performer and recording artist known for her "ha'i," or the female equivalent of falsetto singing, died Sunday in Mililani. She was 82.

Jessie Leinaala Haili

"Auntie Lei was one of the reasons I took up singing ha'i," said Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom. One of Haili's last prominent appearances was a concert with Gilliom at the Hawai'i Theatre in April 2002.

"We toured together, with Auntie Genoa Keawe and Auntie Kealoha Kalama, to San Diego, Seattle, Oakland and Maui, and there will never be another voice like Auntie Lei's," said Gilliom, who said she learned a lot from Haili's early recordings. Haili was "a blood auntie" to Gilliom, so they were related.

"She was such a source of knowledge and inspiration, not only from the music side, but in the way she lived life as a true Hawaiian," said Bobby Moderow Jr., a member of the vocal group Maunalua whom she befriended years ago. "She became kind of a grandmother to me, and we got to know her well after she came to see us with her daughter, Mapuana, when we performed at Roy's."

Haili also recorded with Maunalua and impressed their recording engineer, David Tucciarone, who said she had perfect pitch. "She was just amazing, being in her 80s, and I pray we leave a legacy even half of hers. She always told me to perform Hawaiian music to the highest degree, and to always be true to the songs."

Few knew Haili's rascal side, said Gilliom.

"When she was on tour with the aunties, she was a blast," said Gilliom. "She wore these diva glasses. 'Auntie, you da bomb,' I told her. So kolohe. When she did 'Keyhole Hula,' she wanted to strip on stage. I told her she cannot do that, but she said, 'The song takes over — just gotta do it.' Even when she did a Christmas special with us for TV, she wanted to strip on camera."

"She was a great singer and a good friend, and a big sister to me," said Kealoha Kalama, her long-time friend.

Haili was a hostess and assistant manager at the old Garden Court restaurant at the Ala Moana Liberty House for years.

Club-goers in the 1970s and '80s will recall Haili in shows at various venues, mostly gone now, including Yoko's in Kapahulu, Don the Beachcomber's, the Waikiki Lau Yee Chai, The Clouds and the Barefoot Bar, according to Lionel Haili, a son.

In a 1973 interview with The Advertiser, Haili said she never had voice or music lessons but taught herself to play 'ukulele and guitar. She was meticulous about the songs she embraced and recorded over the years, and she favored the traditional old Hawaiian classics.

"I just can't do any song. If a song does justice to my voice, I'll do it. And I really prefer the old songs," she said.

Haili also was influenced by the late Lena Machado, a pioneering Hawaiian music singer and composer.

In 2001, Haili won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hawai'i Academy of Recording Arts, with Maunalua performing as part of the tribute.

Haili was born on Jan. 28, 1923, in Lahaina, Maui.

Survivors also include sons Danny Haili and John and Rodney Kaleialoha; a sister, Becky Russo; 14 grandchildren; and 19 great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 10 a.m. April 27 at Diamond Head Mortuary, where services will be at 11:30 a.m. Inurnment will follow at 1 p.m. at Hawaiian Memorial Park.

Reach Wayne Harada at 525-8067, fax 525-8055 or wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com.