As one of the driving forces behind the seminal Hawaii band Kalapana, Malani Bilyeu penned a string of contemporary soft-rock hits that served as the soundtrack for a generation of local residents.
Bilyeu died Thursday on Kauai. He was 69.
State legislator Donna Mercado Kim, Bilyeu’s cousin, broke the news Thursday evening on Facebook.
“My cousin Malani Bilyeu from Kalapana just passed away on Kauai. I am at a loss,” she said.
Born Carl James Malani Bilyeu in Honolulu and raised in Kalihi Valley, Bilyeu was a 26-year-old Vietnam vet when he founded Kalapana with Mackey Feary, D.J. Pratt and Kirk Thompson in 1974.
Kalapana became second only to Cecilio &Kapono as the biggest contemporary local group of the 1970s, playing sold-out concerts at the Waikiki Shell and partnering with C&K in 1976 to co-headline the biggest Aloha Stadium concert of the decade with local entertainers as the headliners.
From the beginning Bilyeu was one of Kalapana’s resident songwriters. His contributions included “Naturally,” “You Make It Hard,” “Dorothy Louise,” “(For You) I’d Chase a Rainbow,” “Girl” and “Many Classic Moments.”
Kalapana had drifted apart by 1980, and Bilyeu recorded a solo album, “Islands,” which included a song that became an island favorite, “Molokai Sweet Home.” Some people misinterpreted the song as autobiographical, but Bilyeu had never even visited Molokai when he wrote the song as a tribute to Molokai-born Hawaiian nationalist George Helm.
The success of a Kalapana reunion concert in 1982 was followed by a successful reboot — Bilyeu, Feary and Pratt, plus Gaylord Holomalia on keyboards and Kenji Sano playing bass — in 1986. Kalapana has continued to perform and record ever since. Feary died in 1999.
Bilyeu received several Hoku Awards as a member of Kalapana, and in 1995 he won the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Religious Album of the Year with solo album “Saved.”
In 2011 Kalapana received the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.
The band released a 20-song anthology, “Black Sand: The Best of Kalapana,” this year and announced plans for a seven-album boxed set of music from throughout the band’s history this month.
News of Bilyeu’s death reverberated across the Hawaii music community, with several of Bilyeu’s high-profile peers offering heartfelt memorials via social media.
“I’m at a loss for words,” wrote Robi Kahakalau in an Instagram post Friday. “Rest In Aloha, my beautiful, crazy bruddah. When l first met you on tour with @johncruzmusic and the #makahasons (Seattle, University of Washington Hawaiian Lu‘au, 199something), you instantly became one of my favorite people to hang with. Right up my alley, always in a positive mood, good fun, and a little NUTS. And then when you hit the stage, my goodness … what a talented buggah. I could (and DID) watch you (and of course — listen to you) over and over and over again.”
Singer-songwriter Mailani Makainai also recalled Bilyeu’s rousing live performances in a tweet Friday: “God bless you Malani Bilyeu. I’ll never forget the rockstar Hawaiian singer songwriter who could sing and do lunges on stage with his guitar.”
The group Na Leo Pilimehana acknowledged Bilyeu’s lasting legacy, tweeting, “We were so sad to hear of Malani Bilyeu’s passing. We grew up listening to Kalapana. RIL (rest in love) to an icon in Hawaii’s music! … Fly with angels.”
Local Grammy winner Kalani Pea also tweeted a memorial to his lost friend.
“What a gift and talent to us all. His personality or character on and off stage was vibrant and dynamic especially seen in his vintage aloha shirts,” Pea wrote. “I’m going to miss you — the laughs and stories. His love for everything was apparent, contagious and he shared pure Kaua‘i aloha. Love you Malani. Thank you for singing the tunes that we all grew up to. Thank you for leaving a legacy.”
Bilyeu is survived by his wife and seven children.