Hawaiʻi Says Farewell to its “Ambassador of Aloha”

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Danny “Kaniela” Kaleikini
Oct. 10, 1937 – Jan. 6, 2023

Photo: Danny Kaleikini
Danny “Kaniela” Kaleikini – Courtesy Photo

An award-winning baritone singer, musician and quintessential entertainer, Danny Kaleikini passed away on Jan. 6, 2023. He was 85 years old.

Perhaps best known for his 28-year stint at the Kahala Hilton, Kaleikini was known as Hawaiʻi’s “Ambassador of Aloha.” During his more than 50 years in the entertainment business, he opened for Paul Anka in Las Vegas and performed alongside Sammy Davis Jr., Wayne Newton, Dolly Parton and Don Ho gaining international recognition for showcasing Hawaiian music, language and culture.

“Danny was known for his genuine kindness, he exemplified aloha and was an inspiration to many other Hawaiian musicians,” said OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey. “He performed for local audiences and tourists, as well as for celebrities and foreign dignitaries, combining his tremendous talent with ineffable charm and natural charisma.”

Kaleikini was born and raised in Papakōlea on homestead land. He learned to speak Hawaiian from his mother and grandfather, and attended Royal Elementary School where he played in the bell choir. He played trumpet and drums at Kawānanakoa Intermediate and was student body preident. At Roosevelt High School, he sang in the choir and played with a 16-piece orchestra.

He attended the University of Hawaiʻi on a music scholarship, and majored in music education.

After school, Kaleikini went to work in Waikīkī. He was “discovered” by bandleader Ray Kinney, who encouraged him to sing for tips while working as a busboy at the Waikīkī Sands. Kaleikini eventually moved with Kinney to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where he was hired full-time by Haunani Kahalewai.

The Ambassador of Aloha then performed for seven years at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, where he was mentored by Hilo Hattie. He worked in the lūʻau shows and, following the death of Alfred Apaka in 1960, Kaleikini became the headliner at the Tapa Room performing with hula dancer and singer Lani Custino.

On April 26, 1967, Kaleikini debuted at the Hala Terrace at the Kahala Hilton, the first successful show outside of Waikīkī. He was just 29 years old at the time. He signed a five-year contract with the Kahala Hilton worth $1.5 million. His show became a must-see event, attended by U.S. presidents, foreign dignitaries and Hollywood celebrities.

By 1972, Kalekini had the “best-drawing Hawaiian show in the islands.” In 1974 he started his eighth year in the same location with the longest running main room revue.

An astute businessman, Kaleikini handled all aspects of producing his show at the Kahala Hilton, including management and staging. He had his own recording company, DK Records. Kaleikini became known for his unique trademark delivery of the word “aloha” when greeting his audiences. He credited his understanding of “aloha” as coming from the Rev. Abraham Akaka, kahu at Kawaiahaʻo Church.

In 1987, some 10,000 performances later, he celebrated his 20th anniversary at the Kahala Hilton. And in 1988, Gov. John Waiheʻe officially named Danny Kaleikini as “Hawaiʻi’s Ambassador of Aloha.”

Kaleikini retired from the Kahala Hilton in December of 1994 when the hotel was sold.

Kalekini was tremendously popular in Japan, where he was a frequent vistor and he learned to speak Japanese. He often spoke the language to Japanese tourists attending his shows.

In 1970, Gov. John Burns asked him to attend Expo 70, the World’s Fair held in Osaka to visit the Hawaiʻi Pavilion and coach the performers. This led to subsequent engagements in Japan and helped lift his popularity. In 1973 he was invited to the Tokyo Music Festival to compete with singers worldwide including Olivia Newton John.

In 1986 Kaleikini was the first gaijin (foreigner) to perform at the Hiroshima Peace Music Festival. He was invited by the Hiroshima mayor after the mayor had seen his show at the Kahala Hilton. The program was broadcast nationwide in Japan by Nippon Television Network with Kaleikini performing The Snows of Mauna Kea, the Japanese classic Koko ni Sachi Ari and Frank Sinatra’s My Way.

In 1994, he briefly dabbled in politics when former Honolulu mayor Frank Fasi asked Kaleikini to be his running mate in his bid for governor. Then in 1998, Kaleikini opened the Aloha Ke Akua Chapel at Kahōuna fishpond in Kahaluʻu in partnership with Japan’s Watabe Wedding Corp.

Kaleikini received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hawaiʻi in 1991, received the Hawaiʻi Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 2016, and was named the Salvation Army’s “Humanitarian of the Year.”

Hundreds attended Kaleikini’s celebration of life on Feb. 18 at Kawaiahaʻo Church. He is survived by his wife, Jacqueline Wong Kaleikini, his daughter Leonn Keikilani Kaleikini, sister Susan (Mel) Hamada, and grandson Nicholas Kaleikini. He is predeceased by his son, Danjacques Kaleikini.