The Untold Truth Of 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' Singer Israel Kamakawiwoʻole

Although he passed away in 1997, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole lives on through his music. The "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" singer was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, but became world-renowned for his beautiful voice and ukulele skills. According to the U.K.'s The Mirror, Kamakawiwoʻole was "raised in the community of Kaimuki." At just 11 years old, he started playing music, going on to study at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. After he completed his studies, the singer moved to Makaha where he formed the group Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau with his brother and some friends. 

The iconic Hawaiian group went on to make 15 albums together. In addition to making music with the group, Kamakawiwoʻole also recorded several solo albums. While his entire discography is worth digging into for new fans, he is best known for his cover of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," originally sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz

While the song was recorded in 1988, per NPR, it really gained notice in later years as television shows, movies, and advertisements started to use it, making Kamakawiwoʻole a legend. However, he wasn't really alive to enjoy much of his mainstream success. 

'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' was recorded in the middle of the night

According to Billboard, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole's rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" first topped the charts in 2011, 14 years after the Hawaiian singer passed away at the age of 38. Per the outlet, the cover "spent a record 541 weeks on the World Digital Song Sales chart, including 332 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1."

So how did the iconic cover come about the first place? Recording engineer Milan Bertosa told NPR that one morning in 1988, he was closing up his studio at 3 a.m. when a client called to ask if Kamakawiwoʻole could come in. After going back and forth for a while, Bertosa agreed on the condition that the singer arrive in fifteen minutes. Needless to say, Kamakawiwoʻole got to the studio in time. 

"And in walks the largest human being I had seen in my life. Israel was probably like 500 pounds. And the first thing at hand is to find something for him to sit on." After that was taken care of, the two got to work. "... I put up some microphones, do a quick sound check, roll tape, and the first thing he does is 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow.' He played and sang, one take, and it was over," Bertosa recalled. 

Whatever Kamakawiwoʻole was feeling that night, it's made so many other people happy throughout the years. 

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole was always smiling

Milan Bertosa perfectly summed up the entire vibe of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" to NPR, saying of Israel Kamakawiwoʻole's famous track, "There's been a bunch of articles written about 'Over the Rainbow.'" Bertosa continued, "He gets the lyrics wrong, he changes the melody. If you sat there with a book and a score card, you could count the mistakes or you could listen to the song and smile."

Sadly, Kamakawiwoʻole suffered a heart attack in 1989 just one year after recording the track. Weighing around 700 pounds, he struggled with obesity along with the rest of his family. His brother, Skippy, died young due to complications from obesity and because of that, Kamakawiwoʻole "knew he was destined for a brief life," per NPR. He died of respiratory failure in 1997 at the age of 38 and his body was buried at Hawaii's Capitol building — a "rare honor." 

Kamakawiwoʻole's friend Del Beazley told NPR that people stopped traffic on his burial day, honking their horns for the icon. "In the old days, people would wail when the mo'i or 'king' passed away — and cry. And that's really what it was. This whole island came together just to say goodbye to this one Hawaiian. But I tell you, he would have been laughing."

Kamakawiwoʻole's life was cut way too short, but he'll always be remembered for his voice and bringing people some peace of mind.