Israel Kamakawiwo’ole – “Over the Rainbow”

The late singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ ole’s voice brought much joy to the heart and souls of all who had the pleasure of hearing him sing either in person or on his records. His voice created goosebumps that ran down each arm of the listener with his smooth voice, which would become an amazing gift, heard all over the world, and played in several movies. Israel was not only a huge star in Hawaii but also a star in the United States as well!  

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” (also known as “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World”) is a medley of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World recorded by American Singer Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. First released on the 1990 album Ka ʻAnoʻi, an acoustic rendition of the medley became notable after its release on his 1993 album Facing Future.

Recording History – 

The song was originally recorded in a spur-of-the-moment demo session in 1988. Israel called the recording studio at 3 am, and was given 15 minutes to arrive by recording engineer Milan Bertosa. Bertosa is quoted as saying “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.” The building security found Israel a large steel chair. “Then 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.”

At the time, copies of the acoustic recording were made only for Kamakawiwoʻole himself and Bertosa. The song was re-recorded as an “upbeat Jawaiian version” for Kamakawiwoʻole’s debut album Ka ʻAnoʻi, listed as “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.” In 1993, five years after the original recording, Bertosa played the acoustic version for producer Jon de Mello while the two were completing work on Facing Future, and de Mello decided to include it on the album as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World”.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” reached number 12 on Billboard’s Hot Digital Tracks chart the week of January 31, 2004 (for the survey week ending January 18, 2004).

Impact in popular culture – 

According to the Israel Kamakawiwoʻole website, Universal Studios first became interested in using the song in the movie and on the soundtrack for Meet Joe Black after director Martin Brest became interested in it. Kamakawiwoʻole’s recording of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” has been used on other soundtracks as well, including the soundtracks for Finding Forrester50 First DatesFred ClausHappy, HappyMarilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm SchoolThe Healer; and IMAXHubble 3D. It was also featured on TV series like CharmedERScrubsCold CaseGlee, the UK original version of Life On Mars, and more. 

Other cover versions – 

Other artists have recorded the medley as well. Cliff Richard recorded his own version of the medley, released as a single from the 2001 album Wanted, which peaked at number 11 on the UK Official Charts in 2001.

Aselin Debison recorded the medley for her 2002 album Sweet Is the Melody. Elisabeth von Trapp included her interpretation of the medley in her album Poetic License, released in June 2004.

During season seven of American IdolJason Castro performed a cover of the song for his “Top 8” performance. Maddie Poppe and Caleb Lee Hutchinson performed the song as a duet during the grand finale of season sixteen of American Idol.


Known as IZ to his fans, Hawaii’s Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was a big man with a gentle voice. Born May 20, 1959, this ukulele-playing native son of the islands created a lilting version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” that became beloved worldwide. Even if you didn’t know who IZ was, you’ve probably heard his music.

Israel was the third child of Evangeline Keale Kamakawiwo’ole, a pure-blooded Hawaiian born on Ni’ihau, and Henry “Tiny” Kaleialoha Naniwa Kamakawiwo’ole, a part Hawaiian born on Oahu. (The family surname is pronounced Kah-MAH-kah-VEE-voh-OH-lay.) Their ancestral roots run deep. IZ’s mother can trace her ancestral roots back to Ni’ihau, called the Forbidden Isle. Even today, no one is allowed to visit Ni’ihau unless invited by one of the Native Hawaiian residents or through a special tour.

Israel’s exposure to music came at an early age. In the late 1960s, his father was a bouncer and his mom the manager at a nightclub called Steamboats in Waikiki where the Sons of Hawaii performed, often singing traditional songs in Hawaiian. Israel was a 10-year-old boy watching from the side of the stage, sometimes with ukulele in hand. He was often called up onstage to perform by his uncle, the well-known musician Moe Keale, or some of the other big names in Hawaiian music like Eddie Mamae or Gabby Pahinui.

His family left the city, much to his chagrin, and moved to the Wai’anae Coast. But it was there, in the early 1970s, that IZ and his brother Skippy met John Kapualani Koko, forming a friendship that was the basis for the musical group the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau. The Makaha Sons went on to record 21 albums and win countless Hawai’i Academy of Recording Arts Awards (also known as Na Hoku Hanohano Awards).

In 1993, IZ left the Makaha Sons to begin a successful solo career. His first release, “Facing Future,” included his memorable cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” which was recorded around 3 a.m. in just one take. “Facing Future” became the top-selling Hawaiian music album in the world; it was certified gold in 2002 and platinum (selling more than 1 million units) in 2005. IZ’s version of “Over the Rainbow” has been used in many films, television shows, and ad campaigns. In 2004, the song reached No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Digital Tracks chart and has sold millions of digital copies.

Morbidly obese most of his adult life, IZ’s life was cut short by a heart attack on June 26, 1997, just as “Over the Rainbow” was starting to become successful. He was only 38 years old and one of the most beloved singers in the history of Hawaiian music. His body lay in state at Hawaii’s Capitol building; flags flew at half-mast and 10,000 people came to pay respects. His body was cremated and his ashes were taken by traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoe down the coast of Hawaii. People lined the ocean roads to honk their car horns in tribute to IZ.



4 thoughts on “Israel Kamakawiwo’ole – “Over the Rainbow”

  1. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy this song. It was used at the end of a show called Life On Mars…a cop show…that was the first time I heard it…I’ve loved it ever since.