By Leilehua Yuen
Growing up surrounded by music, it was little wonder that Randy Parker became a professional musician. “My Father played ‘ukulele, and Mom played piano and ‘ukulele and danced hula. I liked the music they listened to. A lot of Hawaiian, jazz, Don Ho, Jerry Vale…” It’s a quiet morning in Starbucks, and his soft, slightly gravely voice is easy to hear, and easy to listen to. Randy Parker leans forward and sips his chai tea. His hands, raw boned and strong, engulf the cup.
Randy grew up on O‘ahu in Keolu Hills, near Ka‘elepulu Pond at the foot of Maunawili. It was country in those days, and his family had cattle and horses. Randy’s father founded the first 4-H club in the area. It was there that the foundations of his music career were laid. Early on, his parents taught him to play ‘ukulele. When he was ten, he started teaching himself to play guitar, and by age 16 he was composing music. In 1969 he started his professional music career with a $300 gig writing a jingle for Love’s Bread. Randy’s first paid performance was at Honey’s Tavern in Kāne‘ohe, O‘ahu—where Don Ho got his start. It was the beginning of an exciting several years of adventure abroad.
“I drank sake in Tokyo, ate gau gi min in Hong Kong, ate coconut crab in Saipan, saw the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok, played music for the princess of Japan, went on tour with a rock and roll band in Micronesia. That was so fun, they treated us like we were the Rolling Stones! I was a professional motorcycle racer in Guam for Suzuki. In ‘71, I worked ‘Down Under.’ Married a beautiful island girl from the islands of Palau.”
When Randy was ready to come back to Hawai‘i, his best friend Nelson Makua suggested Hawai‘i Island, where he moved in 1976 and started working at Kūka‘iau Ranch in Hāmākua. He played music at the former Rosie’s Boathouse (now Peggy’s Lounge in Hilo) and Volcano House. Honolulu Magazine featured Randy’s home in Volcano in a piece on the pioneer lifestyle.
Randy became known through his regular gigs which, over the years, included the old Country Club on Banyan Drive, and later, Kaleo’s Bar and Grill, Hōkūlani Steakhouse, and a weekly radio program on KHBC which featured “good time” music, Hawaiian music, and visits from “Unko Uku.” At one point, he was contracted to play music at the Naniloa Hotel three nights a week.
In 2000, he took a sabbatical and became a commercial painter. “The problem with music is it’s not a healthy lifestyle.” Randy found the nights away from home, the travel, and the hours, made it hard to spend quality time with his children. “That’s why I took a sabbatical, to raise my family.”
Once the family was raised, he returned to music, including a regular spot at Café Pesto in Downtown Hilo.
“I would say my music is ‘folk rock Hawaiian.’ Growing up, my inspirations were Kui Lee, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, the Sons of Hawai‘i. I was always a songwriter, and always inspired by people who wrote songs. I always listen to the lyrics. I cut six albums. The first was an LP—that’s how old I am! The next three were cassettes—yeah, people used to record to cassettes. Then two were recorded on CDs. A record producer in Japan somehow got hold of my first album. He contacted me and reissued that record in CD, but only in Japan.” His songs have been on Sesame Street, The Young and the Restless, and in the movie, Fire on the Rim.
In 2013, his music fell silent as he focused his energy on staying alive.
“What happened was I got a lump on my neck. I let it go for about a year, then I showed it to my doctor. Right away he got concerned.” When the lab results came back, it was diagnosed as stage II squamous cell carcinoma. Further scans also found a tumor in Randy’s esophagus and a diagnosis of stage IV hypopharyngeal cancer, a cancer of the head and neck. It was considered stage IV because his lymph nodes were involved, and the tumors measured 3 centimeters. Despite the severity of the lymph involvement, the cancer had not yet invaded major organs.
In April of 2013, he flew to O‘ahu to stay with family and begin treatment at The Queen’s Medical Center. The aggressive chemotherapy and radiation therapy left him with nausea, extreme fatigue, hair loss, and diminished ability to taste. Other side effects included diminished hearing and sores in the mouth and throat, making it impossible to swallow. He had to receive nutrition through a feeding tube inserted into his stomach through the abdominal wall, and the drugs through a chemo port. “I got a little bullet hole right here,” he says, pointing to the spot. “I was down to 120 pounds when I was diagnosed. The tube feeding kept me alive. They were feeding me 3,000 calories a day.”
The radiation had to be carefully targeted to avoid the larynx and yet treat the pharynx. “I could barely talk for three months. I could sing after three months. But after that I couldn’t for about a year. They were irradiating so close to my voice box that they told me I might never sing again. It burned the outside of my neck and the inside of my throat.”
“The cancer made me feel very vulnerable,” Randy says. “Good things always happened to me. I even have a song called ‘Lucky Charm.’ So, I realized that we are so vulnerable. Try and make the best of your time on earth, help others as much as possible. It made me humble to see many of my friends and family share their aloha and kōkua with me.”
“My friend Nelson Makua, he’s one of my oldest and best friends, before I had this cancer, he had a similar cancer. Once I drove him for his therapy. I thought to myself, ‘Now I know what it feels like to have a friend with cancer, who’s going through all this. What would it be like to be the one with cancer?’ Be careful what you wish for!”
Randy’s throat cancer treatment lasted seven weeks. But as soon as that cancer was gone, doctors found three tumors that had metastasized in his lungs. In June 2014, Randy was given 24 months to live.
Exploring a variety of treatment modalities, Randy got his medical marijuana license and learned to make cannabis oil, and treated himself with that. Beginning a new regimen, however, the doctors asked him to stop to avoid drug interactions.
Then, Randy’s doctor in Honolulu told him about a clinical trial in Los Angeles. It was at the Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in Brentwood, a treatment called immunotherapy, a major new breakthrough in curing cancer using one’s own immune system.
“There was nothing else they could do for me here. My three youngest sisters followed up on it, got me an interview, flew over with me, a month later they fly me back with all my medical records. At that time there was no openings, so they told me they would call me back because I was a perfect candidate.”
Two months later, the call came. There was a place for him, but it would mean moving to LA for two months, and bi-weekly trips to the clinic after that. Randy wasn’t sure he was up for it. His sisters convinced him to try at least the two-month trial. “I thought that if I’m going to die from cancer, at least I’m helping them learn more so they can save people.” His sisters got him an apartment and made all the necessary arrangements. Randy says, “Two of the tumors completely shrank away. The largest is reduced by 80 percent.”
While clinical trials are paid for by the research institutions—one infusion treatment is $12,000—the ancillary expenses are not. Apartments, airfare, taxis, and miscellaneous expenses add up. Randy wasn’t without his guardian angels on his journey. “My family loves me that much, my brother and sisters paid for everything.” Not wanting to burden them, Randy considered ending his treatments due to the costs. When clinic staff learned that, they began paying Randy $800 each trip to help with airfare.
The first series of treatments at Queen’s was paid for through the aloha of friends. Local journalist Stephanie Salazar used her media savvy on his behalf. Randy says, “When I was in Honolulu at Queen’s, my friend Stephanie put together a fundraising concert for me at Sangha Hall [in Hilo]. All the musicians came together for me. We raised enough to pay about all of my expenses. I even got checks from people who saw me play Volcano ten years before. What support! I am very grateful.”
But there is more to healing than drugs, radiation, and money to pay for them. “I pray every day,” Randy says. “The Good Lord has given me the strength to stay positive. I made changes in my diet, I have faith in God. Just being positive about the whole thing. The worst is having to travel every two weeks. I spend two days there, and I come home the morning of the third day. The side effects include COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]. I had to get a rescue inhaler. All my life I never was in the hospital for anything until I got cancer.”
With his newfound sense of vulnerability came a determination to take control. “I’m going to be happy,” he says. “I’m not going to let it run my life.” Part of that is being proactive. “I changed my diet. Sugar was the hardest thing to give up. Harder than cigarettes. Stress is bad, makes it grow faster. And sugar. Every morning and for lunch I drink a shake called a Dragon Slayer: protein powder, all the vegetables you can think of. Positive attitude and the support of friends and family, my grandkids. I have a strong, supportive wife. Zita grew up in Palau. She grew up in a humble island lifestyle. You can’t get more Island than her.”
He says, “If someone has cancer, don’t lose faith. Don’t just assume you are going to die. You can live. In 2013, my granddaughter, when she was six, came to me and asked me, ‘Papa, are you going to die?’ I told her, ‘Someday. We all do. But not soon.’ And she ran off, smiling.”
“I don’t have a bucket list,” Randy reflects. “I already did a lot.”
These days, Randy has no music projects in the works. “People ask me, but no. I’m not writing now.” The daily work of fighting the cancer takes a lot of time and energy. The largest tumor is growing again, though his doctors tell him that is normal and to be expected. It’s still small. More radiation has been discussed, but it is not a favored treatment as he already has undergone so much. Despite everything, you can’t really keep a songwriter from writing. Though yet unpublished, he has written new lyrics to one of his songs:
Sometimes things happen that you can’t explain
From blue skies and sunny days it started raining on my parade
But with my family and my friends
And the Good Lord on my side
I feel wonderful, happy to be alive
I feel wonderful, happy to be alive ❖