PLEDGE WEEK: “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto

A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
PLEDGE WEEK: "Sukiyaki" by Kyu Sakamoto
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Click below for the transcript.

Today we’re going to look at one of the very few records to become a US number one hit despite being sung in a language other than English — a record that was also the first record by an Asian person ever to make the US number one. But it’s also a record that shows how deeply embedded racism was in the Anglophonic countries. Today we’re going to look at “Ue o Muite Arukō” by Sakamoto Kyu, or, as it was titled for English-speaking markets, “Sukiyaki”, by Kyu Sakamoto:

[Excerpt: Kyu Sakamoto, “Sukiyaki”]

Before we start, I’d just like to apologise in advance for my extreme mangling of the Japanese words in this episode. I only speak English, and while I can usually guess at the pronunciation of terms in Romance or Germanic languages and not be too far off, I’m aware that Japanese is a very different language to any I’ve had any experience of before.

Sakamoto Kyu started his career when he was sixteen in a comedy music group called the Drifters — yes, yet another Drifters, or Dorifutāzu as they were called in Japan. This particular group would go on to have the most popular comedy show on Japanese TV, but Sakamoto was only with them for a brief period — he was upset that he was only the second vocalist, rather than the lead, and so he joined a band called Danny Iida and Paradise King as their lead vocalist.

Their first record, “Kanashiki Rokujissai”, became a hit in Japan, but sadly I’ve not been able to find a copy of that record anywhere online. However, they had a string of other hits in its immediate wake, including versions of American hits like Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl”:

[Excerpt: Danny Iida and Paradise King, “Calendar Girl”]

And Jimmy Jones’ “Good Timing”:

[Excerpt: Danny Iida and Paradise King, “Good Timing”]

Sakamoto went solo at the end of 1961, with his first solo record “Ue o Muite Arukō”:

[Excerpt: Sakamoto Kyu, “Ue o Muite Arukō”]

That went to number one in Japan for three months, but for a while it did nothing anywhere else, and Sakamoto continued his previous career of making cover versions of American hits for the Japanese market, with records like his cover version of Del Shannon’s “Hats Off to Larry”:

[Excerpt: Sakamoto Kyu, “Hats Off to Larry”]

But then in 1963, Louis Benjamin, an executive with Pye Records, made a trip to Japan, and he heard “Ue o Muite Arukō” and thought it had hit potential in the UK. Rather than license the record, he decided to get a cover version made, by Kenny Ball’s Jazzmen, one of the biggest trad groups in Britain. But he had one problem — the song’s name.

He didn’t think that British people would be able to pronounce “Ue o Muite Arukō”, and he was probably correct, but he didn’t choose to use a translation of the title either. The title, in English, means “I Look Up As I Cry”, and was about crying at loss and trying to hide your tears — specifically, in this case, crying after a political protest against American troops in Japan, which the writer knew would be unsuccessful, though he took that emotion and turned it into a more general one.

“I Look Up as I Cry” would be a perfectly good title for a song, of course, but what Benjamin wanted was something that would highlight the fact that the song was Japanese, but would be recognisable and pronounceable to English people. So he renamed the song “Sukiyaki”, which is actually the name for a type of beef hotpot, and that’s the name under which Kenny Ball’s version of the song came out:

[Excerpt: Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, “Sukiyaki”]

Ball’s version of the song was a hit, and so HMV in England rushed out the original, also under the title “Sukiyaki”, and it made number six in the charts. Because of that success, it was also released by Capitol in the US, which was owned by the same company as HMV, and there it went to number one for three weeks. In both countries it was released as by Kyu Sakamoto, rather than Sakamoto Kyu — in Japan, one says the family name first and the given name second, and swapping them round in Western countries is commonplace.

Sakamoto went on a world tour, appeared on the Steve Allen show, and released an album which went top twenty in the US. He only had one other Hot One Hundred hit, though, “Shina no Yoru (China Nights)”, which went to number 58:

[Excerpt: Kyu Sakamoto, “Shina no Yoru”]

Sakamoto continued to have a successful career in Japan, but had no further hits in the Anglophone world. But he was still the first Asian artist ever to have a US number one, and his record was one of the biggest hits of the pre-Beatles sixties in the States — according to some sources it has sold thirteen million records worldwide, making it one of the twenty biggest selling singles of all time. Sakamoto died in 1985, in a plane crash. He was forty-three.

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