Yup, when I started this blog, I knew I would have to talk about this song. If I may show my Trekkieness for a paragraph, there was an episode on "Star Trek: Voyager" in which the intrepid Captain Janeway (inside Trekkie joke there, heheheheh) had to deal with the Omega Particle, an atomic structure so rare, so powerful and so difficult to achieve in nature or in the laboratory.
Well, "Sukiyaki" was one of music's Omega Particles. For a period of 3 weeks in June 1963, an actual untranslated kayo kyoku song reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts in the USA, and its legacy has continued to this day. And the song remains the only Japanese song to do so. Seiko Matsuda, Dreams Come True, Hikaru Utada...none of them have done so.
Kyu Sakamoto (坂本九）originally sang this number back in 1961, written by Hachidai Nakamura (中村八大) and Rokusuke Ei (永六輔). For a period of 3 months, November 1961 to January 1962, it occupied the top spot in the domestic rankings supplied by a magazine called "Music Life" (perhaps, Oricon had yet to appear at that time).
Jump ahead several months. A British music executive by the name of Louis Benjamin is traveling around in Japan when he hears and likes the Sakamoto masterpiece, and decides to have one of his bands in the UK, Kenny Ball & His Jazzmen, create an instrumental version of it. It reaches No. 10 on the UK charts. However, there is just one change: the title. I guess Mr. Benjamin didn't really study up on hiragana, let alone the kanji. He would probably end up in retirement sooner than he would be able to pronounce the original title, so he dubbed it after his favorite Japanese dish, the now-ubiquitous sukiyaki.
Now, sooner than you can say "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon", an American DJ by the name of Richard Osborne at radio station KORD in Pasco, Washington listens to the British instrumental version, and decides to play the original Sakamoto version with "Sukiyaki" title intact.
The question is: How did Osborne get the original song?
Well, I'll give you the quotes from the actual person herself. To give credit where credit is due, I am using the quotes by Marsha Cunningham written on the Songfacts website: www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1230
In 1961-2, I was a high school student at The American School In Japan, living in Zushi, Japan. My dad was a pilot for Japan Airlines. While enjoying a movie staring (sic) Kyu Sakamoto, I heard the most unbelievably beautiful song. I purchased the record at a local record shop and brought it back to the states (sic) the next year when I attended a girls' boarding school in Sierra Madre, CA. I played it in the dormitory frequently; everyone liked it. One girl took the record home with her on the weekend so her dad could play it on his radio station, and the rest is history!
And it was indeed history. According to Wikipedia's entry on "Sukiyaki", it stayed at No. 1 on Billboard for June 15/22/29. And worldwide, it sold 13 million copies. Sakamoto even got to appear on one of the most popular variety shows in the United States, "The Steve Allen Show", and almost got onto "Ed Sullivan" except for a scheduling conflict. I can only imagine how this fellow must have been feeling at the time. And this was when The Beatles were just starting to get noticed.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
And also, you can check out my article on the B-side song.