Kyu Sakamoto: Sukiyaki (1963)

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Kyu Sakamoto: Sukiyaki (1963)
Kyu Sakamoto: Sukiyaki (1963)

It wasn't really the name of the song that Sakamoto recorded, but that hardly mattered. When this catchy piece of MOR pop from Japan made it to the West it enjoyed enormous success. Sakamoto, who was 22, was the first and last Japanese artist to top the Billboard charts. It was also his first and last international success.

Back home of course he wasn't a one-hit wonder, he was a national hero and behaved accordingly. He lived a modest life but later was among the 520 killed when Japan Airlines' Flight 123 crashed in 1985.

But his song lives on.

A couple of years ago a Japanese friend had her parents over to New Zealand and they couldn't speak a word of English. We went out to dinner one night and her mother and I sang Sukiyaki to the great delight of the table. Music was the only language we had, and potent, cheap pop at that.

Sukiyaki was never the original title but one that Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen dropped on it when they covered it in '62. Sukiyaki is a Japanese steamboat meal (Kenny thought people would remember that name better) but the lyrics are about a man who has lost his lover and walks looking upwards, whistling, so the tears won't fall. But when the Sakamoto version was released in the West the record company kept the substitute title.

The appeal of the song is simple: it boasts a terrific and memorable melody, has wood blocks and a great string arrangement, and in Sakamoto's version there is that mysterious quality because you don't know what the lyrics are, so you can just sing them phoenetically. Sort of like singing a Keith Richards/Stones song where the lyrics are obscure so you make up your own.

And of course it has a whistling part.

Simple, clean, easy to sing and not a little charming. It has had a few cover versions (one by Selena) but there is only one Sukiyaki and it is by Kyu Sakamoto.

And interestingly enough the song it knocked off the top of the US charts was . . . It's My Party by Lesley Gore. Also a star From the Vaults.

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