Aired on Treasure Island Oldies – Oct 22, 2023
On August 12, 1985, Japan Air Lines Flight 123 travelling from Tokyo to Osaka crashed killing 520 people. It remains the deadliest single-aircraft accident in aviation history. Included among the fatalities was a 43 year old Japanese actor/singer, a man who’s national #1 hit in 1961 made it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States two years later in 1963 …
The lyrics of the song are in Japanese and are centered around sadness and isolation; translated into English, the original title means “I look up when I walk.” When the song ended up being played in North America, it had a different title.
Apparently, sometime in 1962, a British music executive named Louis Benjamin heard the song when he was traveling in Japan, and he had his group Kenny Ball & his Jazzmen record an instrumental version that made it to #10 on the UK charts. Benjamin renamed the song “Sukiyaki” after a Japanese food he enjoyed – a one-pot dish made with sliced beef, tofu, noodles and vegetables.
The song made it to North America when a disk jockey in Washington state heard the British version and started playing the original Japanese version. He kept the title “Sukiyaki,” which was much more palatable to Americans than “Ue O Muite Aruko,” and requests started pouring in for the song.
Capitol Records obtained the American rights to the song and released it stateside, where it went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks and also held the top spot on the Adult Contemporary chart for five weeks.
So how did this American disc jockey get a copy of the original song? A lady by the name of Marsha Cunningham has the answer. Per Marsha, “In 1961-62 I was a high school student at The American School In Japan, living in Zushi, Japan. My dad was a pilot for Japan Air Lines. While enjoying a Japanese movie, I heard the most unbelievably beautiful song. I purchased the record at a local shop and brought it back to the states the next year when I attended a girl’s boarding school in Sierra Madre, California. I played it in the dormitory frequently; everyone liked it. One girl took my record home with her on the weekend so her dad could play it on his radio station, and the rest is history!”
That Japanese movie that Marsha Cunningham was watching starred the singer/actor Kyu Sakamoto who sang this song. This is the only song by a Japanese artist, and the only song with lyrics entirely in Japanese, to hit #1 in the United States. The song is one of the best-selling singles of all time, having sold over 13 million copies worldwide.
Let’s bow our heads and give a listen to the late Kyu Sakamoto and “Sukiyaki,” this week’s Tom Locke moment in time.
YouTube video of this song:
This “Moments In Time” story is yet another example of a “golden oldie” or forgotten favorite that earned its place in the evolution of Rock & Roll.