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This song has a remarkable story - it's a Japanese hit that became wildly popular in America despite Japanese lyrics that hardly anyone in the US could understand. Kyu Sakamoto was a star in Japan as both an actor and a singer, and this song, known in his country as "Ue O Muite Aruko," was a #1 hit there in 1961.
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 America when a disk jockey in Washington state heard the British version, and started playing the original by Sakamoto. He used 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 Hot 100 for 3 weeks and also held the top spot on the Adult Contemporary chart for 5 weeks.
So how did this American disc jockey get a copy of the original song? Marsha Cunningham gave us the answer. She explained to us:
"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 Japanese movie staring Kyu Sakamoto, 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, CA. 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!"
The Japanese lyrics are about sadness and isolation; the original title means "I look up when I walk."
In 1963, the Country singer Clyde Beavers arranged to have an official of the Japanese embassy (J.S. Shima) translate the lyrics into English. Although Beavers' "Sukiyaki" did not chart, A Taste of Honey made it to #3 in the US with their English lyric version in 1981. A Taste Of Honey was a Disco group who had a hit in 1978 with "Boogie Oogie Oogie
." Their bass player/vocalist Janice Marie Johnson came up with the English lyrics for their version. She didn't translate the song literally, but kept the mood of the song with lyrics about a love that was taken away.
Kyu Sakamoto was one of 520 people who died in a Japan Airlines crash in 1985. He was 43.
Learn more about how this song came to America and what it's like to be an American in Japan in Song Images
The R&B group 4 P.M. (For Positive Music) covered this in 1995 with the same English lyrics that A Taste Of Honey used. Their version went to #8 in the US.
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.
This isn't the first foreign language song to hit #1 in America - that would be "Nel Blu, Dipinto di Blu (Volare)
" by Domenico Modugno in 1958. That one was in Italian and kept at least part of the original title.
Slick Rick boosted the chorus from the A Taste Of Honey version for an interlude in "La Di Da Di," his 1985 song with Doug E. Fresh.
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