On this day in music history: June 15, 1963 – “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto hits #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 3 weeks. Written by Rokusuke Ei and Hachidai Nakamura, it is the biggest hit for the pop singer and actor from Kawasaki, Japan. With lyrics composed by songwriter Rokusuke Ei, the song is inspired while Ei is attending Waseda University in Tokyo. The words come to him while walking home from a student demonstration, protesting US Army presence in Japan. After writing the lyrics, the music is written by fellow songwriter Hachidai Nakamura. The original Japanese title is “Ue o Muite Arukō” which translates to English as “I Look Up When I Walk”. The lyrics speak of a man holding his head high so that his tears won’t fall. The ambiguous tone of the lyrics have led to numerous interpretations. It has been described as everything from a story of love gone wrong, to a man on his way to his execution. “Ue o Muite Arukō” is first performed by Kyu Sakamoto on the television program Yume de Aimashō on August 16, 1961. The show generates an immediate demand for it to be released as a record. Sakamoto records the song and it is released by Toshiba-EMI Records in October of 1961, and is an instant smash in Japan. The single races to the top of the charts, and becomes the biggest selling record of the year. It is first released outside of Japan in the form of an instrumental version by UK bandleader Kenny Ball. Ball’s record label believing the original title is too difficult to pronounce, give it the generic name “sukiyaki”, a Japanese hot pot dish consisting of thinly sliced beef and vegetables. In the US, a DJ named Rich Osborne at KORD in Pasco, WA acquires a copy of Sakamoto’s version and begins playing it on his radio show. The response so overwhelmingly positive that Capitol Records picks up the US distribution rights from Toshiba-EMI, its sister label in Japan. Entering the Hot 100 at #79 on May 11, 1963, it rockets to the top of the chart five weeks later. The success of “Sukiyaki” turns Kyu Sakamoto into a worldwide star. Nearly two decades later, R&B band A Taste Of Honey scores a major hit with an English language cover, topping the Billboard R&B singles chart (on May 9, 1981), and peaking #3 on the Hot 100 on June 13, 1981, exactly eighteen years to the week that Sakamoto’s version hits #1. Tragically, Kyu Sakamoto is killed in a plane crash aboard Japan Airlines Flight 123 while flying from Tokyo to Osaka on August 12, 1985. The single deadliest air crash in aviation history, Sakamoto is among the 520 passengers and flight crew who perish in the accident. In 1993 the Kyu Sakamoto Memorial Hall opens in Kuriyama, Hokkaido, Japan, featuring memorabilia, clothing and other artifacts owned by the beloved performer. “Sukiyaki” is certified Gold in the US by the RIAA.
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