People

A Song of the World

I think I have always been aware of the radio. My father always listened in the car. I remember hearing a baseball game with the Detroit Tigers while I was on a canal boat on the C&O Canal in Washington DC in 1963. About that time I remember being on a bus in Washington and hearing a radio from the back that was playing one of my all-time favorite songs.

That song was the only Japanese song to reach number 1 in the United States. I did my best to hear the tune over the noise of the crowded bus.

Some background:
It is well known that teenagers in the United Kingdom in the early sixties liked American music. Besides the R&B records of the 1950’s, there was another American music craze among English youth in the early 1960’s: Dixieland Jazz. This put the lines from Dire Straights’ Sultans of Swing into perspective (“They don’t give a damn about any trumpet playing band. It ain’t what they call rock and roll”). The Sultans were not playing some obscure music from half a century before; they were an oldies band playing a style that was popular almost two decades before and the crowd of young boys in the corner really didn’t care.

Richard Lester, the American movie director who directed the Beatles’ films Hard Days Night and Help, took his first step into the English youth/music genre in 1962 with a film called It’s Trad, Dad about a teenage boy and girl trying to get support for a concert featuring Dixieland music.

One of the bands featured in the film was Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen. Ball is known as a one-hit wonder in the United States for the 1962 hit Midnight in Moscow. In January, 1963, he had an instrumental top 10 hit in the UK with a Japanese song, Ue o Muite Arukō. Inasmuch as Ball recorded the song as an instrumental and the UK audience would not understand or be able to pronounce ue o muite arukō, the record company thought they would give it a Japanese name they thought people could pronounce: Suki Yaki.

About that time, Rich Osborn, a disc jockey at radio station KORD in Pasco, Washington, was given a copy of a 1961 Toshiba album by a young singer named Kyu Sakamoto. Osborn played the original version of Ue o Muite Arukō. It was very popular with his listeners. Word of the song’s popularity grew. Pat O’Day started playing it on KJR, Seattle. O’Day told his friend, Canadian disk jockey Red Robinson, about the record and it became popular in Canada.

An early music video

Capital Records licensed the recording and released it as a single, keeping the name given by the UK label to the Ball record.

About thirty years ago, a DJ on a Seattle oldies station told the history of the record and mentioned how Osborn was credited with making the Japanese record a hit in the west. In the mid 1980’s I worked with a Rich Osborn at a station in Seattle. I called the oldies DJ and asked if the Rich Osborn I knew and the Rich Osborn at KORD in Pasco in 1963 could have been the same person. The DJ did not know.

I tried for many years to find an answer to that question but could not find any new information. A few years ago I tried again and found someone on Facebook who mentioned his friend Rich Osborn who was now retired. I messaged the person and asked. Yes, the Rich Osborn I knew and the Rich Osborn who was at KORD were the same person. While I had nothing to do with making the record a hit, I did feel a sentimental connection.

Kyu Sakamoto Photo: tv-tokyo.co.jp

On August 12, 1985, Sakamoto was flying from Tokyo to Osaka on Japan Airlines Flight 123. Shortly after takeoff, the 747 suffered severe decompression because of poorly repaired damage that failed. Despite the best efforts of the crew, the plane crashed into the terrain around Mount Takamagahara. Everyone, including Kyu-san, knew what was sure to happen. He used his last moments to write a love note to his wife.

A lovely final act from one, whom all accounts, was a lovely person.

Ah, Such Beautiful Music

I am old enough to remember when TV stations had hosts who showed cartoons. I used to watch such hosts as Sandy Becker in New York in the early 1960’s and Brakeman Bill in the Seattle/Tacoma area in the latter part of the decade. A mainstay of both of their programs was old Warner Brother’s cartoons.

Brakeman Bill, 1955 Photo: Tacoma Public Library

The Warner’s cartoons were my favorites, especially the ones from the 1940’s. Those were made before the artwork was “stylized” – meaning simplified artwork so the cartoons could be made quickly and less expensively. I would not quite say “cheaply” yet: those cartoons would come in the ‘60’s after the advent of the Hanna Barbera cookie-cutter cartoons that were made for TV.

There is another thing about those cartoons that make them first rate: the music. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies originally had two purposes. The first was to plug Warner Brother’s movies. Many cartoons from the 1930’s had names that were the same as or were a play on the names of Warner feature films. The other reason was to plug the Warner music catalogue. Getting people to hear the music was important. If people enjoyed the cartoons, great but it was a secondary concern. It was purely a business decision.

To handle the music Warner’s brought in someone who had worked for Walt Disney: Carl W. Stalling. As Chuck Jones, Warner’s animator, explains in this video, Stalling had been the organ player and orchestra conductor in Kansas City.

Chuck Jones, Warner’s director

Disney was a young animator also from Kansas City who heard Stalling at work and was greatly impressed. The two began to work together. They kept in touch once Disney moved to California, . Stalling would later go out to California as well. Stalling worked for Disney for two years, then freelanced for several years. He was hired by Leon Schlesinger, Warner’s animation producer, in 1936.

Skeleton Dance from 1929, animated by Disney with Music by Stalling

Stalling had a terrific memory for music and had the entire Warner’s music catalog to work with. He also had the full Warner’s orchestra as well. I saw Leonard Maltin speak in 1980 after the release of his book Of Mice and Magic. As Maltin explained, Max Steiner would finish a session recording the music for the latest big production, then Stalling would come in and record the music for the next Looney Tunes.

Leonard Matlin’s great book from 1980 about the history of cartoons Photo: Amazon.com

There was no editing of the music. The timing of the film had all been worked out. Stalling would work out the musical arrangement and it would be recorded straight through.

The orchestration was magnificent. Sometimes I will watch a cartoon just to hear the music. One of my favorites is the opening of the 1941 cartoon Wabbit Twouble (released two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor). Stalling’s opening rendition of Says Who, Says You, Says Me swings. I just wish it was longer. He returns to that theme later in the cartoon, but it is more sedate the second time.

Opening of Wabbit Twouble, 1941

Stalling often would uses just a few short bars of a song. Often, the song would have some tie-in to the action on the screen. If there is food, you can bet that the music is from A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You. Another song that Stalling used often was Powerhouse, a bizarre 1937 tune that you almost would have thought was an original to be used in hectic scenes. (It was also licensed for use in Ren and Stimpy cartoons in the 1990’s)

This is from 1937?

The old Warner’s cartoons are under copyright and those copyrights are closely protected so I can’t give you much in the way of samples, but if you have a chance, go watch some of the old cartoons. Maybe you are old enough or know enough about history to know what such lines as “Turn out that light” and “Is this trip really necessary?” mean.