Saved by ‘Sukiyaki’

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During a 1981 reception in Tokyo, Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto, center, applauds during a presentation of gold records by members of A Taste of Honey, Hazel Payne, left, and Janice-Marie Johnson. The R&B’s group’s English-language version of Sakamoto’s signature hit topped the U.S. charts as disco quickly faded. (Courtesy Janice-Marie Johnson)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Arts & Entertainment Editor

Janice-Marie Johnson leans forward in the chair that takes up a fair amount of the floor space of the small studio in her middle-class Arcadia home. She hits the space bar on the keyboard to play for me a rough mix of “Like You Mean It,” from the upcoming album she plans to release early next year.

Our conversation has taken a recess. She closes her eyes and begins to sway to the track, which instantly engages the unmistakeable pop-funk grooviness that made her group, A Taste of Honey, international stars in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Johnson and Hazel Payne fronted A Taste of Honey, singing and playing bass and guitar, respectively. The group rocketed to fame after the release of their anthemic disco hit “Boogie Oogie Oogie” reached number one on the charts in 1978.

The song has become one of the best-known hits of the disco era, and Johnson will perform with A Taste of Honey (Payne left the group some 30 years ago) as part of the Sept. 7 Little Tokyo Live music series. The event features music acts inside the Aratani Theatre as well as in the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center plaza, including local artists, taiko groups and the original Lakeside, who topped the charts in 1980 with the funk hit “Fantastic Voyage.”

Get Down in J-Town this Saturday: Lakeside, A Taste of Honey at the Aratani Theatre

Johnson discusses the Grammy her group received as the Best New Artist of 1978. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

For Johnson, appearing in Little Tokyo is akin to visiting relatives. She has long been a student of dance – including styles from countries around the globe. In April 2011, a month after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan, she performed in kimono at the Thousand Hearts benefit concert in Pasadena.

Among the songs she sang that night was the one she’s known since her childhood … the one that she loves more than any other, yet has caused a fair amount of heartache.

“‘Sukiyaki’ saved me from dying a disco death,” she says flatly. “It gave me a niche, to sing and dance to such a beautiful piece. How many people in this pop world can do that to a Japanese song?”

By 1979, disco, which had exploded onto the American pop music scene a few years earlier, was suffering a relentless backlash. The dance hall genre, with its booty-shaking beats and careless lifestyle of party excess was being rejected in and out of U.S. popular culture, in perhaps the quickest demise of any fad in American history.

A Taste of Honey was among the most prominent offenders in the eyes of disco foes, and Johnson knew it all too well. That’s when she was reminded of her love of the 1961 Japanese hit by Kyu Sakamoto.

“When I was girl, I had a makeshift kimono and I would perform ‘Sukiyaki’ in my own talent shows in the backyard, singing it phonetically,” she recalls. “I had no idea what I was singing about. It’s just a song that has always been with me.”

Following the success of “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” Johnson hit upon the idea of A Taste of Honey recording “Sukiyaki” as a ballad, with English lyrics. Nearly everyone involved rejected the notion outright.

“Capitol Records said, ‘No way, you can’t do it, no one wants to hear Japanese music,’” she remembers, but she knew her career depended upon breaking her connection to disco.

Through a local sub-publishing company, Johnson managed to contact Rokusuke Ei, who penned the lyrics to Hachidai Nakamura’s music for the Japanese hit. She says Ei was gracious and caring when she asked for a translation of his words, and was supplied with three possible interpretations of the song, finally settling on a complete re-write in English, a lament about love lost.

A Taste of Honey’s version of “Sukiyaki” was resisted by Capitol to the point of having it omitted from their upcoming album, even as late as the master being placed on the disc cutter for duplication. Johnson says she and Capitol were forced to agree to a slew of conditions, mainly stipulating that she receive no writing credit – and therefore, no royalties.

“‘Sukiyaki’ has brought a lot of joy, but also a lot of sadness,” she says in a breaking voice. At this point, Johnson raises a hand to cover her eyes, which have welled with tears. She continues to believe that Ei – whose career has included great success as an author and television personality – is unaware that she is not receiving adequate compensation for her part in making the song a hit outside of Japan. She is certain that Ei would do something to remedy the situation – if he knew of it.

“It’s my favorite song to perform, it’s so beautiful. But I feel so disrespected.”

Silks flying, Johnson was one of the headlining performers of the Thousand Hearts earthquake and tsunami relief concert in 2011. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

A single mom with a high schooler headed to college next year, Johnson received a fee several years ago, but the song – with its English lyrics – continues to generate large revenues. The domestic version has been covered by artists including Snoop Dogg, Selena and 4 P.M., with many samples being incorporated into works by the likes of Will Smith, Salt-n-Pepa and Mary J. Blige.

Not only was A Taste of Honey’s version a hit, it topped the charts in the U.S. and had a completely unforeseen impact on the man who initially made it famous: Kyu Sakamoto. Once it went gold in America in 1981, Johnson and Payne flew to Tokyo to present the writers of the original with gold record awards (which Johnson personally funded after she said Capitol balked at the idea) and to promote their version in Japan.

The American stars also joined Sakamoto in concerts and television appearances, as the renewed interest had rekindled his career and led to a re-release of his 1961 classic.

“He was quite possibly the nicest man I’ve ever met,” Johnson says of Sakamoto, who died in the 1985 crash of a Japan Airlines jet in a mountainous region of Japan.

“We would go onto the stage and he would tell me to say to the audience, ‘Shinjirarenai desu ka?’ (Hard to believe, huh?)’ and I’d say, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just say it!’”

Johnson is a long way from her disco days. Soon to turn 60, she has kept doing what she loves most – performing – and has several dates lined up through the end of this year. She’ll keep singing “Sukiyaki” wherever she plays and hopes someday that she’ll have official recognition for her contribution to the song’s continued global popularity. Her tone shows little bitterness over the struggle with the business end of the matter, and her eyes light up when asked about taking the stage.

“It’s been a great life. I wrote ‘Boogie,’ which became a huge hit. Sometimes I ask, ‘Why me?’ How could I ever be more blessed?”

For more information on Little Tokyo Live, visit www.the zoku.com or www.visitlittletokyo.com

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