MASAAKI HIRAO AND HIS ALL STARS WAGON-NIPPON ROCK ‘N’ ROLL THE BIRTH OF JAPANESE ROKABIRII 1958-1960.

MASAAKI HIRAO AND HIS ALL STARS WAGON-NIPPON ROCK ‘N’ ROLL THE BIRTH OF JAPANESE ROKABIRII 1958-1960.

The origins of the modern Japanese music industry can be traced back to the spring of 1958. Rockabilly was at the peak of its popularity. A generation of Japanese teenagers, were looking for something they could become part of. They wanted something they could identify themselves with. That’s where rockabilly came in. Here was a movement that they could become part of. This musical phenomenon had swept America, Britain and Japan. Soon, the musical phenomenon that was rockabilly swept Japan.

In Japan, rockabilly’s followers became known as rokabirii zuko, the rockabilly tribe. The rockabilly tribe’s heroes were the Rokabirii Sannin Otoko, The Three Rockabillies, Mickey Curtis, Keijiro Yamashita and Masaaki Hirao. These three singers vied for the title of the Japanese “Elvis.” Of this three, Masaaki Hirao had the toughest, most authentic sound. So it’s no surprise that Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon were signed to King Records, which was also home to James Brown. During the few years Masaaki Hirao was signed to King Records, he became Japan’s answer to Elvis Presley. 

Exuding an air of danger, rebellion and cultivated menace, young men wanted to be Masaaki, while young women were won over by his looks and charm. Quite simply, Masaaki Hirao was a marketing man’s dream. Soon, his face filled newspapers, magazines and billboards. He regularly appeared on television and in films. Masaaki Hirao was seen the voice of generation. His opinion were sought on a wide range of subjects. All this wouldn’t be possible without Masaaki Hirao’s ability to sing. The man they refer to as the Japanese Elvis, is the King of Japanese rockabilly. Recently, Big Beat Records released a retrospective of his music, entitled Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon-Nippon Rock ‘n’ Roll The Birth Of Japanese Rockabirii 1958-1960. Featuring twenty-three tracks, these are a mixture of live tracks and album cuts. Before I tell you about the music on Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon-Nippon Rock ‘n’ Roll The Birth Of Japanese Rockabirii 1958-1960, I’ll tell you about Japanese rockabilly and Masaaki’s career.

The origins of Japanese rockabilly can be traced to the screening of Blackboard Jungle. Just like it had in America and Britain, it seemed to ignite a generation of Japanese young people. It’s as if it encouraged them cast of the shackles of tradition and expectations. The latest generation of Japanese youth weren’t content to be like their parents. They wanted to make their own way in the world, forging their own identity in the process. Youth movements including rokabirii zuko, the rockabilly tribe were part of this. 

Rockabilly started to grow in popularity in Japan from 1956 onwards. There was only one problem though, a shortage of musicians who knew how to play rockabilly. Most Japanese musicians played country and western music, which they’d learnt to entertain American G.I.s. They soon adapted, providing the backdrop to a new generation of Japanese singers vying to be crowned Japan’s Elvis. 

One of them, was Masaaki Hirao. He was playing jazu kissa venues in the early fifties. This was where Japanese artists covered American songs. Often this was country and western music, which since the end of the second world war, had grown in popularity. Masaaki Hirao was used to playing country music, but seeing rockabilly’s rising popularity, decided to sing a few rockabilly songs. Soon, he was establishing a large fan-base. No wonder. He was a charismatic, swaggering, showman, one who could get the audience dancing. Word soon spread about this charismatic singer. One night, about three-thousand queued outside a small venue. Before long, Masaaki outgrew the jazu kissa venues and embarked on a career as a rockabirii singer. 

Although rockabilly grew in popularity, it wasn’t until 1956, that the first Japanese rockabilly single was released. This was a cover of Heartbreak Hotel, sung by Kazuya Kosaka and The Wagon Masters. They were one of the first bands to play outside of American airbases. A talented group of musicians, they quickly adapted to the demands of playing rockabilly. Then when they lost their lead singer, they changed their name to The Wagon Masters and Takatada. That wouldn’t be the last time The Wagon Masters would change their name.

By 1958, the rockabilly boom was well underway. Even Time magazine noticed this. The rockabilly boom can be credited to the Rockabrii Sannin Otoko at the Western Carnival. This brought rockabirii firmly into the public consciousness. Raucous and rebellious, guitars twanged, bodies writhed and the audience either rebelled, writhed or were overcome with emotion and hysteria. It was almost impossible to escape rockabirii. Not only had the performances proved controversial, but lead to even more people discovering this musical phenomenon. This was the perfect time for Japan to discover their “Elvis.” He was one of a trio of contenders vying to be crowned King Of Japanese Rockabilly.

Mickey Curtis, Keijiro Yamashita and Masaaki Hirao were the three contenders to be crowned Japan’s King of Rockabilly. They had all been stars of the Western Carnival. Masaaki Hirao was the youngest of the trio. He was an experienced singer, who’d gradually honed his act. Having originally established a reputation as  a country and western singer, Masaaki realized music was changing. Jumping on the rockabilly bandwagon, success had come Masaak’s way over the past two years. This would cumulate in Masaaki Hirao signing for legendary American R&B label King Records.

It was 1958 when Masaaki Hirao signed to King Records. He’d timed his run perfectly. Rockabilly was at the peak of its popularity. Masaaki was now one of the heroes of the rokabirii zuko, the rockabilly tribe. Signed to one of America’s most prestigious labels, King Records, maybe he’d enjoy success around the world? After all, rockabilly was the most popular musical genre? Would that be the case?

1958 saw Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon release their debut album for King Records. It featured a combination of cover versions and Japanese rockabilly songs. Among the cover versions were Jailhouse Rock, Sittin’ In The Balcony and Little Darlin,’ Along with Japanese rockabilly tracks like Itsuki No Komoriuta Rock and Yuuyake Koyake, it seemed that Japan might have found their own Elvis. After all, this was rockabilly, Japanese style. Masaaki Hirao seems determined to pay homage to the King of rock ‘n’ roll. His vocal was Elvis-esque, while his backing band provide an authentic backdrop. This wouldn’t be the only album he released during 1958.

Following the success of Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon’s debut album, King Records decided to release a live album. This was a good opportunity to let people hear what Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon sounded live. After all, many people wouldn’t be able to hear Masaaki live. They did, however, own a record  player. So although they couldn’t see Masaaki live, they were still able to hear what this charismatic performer was capable of. Known for driving audiences wild, and inducing a state of hysteria, Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon live was one of Japan’s most popular live acts. The eight live tracks that feature on Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon-Nippon Rock ‘n’ Roll The Birth Of Japanese Rockabirii 1958-1960 are proof of this.

You realize just how good Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon’s are live from the opening bars of Lawdy Miss Clawdy. Masaaki is literally given a hero’s reception. This continues through Crazy Love, Wear My Ring Around Your Neck, Jenny Jenny, I Love You and Ooh My Soul. Screams and shrieks fill the air every time the band strike up. Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon’s receive a rapturous reception. They must have thought that the success they were enjoying would last forever.

That wasn’t to be the case. In 1959, Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon released their final album on King Records. Eight tracks from that album feature on Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon-Nippon Rock ‘n’ Roll The Birth Of Japanese Rockabirii 1958-1960. There not all rockabilly. Far from it. Eclectic, describes the tracks. The first of these is a compelling and emotive cover of One Way Ticket. Even better is Miyo-Chan. Atmospheric and dramatic, with a heartfelt delivery from Masaaki, it’s one of the highlights of the compilation. Minami No Shima Wa Koi No Shima with its weeping guitars and vocal filled with emotion steals the show. A much more understated track, it meanders along, Masaaki’s vocal and guitars taking turns to take centre-stage. The later addition of vintage horn and the result is the best track on the compilation. Providing a fitting finale to the compilation is Blues De Memphis. It sounds as it’s paying homage to Elvis. That’s not the case. Laden with emotion, it demonstrates not just Masaaki’s versatility, but his ability to breath meaning into lyrics. This proves a fitting finale to Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon-Nippon Rock ‘n’ Roll The Birth Of Japanese Rockabirii 1958-1960.

Before Masaaki Hirao signed to King Records, Japan was still looking for their “Elvis.” Three singers were vying for the title. The winner was Masaaki Hirao. He was crowned the King of Japanese rockabilly. That however, was something of an understatement. Why? Well, there’s much more to Masaaki Hirao than rockabilly.

Indeed, during the twenty-three tracks on Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon-Nippon Rock ‘n’ Roll The Birth Of Japanese Rockabirii 1958-1960, we hear different sides to his music. Apart from rockabilly, he’s a talented balladeer, someone who sings with emotion and tenderness. He’s able to breath life and meaning into lyrics. Then the next song, Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon kick loose. They’re rocking, the atmosphere raucous, with jangling, twanging guitars. Delivering a vocal that’s best described as Elvis-esque, Masaaki Hirao lays his claim to be crowned King of Japanese rockabilly. That he was. Sadly, rockabilly’s popularity would soon peak. It was downhill after that for rockabilly and many Japanese singers.

That wasn’t the end for Masaaki Hirao. Not at all. He reinvented himself and enjoyed a long and successful career. In 1976, he briefly reinvented himself as a disco artist, releasing Disco Train for Atlantic Records. Then he released a quartet of albums in the eighties. However, Masaaki Hirao is best known as the King of Japanese rockabilly. Masaaki Hirao was Japan’s answer to Elvis. A remindee of this, is the music on Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon-Nippon Rock ‘n’ Roll The Birth Of Japanese Rockabirii 1958-1960, which was released on Big Beat Records. Without Masaaki Hirao’s contribution to Japanese music, then Japanese music, and Japanese culture, would be very different.

MASAAKI HIRAO AND HIS ALL STARS WAGON-NIPPON ROCK ‘N’ ROLL THE BIRTH OF JAPANESE ROKABIRII 1958-1960.

 

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