From the late 1950s throughout the ’60s decade, the American public has had a “soft spot“ for this genre, even if the song’s entirely in another language. Perhaps it was the beat (“You can dance to it!”) or the particular way the singer or group presented the song. Either way, you may want to break out the Italian bread, have a hunk of French cheese (or a plate of spaghetti!), along with some Japanese saki or a lager of German beer. Yah Vous!
This may have all started with “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu“, the no. 1 1958 smash (for five weeks!) by Domenico Modugno. This is the first foreign language single to hit no. 1 in the rock era, and according to Billboard, was the biggest hit of ’58. (Accounts may vary on this; I also saw “At The Hop” by Danny and The Juniors listed as ’58’s biggest).
The lyrics are Italian, of course, but do you know what they mean?
The title translates to “The Blue Sky, Painted In Blue.” “Volare” means to fly. This song is about a man’s dream of flying through the air with his hands painted blue.
Dean Martin also had a top 40 hit with this (no. 12, also in 1958 and given the subtitle “Volare” ) and Al Martino, who “flew” the song to no. 33 in 1975 (Just called “Volare” with English lyrics written by Michael Parrish.)
But Bobby Rydell had the breezy, delightful, snap-your-fingers-to, and in my opinion, the best version (His version was just called “Volare” as well, also in English, a no. 4 smash in 1960. Didn’t Rydell also have some of the best backup singers?).
“Sailor (Your Home Is The Sea)” was a no. 5 smash for German singer Lolita (Ditta). I couldn’t find anything further on her or the song.
Emilio Pericoli had a no. 6 smash in 1962 with “Al Di La” from the film “Rome Adventure“. Here are the English words to this:
Al di la means you are far above me, very far Al di la, as distant as the lovely evening star Where you walk flowers bloom When you smile all the gloom turns to sunshine And my heart opens wide When you’re gone it fades inside and seems to have died.
Al di la, I wondered as I drifted where you were Al di la, the fog around me lifted, there you were In the kiss that I gave was the love I had saved for a lifetime Then I knew all of you was completely mine.
Isn’t this so goshdarn romantic?!
“Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto went to no. 1 in 1963. So far, this is the only song by a Japanese singer to hit no. 1 in the U.S.
The Japanese title is “Ue O Muite Aruko”, which means “I look up when I walk.” It may have a happy beat, but the song is actually about sadness and isolation.
Everything started when an English record company executive heard the song while in Japan. He renamed it “Sukiyaki”, after a Japanese food he liked, and had an artist on his label record it.
This became a hit when a DJ in Washington state heard the British version and started playing Sakamoto’s original. The title remained “Sukiyaki” even though it had nothing to do with the song.
A Taste Of Honey took the English version to no. 3 in 1981.
The U.S. hit version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight“, a no. 1 smash by The Tokens in Dec. 1961, wasn’t sung in a foreign tongue. But the song’s origins certainly are, via South Africa.
Under the original title of “Mbube”, which means “lion”, this started as a Zulu hunting song.
It was popularized in 1939 by South African singer Solomon Linda and his group, The Evening Birds. It was a huge hit in that country.
In 1948, the South African Record Company sent a copy to Decca Records in the U.S. Somehow, folk singer PeteSeeger got a hold of it and began working on an English version.
In the 1950s, Miriam Makeba recorded this with the Zulu lyrics, and Seeger and his group, The Weavers, did the revamped English version, which was just the song’s refrain, no verses and called it “Wimoweh“. The group had a U.S. no. 15 hit in 1952. In 1957, the song was included on “The Weavers At Carnegie Hall“, a very popular folk album. The Kingston Trio also sang this in 1959 on their “Live From The Hungry i” album.
“Wimoweh” wasn’t the actual word, though. It was actually something like “Uyimbube”. It doesn’t really mean anything; it’s like “scooby dooby doo” or ” shoe bop shoe bop”.
In 1961,The Tokens didn’t have a record label (Even though they had a top 15 hit “Tonight I Fell In Love” in 1960) and ended up auditioning for noted producers Hugo (Peretti) and Luigi (Creatore). The song used? “Wimoweh”. The producers were impressed, but decided that the song needed new lyrics. With George Weiss assisting, Hugo and Luigi rewrote the song, with the new title “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
To the Tokens, this was simply an audition and they even fought against the song’s release. “Lion” eventually ended up as the B side of the potential hit “Tina”. (This had Portuguese origins!)
A New England DJ started playing that B side, and “Lion” became a no. 1 smash.
Opera singer Anita Darien sang the soprano part during and after the sax solo.
In the early ’70s, Robert John had a no. 3 smash with the remake. Three of the Tokens are singing background and songwriter Ellie Greenwich is singing bass.
Australian singer Rolf Harris wrote “Tie Me Kangeroo Down, Sport” in 1957, inspired by the calypsos of Harry Belafonte.
Technically, this wasn’t sung in a foreign tongue, but in my opinion, Australian English could almost qualify as one!
This was a no. 1 smash in Australia (for four weeks!) in 1960. I believe the version the U.S. got (a no. 3 hit in 1963 here) was re-recorded in England in 1962. Did you know that this song was banned in Singapore? There was an “offensive verse” which was later removed in later years. Here’s the verse:
Let me Abos go loose, Lou let me Abos go loose They’re of no further use, Lou, so let me Abos go loose. All together now!, etc.
Let’s analyze this for a minute, shall we?
I believe “Abos” is referring to aborigines, the original inhabitants of Australia (which is what that word means). So now, this raises the question: Did this guy keep some “Abos” as slaves or servants? Or were they merely farmhands? Perhaps Singapore saw this verse as being about some form of slavery.
Overall, I think this is about a dying Australian cattleman or rancher who’s conveying his last wishes orally to his friends or associates. (Honest to God, I had no idea what the heck “Abos” was supposed to mean until I sat down and really thought about it.)
This was produced by George Martin! (For those of you who don’t know who he is, you’ll soon find out.)
Dominique” was a no. 1 hit for The Singing Nun, who was Sister Luc-Gabrielle, (born Jeanine Deckers) from a Belgium convent.
Sister Gabrielle wrote several songs that won prizes at religious youth retreats. They became so popular that one of the order’s elders asked her to record an album, of which the convent could make a few hundred copies to pass out as gifts.
When the record company executives heard the songs, they too were impressed and released the album commerically in Europe to great success. (Sister Gabrielle was credited as Soeur Sourire, which means “Sister Smile”.)
In the U.S., she was billed as “The Singing Nun”, but the single took off first here, then both the album and single took off in late 1963.
“Dominique” is a eulogy about the founder of the Dominican Order, St. Dominic, a Spanish-born priest.
The 1966 movie “The Singing Nun” was made about Sister Gabrielle’s life (the part leading up to her singing career), starring Debbie Reynolds.
Elvis sound-alike Joe Dowell also had a no. 1 smash, “Wooden Heart” in 1961, and he had the King himself to thank for that.
Elvis sang this in “G.I. Blues“. His version was a big UK hit, but RCA wouldn’t release it in the U.S. So producer Shelby Singleton got Dowell to sing the song, half in English, half in German.
This is an English version of the German song, “Muss I Deen” and dates back long before Presley’s or Dowell’s renditions. The English lyrics have nothing to do with the original German one, which concerns leaving home and a loved one behind.
There was still some anti-German sentiment around, so the song title and sound were intended to sound Dutch. (I always thought the song had a German sound, to me!) The only German line is the first line of the song, which was repeated because the original second line was thought to sound “too German” for Americans.
“Pepino, The Italian Mouse” was a no. 5 smash in 1963 by Lou Monte. I think this was recorded using English and Italian lyrics. (I tried to find out if this song was based on or inspired by Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse puppet that often appeared on Ed Sullivan.)
1963 also gave Roy Barretto a hit with “El Watusi“, a half Spanish-spoken, half-instrumental hit (no. 17).
Barretto was an American New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, who had been playing drums for a few years. In 1957, he replaced Mongo Santamaria (“Watermelon Man“) in Tito Puente’s band. He formed his own band in 1961, recording for Riverside Records. After several albums, one in particular, “Charanqua Moderna” was were the track “El Watusi ” was taken. The single became a great success, and a surprise hit in England, where there was very little Hispanic music being played at this time.
South African native ( Zensi) Miriam Makeba was already world-renowned for her wonderful singing (in several languages!) and for espousing her country’s freedom from apartheid. But “Pata Pata” (an upbeat number about a weekend-long dance, a no. 12 hit in 1967) gave her “mainstream” success and magnified her fame. ( Makeba first recorded this in 1956 in South Africa. )
She spent a total of 30 years in exile from her home land and because of her campaign against apartheid, all her records were banned from South Africa.
Makeba was married for a few years to fellow South African Hugh Masekela (“Grazing In The Grass“), but it was her next one, to Black Panther activist Stokeley Carmichael in 1968, that severely damaged her U.S. career among white record buyers (tours, record contracts, etc. were cancelled). In a sense, she was “re-exiled” from the U.S.
As a result, the duo (who were divorced in 1978) moved to Guinea in West Africa. Makeba was able to continue working outside the U.S. through the decades.
Eventually, her anti-apartheid efforts paid off, as the practice ended in South Africa. She was welcomed back with open arms, and in the U.S. too.
“Guantanamera” started out as a poem by Cuban writer Jose Marti, about a girl from Guantanamero and was written from a Cuban revolutionary’s perspective. In the early 1960s, Pete Seeger ( Seeger again!) heard a singer’s rendition of this song and decided to adapt it. Seeger combined Marti’s original Spanish with spoken English and it became a song for the peace movment.
In 1966, a trio called The Sandpipers did a version of this that was a top ten hit (no. 9).
If you actually break this song down, however, there are two parts that aren’t really connected to each other, (There’s no real link between the verses and the refrain. )
But what the heck, it’s still very beautiful!
Rene and Rene took “Lo Mucho Que Te Quiero (The More I Love You)” to no. 14 in 1968. This was sung in half-Spanish, half-English lyrics. Pedro Fernandes did a remake of this in 1993 with a different Spanish verse.
“Perfidia” debuted in a B-movie western called “Stardust On The Sage“, sung by Gene Autry! Desi Arnaz lip-synched it in “Father Takes A Wife” and singer Miguelito Valdes, with Xavier Cugat’s band, had a hit with it. You may be most familar with the instrumental version by The Ventures, who had a no. 15 hit in 1960 with this. George Shearing had a very nice jazzy version, but the absolute BEST version of this that I’ve heard is by Linda Ronstadt. Her version spans a few decades; it’s from 1991, on “The Mambo Kings” soundtrack. But she completely captures the way this song should sound. There are Spanish and English lyrics to the tune; you can acquire the song either way. By all means, check out Ronstadt’s rendition!
Sergio Mendes and Brazil ’66 had some of the best foreign songs around; you didn’t really understand everything, but it all just sounded so cool! One of my favorites by them is “Mas Que Nada“, which I think means roughly “It’s nothing”, “More than nothing”, or something to that effect. This song is sung not in Spanish,but Portuguese, which is the native language of Brazil.
“Those Were The Days” was a huge international hit for Mary Hopkin in 1968. This song may have Russian origins. The Russians have claimed it came from their country, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
In 1962, Gene Raskin took the melody of this and wrote English lyrics to it. The Limeliters did an early version of this! In 1965, Paul McCartney saw Rankin and his wife perform this in a London club. Later, when The Beatles formed Apple Records, McCartney kept that song in mind.
In 1968, Twiggy recommended Hopkin to McCartney after watching her three-time win on a talent program. Hopkin passed the audition, and McCartney used the song, producing the recording session and playing acoustic guitar.
“Days” became a no. 2 smash in the U.S. and an international hit, with versions recorded by Hopkin in Spanish, French, Italian, and German. (It does sound like an old German drinking song, doesn’t it?) There was even a version by Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife. But one of the best versions I’ve heard is by The Fifth Dimension. It’s a cut from the “Aquarious” album (I think). Check it out!