The Japan–Soul Train Connection
Part I: The Three Degrees in Japan
Here’s a trick you can try the next time you meet a person over the age of 40: ask them to hum the theme song from Soul Train. If they can’t do it, you know that you can’t trust them.
If they’re able to tell you that the vocalists on the track are The Three Degrees, you know you’re talking to a trustworthy person who knows their soul music.
But if they tell you that they were listening to The Three Degrees in 1973, you just might be talking to a Japanese person.
For an awful lot of young black people in the 1970s, Soul Train was one of the most important things on television. Well, not just black people, but anyone young interested in music and youth culture. American Bandstand was getting boring, and had a policy of preventing black people from entering the studio audience. But Soul Train let just about anyone in, as long as they could dance.
Soul Train also boosted the careers of a lot of people, including The Three Degrees, who lent their voices (‘people all over the world!’) to ‘The Sound Of Philadelphia,’ the Gamble and Huff-produced theme song. The Three Degrees had been doing pretty well before this, but this song really made them stars in the US. I say ‘in the US’ because by the time TSOP came out, The Three Degrees were already stars — in Japan.
In 1973, The Three Degrees released ‘Dirty Old Man.’ The song didn’t do particularly well in the States, but it hit discos in Japan hard, apparently going gold, and hitting #3 the next year on the radio charts. That’s sort of amazing, especially considering that back then, things usually took a while to get to Japan. Also, someone decided to change the title for the domestic market to 荒野のならず者 (Kouya no Narazumono, ‘No-good Man of the Wilderness’). I think someone had been watching too many Westerns.
But, at the very least, the album cover artist got the description right: the words on the top of the above record read ‘Philadelphia Soul’s Sexy Dynamite – The Three Degrees are Here!’
The ladies got hip to their overseas sales pretty quickly, and in 1974, they performed at the Tokyo Music Festival, where they picked up the Gold award, beating out artists from all over the world.
This led to them getting a lot of Japanese media exposure, including plenty of television appearances — which would give them the chance to appeal directly to their audience. Here they are on Japanese television, dancing Nihon Buyoin kimono and making a pun about socks in Japanese at the end:
One of the best ways to make a Japanese television audience go insane
is to speak Japanese to them, and the trio exploited this often. But unlike a lot of acts that view their foreign audiences as nothing more than yen-dispensing ATMs, the trio seems to have taken their cross-cultural appeal pretty seriously. They didn’t just throw out the occasional Japanese vocabulary word in an interview, but they also sang in the language.
One of the best known examples of this is a Japanese version of their 1974 megahit ‘When Will I See You Again’, which was called 天使の囁き (Tenshi no Sasayaki, ‘Whisper of an Angel’) in Japan. This one shot to the top of the radio charts, and both the original English and Japanese versions sold a ton. Here they are singing the Japanese version on TV:
They didn’t stop at doing reworks of their own songs, either. Here’s a Japanese-language original, never released outside of Japan:
苦い涙(Nigai Namida — ‘Bitter Tears’)
I’m not sure who coached them, but they’ve actually got pretty good pronunciation. Singing in a totally foreign language, especially live and in front of an audience that speaks it natively, takes a lot of confidence, and the ladies had plenty of that.
Sorry, Beyoncé, but Fayette, Valerie, and Sheila did it first.
Aside from the Japanese-language cuts, though, my personal favorite The Three Degrees cut is ‘Midnight Train,’ a 1974 Japan-only release featuring a mean horn line in the intro:
The English lyrics were written by a Japanese artist named Takashi Matsumoto, whose work you might have heard in Lost in Translation. And actually, everything on this track (except the vocals) was done by Tin Pan Alley, a Japanese session band headed up by bassist Haruomi Hosono.
Hosono would cross paths with Soul Train again in a few years, but I’ll leave that story for Part 2.