by Pat Jacobs
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. I personally think it was "Nel Blu" myself. )
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 coolest 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? I'm
trying to find out who they were; I'll keep you posted.)
"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 (but
I'll keep looking.)
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 gosh darn 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
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. (I
like both of them!)
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 Pete Seeger 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
Opera singer Anita Darien sang the soprano part during and after the sax
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
Australian singer Rolf Harris wrote "Tie Me Kangeroo Down, Sport"
in 1957, inspired by the calypsos of
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 (The legendary producer of
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 commercially in Europe to great
success. (Sister Gabrielle was credited as Soeur Sourire, which means
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
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,
mouse puppet that often appeared on Ed Sullivan, or if Pepino was a
different character. I'll keep you posted.)
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
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
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
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. And she's still recording and touring!
"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 (that darn 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 movement.
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
"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 familiar 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! (By the
way, I think "Perfidia" means "traitor" or something to that effect.)
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 "more than nothing" or "more than anything" . I tried to translate
the whole song, but I think this may be in Portuguese! I'll get back to
you readers on this one.
Bulletin! I just got a rough English translation in!
Here it is:
Oh, little song, what are you?
What? What? What?
More of that nothing
it wants to pass in front of me
to liven up the samba
What I want to do is to samba
This samba, the samba of veiled color
the mix of your maracas,
the samba of antique veiled color
More of that nothing,
a samba that's just barely legal
You start wanting to go into it
then arriving at the end.
It sounds cooler in Portuguese, doesn't it?
"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
"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!
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