A poignant, unexpected or a tragic death of an artist — singer, actor, or author — often generates a fresh career appraisal. New attention, ironically, can translate into big profits that might not have ordinarily been forthcoming.
The acidic quote that death is a “good career move” originated with the passing of Elvis Presley at the age of 42 in 1977. Sue Mengers, an agent not given to generous understatement, may well be the source, but other Hollywood cynics have also received attribution.
Whoever was first, the quote has obtained wide currency since — even though it’s a very harsh assessment, it’s fundamentally true.
When he died, the value of the Presley estate was just under $5 million. Today it is over $300 million, with annual earnings topping $20 million.
Another famous example of death enhancement is actor James Dean. When he perished at 24 in a grisly car crash just outside of Paso Robles, California, on September 30, 1955, he was a promising, upcoming actor with one film, “East of Eden,” to his credit.
To this day, more than 60 years later, Dean has achieved and maintained a rarefied status. Two movies that he had in the can before the fiery collision were later released to lavish acclaim — he became the only actor in history to be nominated for an Academy Award twice following death.
Books have been written, plaintive posters depicting his distinctive image have consistently sold well, monuments and markers have been erected in his memory, even his gravestone in Fairmount, Indiana has been stolen on multiple occasions — the cottage industry surrounding James Dean will not soon fade away.
The Dean demise left someone behind who experienced severe misfortune: the driver of the vehicle which Dean hit, 23 year old Donald Turnupseed, lived for more than 40 years, haunted by the event. Though never assigned blame, his name was forever negatively attached; he only granted one interview to a local paper and spent the rest of his life avoiding comment.
A third celebrity who died a literally turbulent death, and earned a different kind of recognition, is Kyu Sakamoto.
While not nearly as notable as either Presley or Dean, Sakamoto is remembered for both the widespread impact of one, highly unlikely hit record, as well as the grim way his life ended.
Sakamoto’s entire story is one marked by coincidence.
Born in December of 1941 in Kawasaki, Japan, Sakamoto grew up in strained circumstances.
He was the youngest of nine children in a fractious home — by the time he was 15, Sakamoto’s parents were divorced. All this took place in a country deeply riven by its disastrous role in World War II.
But music and his remarkably sonorous voice saved him. After kicking around with fledgling bands, the 19 year old Sakamoto landed a solo contract and was selected to record “Ue O Muite Arukou” (English translation: I Look Up As I Walk, or more fully, I Keep My Eyes To The Sky So That My Teardrops Never Fall.)
Although the lyrics describe a sentimental loss of love, the song, written by Rokusuke Ei, is actually a protest song: it is lamenting the continued U.S. Army occupation of Japan.
The metaphoric words, layered with hidden meaning, plus Sakamoto’s delivery (yearning, wistful, and most important, authentic) made for instant appeal — the song was hit in Japan from the moment it debuted in August of 1961.
And then fate intervened.
An American, who had been visiting in Japan, brought home the original recording. Through a complicated series of Dickensian twists, it wound up in the hands of a radio disc jockey in the state of Washington — he fell in love with the song, began playing it on air in 1963 and soon, Capitol Records acquired the necessary rights.
It was a gamble for Capitol to release the material. At the time, Japan and the United States still regarded each other with suspicion (occupation by American soldiers really didn’t end until the 1970’s). Few songs in foreign languages were hits in the 1960’s, none sung by an Asian.
But Capitol moved forward, with one caveat: there was concern that the original Japanese title would tongue-tie announcers and confuse listeners, so it was renamed “Sukiyaki,” a more familiar term of a popular meat and vegetable dish. This despite the fact that there is no reference to Sukiyaki in the song — a Newsweek columnist later wrote that this was the equivalent of releasing the Andy Williams English language version of “Moon River” in Japan, but calling it “Beef Stew.”
Offensively titled or not, “Sukiyaki” shot up the Billboard charts to number one that year. It was everywhere — heavy radio play, the featured ballad at high school/college dances, even the sophisticated pianist Jimmy Lyon had a version that could be heard in New York clubs (Lyon was still playing it in the mid-1970’s at Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astoria.)
International recognition soon followed; “Sukiyaki” sold more than 13 million copies. Sakamoto’s rendition required no translation because the emotional quality of his singing is recognizable without a literal understanding of the words.
“Sukiyaki” has been covered by other artists frequently, and it has been used routinely in television/movies. Because of its bittersweet mixture, and easy adaptability to solo instruments, it can be heard at memorial services as well as marriage ceremonies.
A touching coda occurred when Sakamoto was killed, along with 519 other passengers, in the second worst aviation catastrophe in history. On August 12, 1985, Japanese Airline flight 123 experienced a sudden decompression shortly after takeoff — hydraulic lines were severed, and for thirty two agonizing minutes, the out of control plane “porpoised,” that is, climbed and dove in an horrific fashion. At one point it fell six thousand feet and then promptly ascended six thousand feet.
During this terrifying ride, Sakamoto wrote a farewell letter to his wife.
Many memorials have been held for those who died, almost all of them have featured “Sukiyaki.”
While death did not significantly enrich the Sakamoto estate, it deservedly burnished his image as a cultural icon in his native land. He will always be remembered as someone who bridged prodigious global gaps with the universal language of art.