Picture Elvis as a Japanese singer and with him some of the most talented musicians available and you’d have imagined Southern All Stars. Those even a little aware of Japanese music will require no introduction to the band responsible for some of the greatest songs in modern history.
Southern All Stars began its roots as a band formed by university students in 1975. While the rest of the members had changed, Kuwata Keisuke, Hara Yuko and Sekiguchi Kazuyuki have stayed with the group since its founding more than three decades ago. Together with Hiroshi Matsuda and Nozawa Hideyuki who joined the group soon enough, the five man band debuted with their first hit song in 1978.
Kuwata Keisuke leads with the guitar and acts as the band’s main vocalist. His unique husky voice offering some of the most soulful vocals ever. Hara Yuko, the band’s keyboardist and supporting vocals. She also leads in vocals for album and B-side tracks. Sekiguchi Kazuyuki plays the bass, Matsuda Hiroshi provides the drums and Nozawa Hideyuki the percussion. All five members are successful composers and songwriters on their own but the band owe their hits to their full combined talents.
Most of Southern All Stars fall under one of two distinct categories, sorrowful love ballads or feel good summer songs. Their music transcends all ages. And despite all members being 50 and above, their songs manage to remain relevant to each new generation. The band draws their inspiration from American genres like classical Blues, folk music and plain old rock and roll. Kuwata himself is most influenced by Eric Clapton and he often does covers from the blues-rock artist.
The band easily caught the public’s attention early on with their amusing comedy antics. But it wasn’t until they released their 3rd single, Itoshi no Ellie that people started taking the band seriously. This tear jerking ballad broke sales records and earned them recognition overseas when it was covered (to much success) by R&B legend Ray Charles. Today it still remains one of the most recognized songs in Japan. It is also how Morning Musume’s Kamei derived her first name.
The band continued to release one hit after another. Part of Southern All Stars charm is that they still remained unchanged by their fame, never quite taking themselves too seriously. During their rising career in 1982, Kuwata and Hara wed.
At times, the band occasionally went on hiatus while members dealt with their personal lives and their own separate solo careers. However, the band always came back to release more chart topping hits.
In 90s, the Southern All Stars began the peak of their career with each of their new songs selling between one to 2.5 million copies. In 1991 one of the singles written by Kuwata, Manatsu no Kajitsu was covered by Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung as Mei Tian Ai Ni Duo Yi Xie (Loving you more each day). Its success lead to more covers from various other countries.
In 1995, Kuwata Keisuke collaborated with fellow J-rock legends Mr. Children on the song Kiseki no Hoshi for the Act Against Aids charity concert. The single hit #1 on Oricon and remained on the charts for 18 weeks.
In 2000, the band combined their efforts again and released their most successful song ever, Tsunami. Another ballad highlighting Kuwata’s moving vocals, Tsunami topped charts for weeks. It remains Japan’s 3rd best selling single to date, having sold more than 2.9 million copies.
Even now Southern All Stars remains as one of the greatest music groups in existence. As a band they still rank as the #1 musicians in Japan. When it comes to sales the band holds the 5th place, having sold 47 million singles and albums. They also hold the top position for other titles, like producing the best selling Japanese soundtrack of all time. They are currently hold 40 top-ten singles and 16 number one albums.
Leader Kuwata Keisuke holds the most successful solo career of the lot, his solo efforts having sold many millions. Apart from the guitar, he even plays the bass, drums and keyboard. A truly admirable genius musician. He even created one album all by himself, producing the music, playing all the instruments and recording the album himself. In the list of top 100 musicians in Japan Kuwata ranks at #12.
In the past few years, Southern All Stars had been rather inactive as a band. After a year of hiatus in 2007, the band came back again in 2008 to celebrate their 30th anniversary. They toured Japan and released the single I Am Your Singer. As of last year Southern All Stars is officially on hiatus again. Band members still actively work on their individual projects and Yuko still plays as part of Kuwata’s band. They have however, announced their intention to return as Southern All Stars again. Fans can only hope for the day they will release their next big hit.Click here to search CDJapan for Southern All Stars and other related items.