But none of the local Presley-alikes holds a candle to Masaaki Hirao, the Japanese Elvis. Masaaki Hirao Masaaki was one of the famed Rokabirii Sannin Otoko (three rockabillies), alongside singers Mickey Curtis and Keijiro Yamashita. Yamashita was better known for his ballads (with covers of Diana, Today’s Teardrops and others) and sounds more like the Nipponese Pat Boone or Paul Anka; Mickey Curtis was (well, still is) an actor who did a nice line in Neil Sedaka covers, but Masaaki Hirao was the Number One star of Nippon Rock ‘n Roll. The three men would record an album together, Rock n’ Roll Forever, in 1972.
The rokabirii buumu (rockabilly boom) was born in 1958. Rokabirii may resemble US rockabilly, but the Nipponese version is, as music historian Howard Williams notes (in the sleeve notes to the collection Nippon Rock'n'Roll The Birth Of Japanese Rokabirii), ‘a more varied dish’. Hirao and his oddly-named backing band the All Stars Wagon’s ‘covers of Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley and Little Richard are not kitsch renditions, but raw, desperate rockers. Hear a Paul Anka makeover, but put through a rocking mangle; a smattering of jazz; a twist of New Orleans; and some Japanese folk songs with a greased-down quiff. American occupation a distant memory, these boys wanted to party’.
Other Japanese acts had covered western pop hits before: actress and singer Chiemi Eri released an English-language version of Rock Around the Clock as early as 1955. Yet although it’s easy to extract the Michael from these funny foreigners and their difficulty in pronouncing certain consonants, rokabirii posed a real problem in Japan, with the authorities fearing of a wave of delinquency not dissimilar to the cinema and theatre riots seen in the US and UK. The rokabirii buumu only lasted a couple of years, but for a nation of teenagers denied access to Western music (don’t forget, this all happened just over a decade after the end of the Second World War) it must have been incredibly exciting.
Still, when Hirao sings ‘let’s lock!’ on his version of Jailhouse Rock it does sound completely ridiculous.