Some people don’t know that Freddie Mercury was Asian. He was born to a Parsi family in Zanzibar, raised in India, and moved to England when he was 17. Many people think Freddie Mercury was the first Asian rock star, when actually it isn’t true.
There were quite a few Asian rock stars who made it big before he did like Cliff Richard, Dick Dale, Frank Zappa, and more. We’ll be going back to the old timeline format for this one like the one I did for my post on African Rock Stars and the influence of Africa in classic rock and oldies.
Note: Asian includes people of any ancestry from any part of the continent of Asia. This includes South Asia, the Middle East, and the Caucasus.
Asians have been involved in rock music from the early years, shaping the sound.
1947: Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun founded Atlantic Records in New York City with Herb Abramson. The record label had a reputation in the 60s and 70s as being one of the biggest and most important labels in the United States. Their releases were mostly R&B, soul, and jazz, but by the 70s they expanded into rock music. Two rock bands signed to Atlantic Records were Led Zeppelin and Yes.
1956: Indonesian-born Lou Casch joins Australian musician Johnny O’Keefe’s band. Lou Casch was born Lodewyk Nanlohy in Ambon in 1924 and grew up in Aceh and Jakarta. He came to Australia in the early 50s to study medicine, but there was a change of plans and he was introduced to Johnny O’Keefe. His guitar work was an important part of Johnny O’Keefe’s sound.
1958: A 17, going on 18 year old Cliff Richard recorded the Elvis Presley-esque “Move It” with his backing band The Drifters, later to become The Shadows. Cliff Richard was born in Lucknow, India in 1940 and raised in England. He is partially of Indian and Spanish descent. John Lennon considered “Move It” to be Britain’s first rock and roll song. It was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, the same studio that the Beatles would record their albums. Not only is Cliff Richard one of England’s first rock stars, he’s Britain’s first Asian rock star.
Engelbert Humperdinck (born in India, raised in England) recorded his first single “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” under the name Gerry Dorsey (Dorsey is his birth last name).
Dick Dale, born Richard Monsour, started recording music and invented surf rock. He is partially of Lebanese descent. He was born in Boston, but later moved to California with his family and learnt how to surf. He was best known for surf rock with a lot of Middle Eastern influences. His earliest singles were “Ooh Whee Marie” and “Stop Teasing.”
The Kim Sisters, a South Korean trio, arrived in Las Vegas and performed there. Later on, they were on the Ed Sullivan Show as well and performed on the show many times.
Shin Jung-hyeon (from South Korea) made his first recordings and later on went on to be one of South Korea’s first rock stars.
Dick Dale and The Del-Tones got nationwide fame with “Let’s Go Trippin” (1961) and “Misirlou” (1962). You might recognise “Misirlou” from the movie Pulp Fiction. “Misirlou” was a traditional song, originally from Greece, but highly influenced by Middle Eastern music (this is where you really hear the Middle Eastern influence). What really makes Dick Dale’s version stand out is the speed at which he plays it compared to other styles of playing it. In 1963 Dick Dale covered “Hava Nagila,” a traditional Israeli folk song, in his surf rock style.
“Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto was released in 1961 in Japan, where it reached #1, but didn’t make it to the United States until 1963. It went to #1 in the US in 1963 and is the only Japanese language song to do so.
Eden Kane (born Richard Sarstedt in India) got a #1 in 1961 with “Well I Ask You”. He was the older brother of Clive and Peter Sarstedt.
The Remains were founded in Boston by Connecticut born Armenian-American Barry Tashian and some friends who lived in the same dorm in university. Barry Tashian’s grandfather was from Armenia and according to his son, some of the inspiration behind his music came from anger about being discriminated against for being different.
The Beatles were introduced to the Indian sitar music of Ravi Shankar. The Beatle who was most fascinated by the sitar was George Harrison. Ravi Shankar was happy to give sitar lessons to George Harrison and loved his enthusiasm and genuine interest in the instrument. George Harrison later converted to Hinduism. Quite a few Beatles songs had the sitar on it such as “Norwegian Wood” (1965), “Love You To” (1966), and “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966), and “Within You Without You” (1967). Here’s “Norwegian Wood,” released that year:
If you want to read more about Indian influences in classic rock, check out this blog post.
Armenian-American musician Cher released her first album All I Really Want to Do. Cher was born Cherilyn Sarkisian to a father of Armenian descent and a mother of British Isles, German, and Native American ancestry. The title song is a cover of a Bob Dylan song. The album is mostly made up of cover songs, but Cher’s husband at the time Sonny Bono wrote a few songs for the album.
That same year, Sonny and Cher got to #1 with “I Got You Babe”.
Frank Zappa, of partial Arab ancestry, released his first album with The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out!. He is the vocalist for the band. The album has a psychedelic, experimental sound to it and many consider it one of the first concept albums. It also was one of the first double albums. In total, the album is an hour long. They kept releasing albums throughout the late 60s. Their last album was released in 1975.
George Harrison met Ravi Shankar in London.
Half Filipina musician Norma Tanega got a hit with the song “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog”. The song was a hit in the US, UK, and Canada.
The Remains release their only album, a self-titled debut. It’s a garage rock classic and I highly recommend you listen to it (it’s on my perfect albums list). Three songs on that album were released as singles: “Don’t Look Back” (their best known song), “Why Do I Cry”, and “Diddy Wah Diddy” (a Bo Diddley cover). That same year, they were an opening act for The Beatles on their final tour of the US.
What I love about their last single, “Don’t Look Back” is it’s a garage rock song that incorporates gospel music. Not something I hear in a lot of songs. Barry Tashian really takes us to church (even us atheists 😂) at 1:09 into the song with this song. Unfortunately, the song failed to chart, but it was loved after the fact because in 1972, Lenny Kaye included it on the famous Nuggets compilation album. Billy Vera originally wrote the song for Chuck Jackson, but he turned it down and then The Remains decided to record it.
Larry Ramos, Hawaiian-born of Filipino descent, joined The Association, best known for songs “Along Comes Mary” and “Windy.” He shared the lead vocal part on “Windy.” This song made it to #1 in July 1967.
Ravi Shankar played at the Monterey Pop festival.
Engelbert Humperdinck released his first album, Release Me. From that album, two songs went to the top 10 in the UK, “Release Me (And Let Me Love Again)” (#1) and “There Goes My Everything.” (#2)
Leslie Kong, a Chinese-Jamaican reggae producer, produced one Desmond Dekker song that got international recognition: “007 Shanty Town” from 1967.
Sonny and Cher got their second biggest hit with “The Beat Goes On”. That song went to #6 in the US
1968: Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers’ “Does Your Mama Know About Me” got to #29 on the Billboard Charts. Tommy Chong co-wrote the song and was a member of the band. The band were signed to Motown.
Ravi Shankar played at Woodstock
Peter Sarstedt’s (Indian born – Raised in the UK) “Where Do You Go To My Lovely?” peaked at #1 in the UK.
Yoko Ono (born in Japan) married John Lennon. That year, they recorded and release well-known anti-war song “Give Peace A Chance.” John Lennon wrote the song and both Yoko Ono and John Lennon produced it.
“Israelites” went to #1 in the UK and went to the top 10 in the US in 1969. It was the first number one ska record in the UK. Leslie Kong co-wrote “Israelites” with Desmond Dekker.
American musician Alan Merrill moved to Japan to pursue a music career. He wrote “I Love Rock and Roll,” which was made famous by Joan Jett.
Guitarist Tommy Bolin (half Syrian) joined Colorado blues rock band Zephyr.
Fanny released their first album. Two members of Fanny are sisters June and Jean Millington who were born in the Philippines, but raised in the US. One of my favourite songs on the album is their cover of Cream’s “Badge”.
Damo Suzuki (From Japan) joins Can, a German prog rock band. He was the replacement for Malcolm Mooney – their original vocalist. Here’s Tago Mago from 1971:
Cher’s song “Gypsys, Tramps, and Thieves” topped the charts in America and Canada. The song also made the top 10 in Australia, the UK, and Ireland.
Van Halen were started by Dutch-born brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen. They are part Indonesian.
Queen released their first album, a self-titled debut. Freddie Mercury (of Parsi descent) wrote half of the songs on the album.
Japanese born Tetsu Yamauchi joined The Faces, a band made up of members of The Small Faces, Rod Stewart, and Ronnie Wood. He replaced Ronnie Lane as bassist. Before joining The Faces he was in Free and played on their last studio album. Yamauchi did not play on any studio albums of The Faces, but he did play on the live album Coast to Coast: Overture and Beginners.
Alan Merrill released an album with glam rock band Vodka Collins called Tokyo-New York. Vodka Collins were made up mostly of Japanese musicians – Hiroshi Oguchi, Hiroshi Kamayatsu, and Take Yokouchi. Many of the Japanese members of the band were members of bands that were from the Group Sounds era of Japanese pop music. Group Sounds was at its peak in the Mid 1960s and was inspired by The Beatles and similar bands.
Malaya-born New Zealand folk singer John Hanlon releases his first album Floating. His mother was Chinese and his father was a New Zealander of Irish, Scottish, and Swedish descent. Originally he wanted to work in advertising as a graphic artist and copywriter, but life took a different turn and he became a singer. By the late 70s, he would go back to advertising. That same year, he released the environmentalist protest single “Damn the Dam”, protesting the building of a dam on Lake Manapouri. If you like musicians like Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell, you’ll like his music.
Update 11/2021: I interviewed John Hanlon. You can read my interview here.
“Half-Breed” topped the charts, making it Cher’s second #1 in the US. The song also topped the charts in Canada and New Zealand.
Queen released follow up albums Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack. My favourite song from those albums are “Seven Seas of Rhye” and “Brighton Rock”. That same year, they played at the Rainbow Theatre in London. The live album is excellent.
“Lovely Lady” by John Hanlon topped the charts in his country of New Zealand.
1975: Queen got a #1 with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” written by Freddie Mercury. This was their first number one.
Robert Lee, brother of Bruce Lee, released a song as a tribute to him – two years after Bruce Lee’s death.
Tommy Bolin joined Deep Purple, replacing Ritchie Blackmore on guitar. Deep Purple only released one album with him on lead guitar, Come Taste the Band. He died at the age of 25 in 1976.
American-born brothers of Syrian Jewish descent Joseph, Kenneth, and Stanley Cayre start Salsoul (a portmanteau of Salsa and Soul) Records. They had a retail business in the 60s and they worked with family members in Mexico and they opened a textile factory in Puerto Rico. The Latin American connection was what exposed them to the music there. The Cayre’s relatives in Mexico had distribution rights for Spanish music released by RCA and CBS Records so they suggested they distribute the extra stock in Spanish speaking communities in America.
Salsoul was born in New York City, where there is a huge Puerto Rican population. Their name was originally Mericana Records, but they changed it to Salsoul when they signed Joe Bataan away from the competing Fania Records. Bataan released an album called Salsoul and that’s where they got the name. Interestingly enough, this label’s specialty was disco and they were one of the most influential disco record labels and one of the few to survive the decline of disco in the early 80s.
Robin Sarstedt, Peter Sarstedt’s younger brother got a hit with “My Resistance Is Low” – reaching #3 in the UK.
Starland Vocal Band released the song “Afternoon Delight”. The song is notorious for being one of the worst songs of the decade (watch Todd in the Shadows’ video of worst songs of 1976), but it was a commercial success with the song going #1 and the group winning a Grammy for best vocal arrangement for voices. One of the singers, Margot Chapman is Asian and was born in Hawaii. Anyway, here’s the original (P.S. listen to the Anchorman version instead, it’s funnier):
We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions by Queen was released. These songs are almost always played back to back! Can’t play “We Will Rock You” without playing “We Are The Champions” afterward.
Also in 1977, British disco band Gonzalez, with lead singer Lenny Zakatek (born in Karachi, in modern day Pakistan – Note: at the time of his birth British India was not partitioned yet), released the disco hit “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet”. Lenny Zakatek was inspired by Motown from the time he toured US military bases with his band, The Trailblazers. Alan Parsons produced his first solo album and he later on worked with The Alan Parsons Project.
Singaporean Rex Goh joined Australian band Air Supply as their guitarist. Rex Goh moved to Australia when he was 21. His biggest influences were The Shadows and Eric Clapton. He also is a fan of progressive rock band Yes. He was with Air Supply for a short period of time, before focussing on getting a Diploma of Jazz Studies. In the 80s he did a lot of session work, making him one of “Australia’s ‘most heard’ guitarists”.
1978: Van Halen release their first album, a self-titled debut. One of their most famous songs is on this album, “Runnin’ With The Devil”
Epilogue: The 1980s and Beyond
“Games People Play” by The Alan Parsons Project was released as a single in 1980. The lead vocalist was Lenny Zakatek from disco group Gonzalez. Zakatek also sang on “I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You”.
Bands such as The Smashing Pumpkins (James Iha – Japanese American), Dream Theater (John Myung – Korean American), Soundgarden (Kim Thayil – Indian American), Journey (Arnel Pineda – Filipino), and Metallica (Kirk Hammett – part Filipino) have Asian band members.
Hawaiian born Tia Carrere (born to Filipino parents) was in Wayne’s World, playing Cassandra – a bassist and singer. Here’s a few clips from that movie. As well, the movie was released shortly after the death of Freddie Mercury. There was one scene where Wayne, Garth, and friends head bang to Bohemian Rhapsody.
Chromeo are an electro-funk duo from Canada. They describe themselves as “the only successful Arab/Jewish partnership since the dawn of human culture.” If you like Daft Punk, you might like them. Two of their most famous songs are “Fancy Footwork” from 2007 and “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” from 2014.
Nowadays there are K-Pop and J-Pop fandoms around the world. Notably, “Gangnam Style” got popular back in 2012 and is the most viewed video on YouTube. It went to #1 in the UK and #2 in the US. K-Rock and J-Rock are also popular.