The public knows Yoko Ono is Japanese, but is largely unaware of her family background

All Beatles fans – and the world at large- know that Yoko Ono is Japanese, but the majority may not know her family’s background. A previous post on this blog, “Linda McCartney vs. Yoko Ono: Rivalry and Comparisons” mentioned the irony that while Yoko and Linda may have had a healthy rivalry, they were similar in so many ways: both came from wealthy families who lived in the posh NYC suburb of Scarsdale, NY; both attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY but both left to pursue their artistic interests prior to earning a degree; both came from wealthy families with a father who was a high-achiever and with a mother who hailed from “old money”. That blog post about Linda McCartney and Yoko Ono gave a glimpse into Yoko’s largely unknown world in Japan.

Born in Tokyo in 1933, Yoko Ono was born into a family that had been well-known throughout Japan for generations. Yoko’s mother was a Yasuda, a family name associated with the powerful zaibatsu, financial, commercial, and industrial worlds that fueled Japan’s business empire. Her great-grandfather was Zenjiro Yasuda, the founder of the Bank of Tokyo.

Yoko’s maternal grandfather was Zensaburo Iomi who married the daughter of Zenjiro Yasuda. Zenjiro Yasuda, the founder of the Bank of Tokyo, was by far the wealthiest businessman in Japan. Upon marrying into the family, Zensaburo Iomi was appointed chairman of the family bank and elected to the House of Peers. Some years later, as was not unheard of in the circle of the wealthy Japanese elite, Zenjiro Yasuda cut his daughter and son-in-law out of his will, which at the time was estimated to be the equivalent of one billion dollars, which was more money than the wealthiest person in the U.S. at the time had. Yasuda cut them out of the will immediately before he was assassinated by a radical leftist in 1921.

Zensaburo Iomi and his wife had to carry on with the stigma of the public knowing they had been cut out of a gigantic fortune. The couple’s eighth and final child, Isoko, grew up in extreme privilege with a mother who was a Yasuda.

Isoko married Eisuke Ono, who though not wealthy was from a long line of famous samurai warriors. The Ono family produced many famous academics, musicians and painters; in addition, Eisuke’s mother, Tsuruko, was considered Japan’s foremost pioneering feminist.

Eisuke Ono was a nationally ranked golfer and classically trained pianist who attempted to pursue a career as a concert pianist prior to choosing the more practical business route. A graduate of University of Tokyo, he spoke English and French fluently, which was a definite asset as he began his banking career with the prestigious Yokohama Specie Bank. He was posted to work in his first overseas assignment in the U.S. in 1933 to run the bank’s operation in San Francisco, which meant he did not see his daughter Yoko until after she was two years old. Ironically, Yoko’s uncle, Kese ,was the first Japanese ambassador to the United Nations.

Eisuke Ono’s career brought him back home to Tokyo in 1937, but then he moved his family back to New York in 1940 and then to Hanoi. The Ono family returned to Tokyo in 1943.

Yoko’s academic career in Tokyo began at the famous Gukushuin school in Tokyo. After returning from New York, she went to primary school at the highly prestigious Keimei Gukuen, an exclusive Christian primary school run by the famous Mitsui family. After the war, Yoko re-enrolled at the Gukushuin, after it re-opened. The school was near the Imperial Palace and one of Yoko’s classmates and close friends was Prince Akihito, who of course was the future emperor.

Yoko’s academics during high school at Gukushuin were impressive enough that she was offered acceptance into Gukushuin University’s philosophy department in 1951, becoming the first woman ever to enroll in the program. However, she only stayed two semesters before leaving to join her parents in Scarsdale, New York, as her father was named president of the Bank of Tokyo in the U.S. and worked in Manhattan’s financial district.

While living in Scarsdale with her parents, she attended Sarah Lawrence College. She left Sarah Lawrence in 1956 without a degree to both pursue her artistic interests and elope to marry famous composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, whom she would formally divorce in 1963 after a couple of years apart. In the age of YouTube, Toshi Ichiyanagi’s vast works are very well represented on the internet.

While most people may not be aware of Yoko Ono’s powerful family background in Japan, needless to say when she connected with and later married John Lennon, people in Japan were totally aware of her family background to say the least.

George’s “This Song” a commentary on infamous copyright lawsuit

The George Harrison song “This Song” receives little airplay among the catalog of solo hits by ex-Beatles. It entered the Top 40 of The Billboard Hot 100 and reached # 25. It was the first single released off of the album Thirty-three and 1/3.

“This Song” and Thirty-Three and 1/3 got a boost when Paul Simon hosted the November 20, 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live and George was the musical guest. The video for “This Song” was played on Saturday Night Live, giving the ex-Beatle’s new song national exposure via the medium of rock video some five years prior to the 1981 launch of MTV. On this episode of Saturday Night Live, for the musical segment Simon and Harrison did a duet of both the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Homeward Bound” and the Harrison-penned Beatles classic “Here Comes the Sun“.

George Harrison wrote “This Song” in response to the lawsuit filed against him for alleged plagiarism on account of his 1971 number hit “My Sweet Lord” sounding similar to the “He’s So Fine”, the classic by The Chiffons that topped the charts for four weeks in March/April 1963. It was written by Ronald Mack.

Marc Shapiro’s 2002 biography Behind Sad Eyes: The Life of George Harrison contains the passage, “On September 7, 1976, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Owens found that while he did not feel that George had ‘deliberately’ plagiarized the song ‘He’s So Fine’, there was substantial evidence that he did infringe on the song’s copyright. George was found guilty and ordered to pay damages in the amount of $587,000.”

It quotes George as cynically saying in the aftermath of the court’s decision. “I don’t even want to touch the guitar or piano in case I’m touching somebody’s note. Somebody might own that note, so you’d better watch out.”

A full examination of this notorious copyright infringement lawsuit is not possible in a blog post as the subject matter is too lengthy not to mention controversial. It is safe to say that after a week of testimony in federal court in Manhattan, George Harrison channeled his feelings of frustration and anger in the proper way by writing “This Song”, which is an obvious reaction to the lawsuit.

The following lyrics are a good indication of Harrison’s frame of mind while writing the song immediately after spending a week in the court room:

This song has nothing tricky about it
This song ain’t black or white and as far as I know
Don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright, so
This song, we’ll let be, this song is in E
This song is for you and
This tune has nothing bright about it
This tune ain’t bad or good and come ever what may
My expert tells me it’s okay
As this song came to me unknowingly
This song could be, you could be
This riff ain’t trying to win gold medals
This riff ain’t hip or square, well, done or rare
End up one more weight to bear
But this song could well be
A reason to see that
Without you, there’s no point to this song
But this song could well be
A reason to see that
Without you, there’s no point to this song

After the line, “This song could be”, Monty Python’s Eric Idle chimes in with, “Could be ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch’? Naw! Sounds more like ‘Rescue Me’”. In the video, Idle’s line is lip-synched by Ronnie Wood, who the previous year joined The Rolling Stones after the dissolution of Faces. Wood is dressed up as a woman in the video.

The line “This tune has nothing bright about it” is a reference to Bright Tunes, which owned the rights to “He’s So Fine” and initiated the infamous lawsuit.

Olivia Arias, a year away from becoming Mrs. George Harrison, plays Lady Justice, appearing as a blindfolded woman in a toga holding the scales of justice. Veteran drummer Jim Keltner plays the judge.

The next song off Thirty-three and 1/3 was “Crackerbox Palace”, which reached number 17 in the U.S. in the spring of 1977.

David Bowie (R.I.P.) and John Lennon teamed up for a # 1 hit song!

When David Bowie tragically died of cancer on January 10, 2016, tributes poured in from fellow rock musicians all over the world, as well as from heads of state and major religions. The most touching tribute came from Yoko Ono who praised Bowie as being a “second father” to her son Sean. Rolling Stone ran an article the day after the flamboyant musician’s death entitled, “Yoko Ono on Bowie: ‘David Was as Close as Family’”, while Billboard published their article “Yoko Ono: David Bowie Was a ‘Father Figure’ to My Son.”

While the strong friendship between John Lennon and David Bowie cannot be adequately examined in a single blog post, this post will cover the song “Fame”, the hit song that was Bowie’s first number one hit in the U.S., and the important role that John Lennon played in the song’s creation and success.

David Bowie met John Lennon in 1974 at a party given in New York by Elizabeth Taylor. Since the ex-Beatle was an early idol of a young Bowie, the two became friendly. At the time, Bowie was experiencing a down phase in his career due to a poor management contract. Bowie’s manager at the time, the famous Tony Defries, and his management company left Bowie financially responsible for tens and tens of thousands of dollars for unsuccessful concert bookings, putting the future superstar on the brink of financial ruin. It was John Lennon who convinced Bowie to break ties with Defries and seek new management.

Bowie and Lennon had many of the same interests artistically, and they identified with their shared Irish Catholic heritage, despite neither one being a Catholic. Both stars had multiple great-grandparents who immigrated to England from Ireland. Bowie regularly spoke of the influence in his early life of his maternal grandfather, James Burns, a retired British military officer who was heavily into Irish culture and heritage.

The song “Fame” was credited to Bowie, Carlos Alomar and John Lennon. Alomar wrote a great riff and Lennon came up with the word “aim” to go along with it. Bowie changed that to “Fame” and the rest was history on the way to Bowie’s first chart-topper on The Billboard Hot 100. In the song John Lennon repeats “FAME, FAME, FAME” through a fast track and then through a slow track. It is reported that the ex-Beatle repeated the word “Fame” 23 times, and each time on a different note.

In his 2008 biography John Lennon: The Life, author Philip Norman described the magnitude of Lennon’s contribution to “Fame”, “The word and the riff gave Bowie his first number one single in America and helped launch the strutting, narcissistic disco style that would dominate record charts and pack dance clubs around the world for years to come. From rock-‘n’-roll nostalgic, John found himself suddenly catapulted to the cutting edge.”

“Fame” entered the Top 40 section of The Billboard Hot 100 on August 2, 1975, spending a total of fourteen weeks in the Top 40. It would top the Billboard charts on September 20, 1975 and stay in the top position for two weeks.

The previous two Bowie entries into the Top 40 did not fare too well. In early 1973, his famous “Space Oddity”, then four years old, was released as a single in the U.S. and climbed to # 15. A few months before “Fame” hit # 1, his “Young Americans”, which featured Luther Vandross on backing vocals and David Sanborn on saxophone, reached # 25 on the Billboard charts in May 1975. “Young Americans” mentioned both the show Soul Train and the hair product Afro-Sheen, which was a major sponsor of the weekly show Soul Train. Small wonder than that a few months later Bowie was invited to perform “Fame” on Soul Train, making him only the second Caucasian to perform on the show; Elton John had broken the race barrier on Soul Train a few months beforehand. Bowie’s famous appearance on Soul Train was covered in a January 16, 2016 Boston Globe article entitled “When David Bowie Played ‘Soul Train’”.

It should also be noted that Bowie’s first entry onto The Billboard Hot 100 was “Changes”, from the 1971 Hunky Dory LP, which was released as a single in the U.S. in January 1972. Despite peaking at # 66 and missing the coveted Top 40 by a long shot, “Changes” over time would be Bowie’s most widely played single in the U.S. The song peaked at # 15 on the UK Singles Chart.

It should be noted that “Fame” had its debut on U.S. national television on November 7, 1975 on The Cher Show. The former number one song at that point was down at number 41 on The Billboard Hot 100, but after its endorsement on national television by Cher, it shot back up to number 20 the following week.

A third single off of the Young Americans album, “Golden Years”, reached number ten on the charts in early 1976.

Bowie’s only other number one hit in the U.S. would come eight years later when “Let’s Dance” topped the charts for the week of May 21, 1983. The Let’s Dance album, produced by producer extraordinaire Nile Rodgers, also yielded the hits “China Girl” and “Modern Love”.

In the 2011 biography David Bowie: Starman, author Paul Trynka addressed Bowie’s strong friendship and working relationship with the ex-Beatle in the aftermath of “Fame”:

“For David, the album marked a happy change of setting; he never officially left Berlin, but he was fired up by his return to New York, where he could hang with a younger generation of arty New Wavers and also resume his friendship with John and Yoko under happier, more relaxed circumstances for both of them. John’s respect for David had only increased with the success of “Fame”, which put the ex-Beatle back on the charts; David still considered John, along with Mick Jagger, a role model, but his admiration for John was not intermixed with rivalry, as it was with Mick. Lennon brought out a better side of David, and he knew it. Happily, John started writing again; David admired the unique lifestyle he’d carved out, with his and Yoko’s elegant, white-carpeted, minimally furnished apartment in the Dakota, by Central Park, where John and Yoko could wander undisturbed.”

John Lennon’s influence on “Fame” is so obvious. He helped write the song, played guitar on the track, provided backing vocals, in addition to receiving a credit as a co-producer.