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Bob McGrath – from Showa-dori to Sesame Street

March 10, 2012

Lots of singers and other performers end up in Japan one way or another, and it’s not that uncommon for them to achieve a measure of success here that outweighs what they were able to generate in their home countries. For most of the ones that start out here, “Big in Japan” is as far as they ever get, but some manage to parlay it into a springboard to fame back home and worldwide.

One example I discovered recently was Bob McGrath, an American-born tenor who performed with the Mitch Miller Orchestra in the early 1960s before traveling to Japan as soloist, where he found success singing Irish ballads and other tunes in English and Japanese. In this clip, with stills of his albums and from his performances, he sings Koji no Tsuki (“荒城の月) in Japanese:

If he looks at all familiar, you may recognize him from the TV show he joined in 1969, soon after returning from Japan, and where he is still performing today, over 40 years later:

Yes, that’s the same Bob we grew up watching on Sesame Street. I purchased a set of the early-season DVDs for my own son a little while back, and while thumbing through the booklet that came with it, there was a trivia note saying that Bob had been a “pop star” in Japan before joining the show. My older in-laws didn’t recognize the name, so I did a bit of searching on YouTube and found these:

Bob singing a variation of  “Jingle Bells” in English and Japanese”

Kaze no Yureteru Oka ni (風のゆれてる丘に) / On the Windy Hill

Koi no Sasurai (恋のさすらい) / Love’s Wanderings

During his time in Japan, Bob came back to appear on To Tell The Truth, where the contestants had to guess which of the three panelists was the real Bob McGrath. It doesn’t seem that the other two had done much preparation, since they could hardly answer any of the questions about Japan or Irish ballads. Some of the contestants also seemed to know a fair bit about Tokyo (I’ve been here over 15 years and I don’t know what’s in Kami-Meguro).  They guess correctly, and he rewards them with one of his songs.

They mention in the opening that he’d performed at the Copa Cabana and the Latin Quarter in Tokyo. After reading about some of the things that went on in those clubs in Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld, Bob’s gentle demeanor seems like an odd fit.

He also appeared on I’ve Got a Secret, where the contestants have to guess that Bob has been performing in Japan (they must not have seen the To Tell The Truth episode). I love his rendition of “Home on the Range” in enka style.

Unfortunately, Bob didn’t appear in the 1988  Sesame Street TV movie “Big Bird in Japan”. That would have made an interesting addition to the show.

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