Friday, October 19, 2007

From Mokpo Tears to Vegas Cheers

I went to an eclectic little party yesterday evening for a new production company that is dedicated to putting together a film and a musical about the Kim Sisters.

The Kim Sisters were Sook-ja, Mi-a and Ai-ja Kim, a trio that began singing of US troops in 1954. They were the three of the seven children of Kim Hae-song, a classical music conductor who was captured and killed by the North Koreans during the Korean War, and Lee Nan-Young, one of Korea's most famous singers before the War, perhaps best known for THE TEARS OF MOKPO.

Lee had been singing for the foreign troops, to earn enough money for them to survive, when one day she got the idea of having three of her daughters sing, too. The girls did not know English, so they learned the songs phonetically. Just 13, 12 and 11 years old at the time, the first song they sang was the Hoagy Carmichael tune OLE BUTTERMILK SKY.

The show went well and soon the sisters were singing regularly, all the popular music and early rock'n'roll of the day. Soldiers would give them chocolate bars, which in turn they would trade in for real food on the black market, but it was enough to get by. In 1958 they were discovered by an American agent who booked them into the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas, as part of a show called the China Doll Review. The three of them earned $400 a month. After a month at the Thunderbird, they were picked up by another Vegas hotel, the Stardust, where they played for eight months.

In 1959 they got their big break when they were asked to play on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan was, of course, huge back then, and being on his show made the Kim Sisters a nationally known act. Over the next 14 years, they would perform on Sullivan 22 times, the most of any performer (at least according to what I have read). They were on all the big TV shows of the day, they were featured in LIFE and NEWSWEEK and other magazines. Far from singing for chocolate, the Kim Sisters eventually were making around $13,000 a week.

They kept performing in Vegas and elsewhere for years, although after they got married in the 1970s, the act pretty much came to an end. Ai-ja died in 1987 of lung cancer, but they other two sisters are still alive and living in the United States still.

It certainly looks like a pretty interesting story. Given how popular musicals are in Korea these days, I am guessing they could have the most luck with that genre. But who knows?

They definitely have some interesting people helping them out. At the opening party was a broad mix of producers, actors, artists, writers, and assorted bigwigs. I'll restrain myself from dropping names, but it was quite a cool event.

Btw, I am not skipping the production company's name to be coy or because I am forgetful. They had a name chosen, but they found a problem with it, so now they are looking for a new name.

Btw 2, that first link about the Kim Sisters in turn linked to a long and rather interesting interview with Kim Sook-ja, aka Sue Kim Bonafazio, as part of some oral history project at UNLV.

Btw 3, I also found this link interesting.


Anonymous said...

Reading about that was pretty cool. Thanks for sharing.

patrik said...

Great post. The sort of history that's hard to come by in Korea. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I recently saw all 22 Ed Sullivan performances by the Kim Sisters on a bootleg DVD. They were amazing! Not only were their harmonies tight, but they were featured playing a different instrument in each performance. In one episode, all three sisters are seen playing a xylophone at the same time at breakneck speed with precision. I would love to own their album and I am going to check Amazon for it right now.

Ben said...

Hi anonymous said,

I'm really interested in the Kim Sisters and you mentioned that you saw all their Ed Sullivan performances on a DVD. I would like to talk to you, so would you email me at

jooyoung said...

hi thanks for the post. im a Korean visual artist here in Bergen Norway, i would love have the song of Kims song can u tell me where i can buy or download a song?.. as i only saw from the u-tube. thanks.

Anonymous said...

Here is a YouTube performance of The Kim Sisters on Hollywood Palace

Ronald Vaughan said...

Hey,neat comment about that bootleg

A company called SOFA Entertainment
(Andrew Solt Productions) owns the
"Ed Sullivan" Show tapes.

As these ones haven't been seen in
FORTY's past time that
they be allowed on YouTube as
"fair use" or something!

The KIM SISTERS are a valuable
contribution to musical history.

Here were ladies from a foreign
country playing instruments like
electric guitar,bass,steel guitar
that were previously taboo to women
here! They were on Monument Records
...based out of Music City in
Nashville...guess the record labels
kind of didn't know what to do with
an all-female Korean band,LOL!!

I met "Sue" Kim in 1982...when the
band played at the now-defunct
"Kono Hawaii" [sic] club,in Santa

wayne said...

As a teen age birthday gift my party had a stage front table at the long gone Cave Supper Club in Vancouver Canada. To this day I can remember the show. 1958-59

Robert said...

I picked them up and delivered them back home several times while stationed near Seoul. They performed at our club. This was during 1954 & 1955. Their transportation was the back of a deuce and a half.

Mark Russell said...

Hi Bob - Thanks for the comment. Very interesting. If you have a moment, please drop me an email (koreapopwars at gmail), as I would love to hear more.

Hart Collins said...

Hart Collins said....
They used to play at our company's enlisted men's club just outside of Seoul Korea in 1954. Their entertainment was great for the moral of the company. We were always glad to see their act.