Monday, April 18, 2011

Speaking in Tongues

Several years ago, I was listening to a show on an oldies station in New York City that replayed the Top Ten for that week from a year in the late Fifties or Sixties. This particular week, there was a jaunty but otherwise unremarkable tune from 1959, sung completely in German. It was called "Morgen," and the singer was a Yugoslav named Ivo Robic.

My initial reaction to hearing this song was that surely this happened in the golden age of payola, because no listeners would ever want to hear a pop song like this, in a language almost none of the audience could understand. On the other hand, why someone would pay to get Ivo Robic on the radio? (The full credit on the record reads "Ivo Robic and the Song-Masters," which makes me think someone might have been pulling our leg with this entire production.)

Still, there have been a fair number of foreign-language pop hits, some of which I even like. By my count there have been five Number One songs in languages other than English, although I'm not going to tell you what they are right now, so you can see how many of them you can recall.

One song I'm not including is Nena's "99 Luftballons," which my source (The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits) lists as a foreign-language song. Although the German version got some airplay (and some face time on MTV), it is my recollection that the "wary, wary superscary" English single was the one that went to Number Two in 1984. Anyway, with the customary caveat that I may have missed something while compiling this list, here are the songs in foreign tongues that have landed themselves on Billboard's Top Forty:

"Lullaby of Birdland," by Blue Stars, went to Number 16 in 1956, in French The vocalist on this song was the future cabaret star Blossom Dearie.

"Liechtensteiner Polka," by Will Glahe and His Orchestra, went to Number 16 in 1957, in German

"Lazy Mary (Luna Mezzo Mare)," by Lou Monte, went to Number 12 in 1958, in Italian

"Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare),"
by Domenico Modugno, went to Number One in 1958, in Italian I think if you asked 100 people what the name of this song was, 98 would say "Volare."

"Torero," by Renata Carosone, went to Number 18 in 1958, in Italian

"Marina," by Rocco Granata and the International Quintet, went to Number 31 in 1959, in Italian

"La Bamba," by Ritchie Valens, went to Number 22 in 1959, in Spanish It reached the Top Forty two weeks before Ritchie's death.

"Morgen," by Ivo Robic and the Song-Masters, went to Number 13 in 1959, in German

"Jealous of You (Tango Della Gelosia),"
by Connie Francis, went to Number 19 in 1960, in Italian She was born Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero; this song was the B-side of "Everybody's Somebody's Fool."

"Al Di La,"
by Emilio Pericoli, went to Number 6 in 1962, in Italian My goodness, people loved Italian pop songs in this era. No wonder we needed the Beatles.

"Sukiyaki," by Kyu Sakamoto, went to Number One in 1963, in Japanese

"El Watusi," by Ray Barretto, went to Number 17 in 1963, in Spanish

"Dominique," by the Singing Nun, went to Number One in 1963, in French

by the Sandpipers, went to Number Nine in 1966, in Spanish

"Louie, Louie," by the Sandpipers, went to Number 30 in 1966, in Spanish I know you don't believe me, that a slowed-down version of "Louie, Louie," sung in Spanish by a proto-wimp-rock vocal trio, would even exist, much less be a hit, so here it is:

"Pata Pata," by Miriam Makeba, went to Number 12 in 1967, in Xhosa (!)

"Corazon," by Carole King, went to Number 37 in 1973, in Spanish

"Eres Tu," by Mocedades, went to Number 9 in 1974, in Spanish

"La Bamba," by Los Lobos, went to Number One in 1987

"Sadeness Part 1," by Enigma, went to Number 5 in 1991, in Latin and French The follow-up, "Return to Innocence," is not listed as a foreign-language song, so apparently all that hollerin' is in no language at all.

by Los Del Rio, went to Number One in 1996, in Spanish

Footnote: While researching this post, I read the Wikipedia page for "Dominique," which contains the following extraordinary passage: "It was the second foreign language song to hit #1 on the Hot 100 in 1963, the other being 'Sukiyaki' by Kyu Sakamoto. No other foreign language song reached the US Top 40 Billboard charts until the Spanish language hit 'Eres tĂș' hit the US charts in 1973." That's all well and good, except that "Volare" hit Number One on the Hot 100 in 1958 (it was actually the second-ever Number One following the introduction of the Hot 100 on August 4, 1958, after Ricky Nelson's "Poor Little Fool"), and there were four other foreign-language songs in the Top Forty between "Dominique" and "Eres Tu." Oh, and "Eres Tu" made it to the Top Forty on February 16, 1974, not 1973. Otherwise, spot on.


  1. What language is the Chakachas' "Jungle Fever" in?

  2. Billboard classifies it as an instrumental, which is why I didn't include it. For what it's worth, everyone in the band was Belgian, except the vocalist, who was Cuban. I don't speak any languages other than English, so I couldn't tell you what she was saying.

  3. And don't get me started on Dylan.

  4. This is a fantastic list! Thanks so much. You can now update it with "Gangnam Style" by Psy, the first (?) Korean song to chart. It's now at #11.