by Chris MaGee
Very sad news for fans of Japanese film and classic rock this week. Joe Yamanaka, the lead singer of psychedelic rockers Flower Travellin' Band, as well as an actor in the films of Kinji Fukasaku and Takashi Miike, lost his year-long battle with lung cancer. He passed away in a Yokosuka, Kanagawa hospital on Saturday, August 6th. He was 64.
Born Akira Yamanaka in Yokohama in 1946, Joe had a very rough upbringing. Of his six siblings Yamanaka was the only one of mixed race (his father was Jamaican). The family did their best during Japan's impoverished post-war period, but when Yamanaka was still a boy his mother passed away. He was bounced from foster home to foster home and eventually found employment at an auto repair shop in the early 1960's. It was here that he was scouted as a semi-pro boxer, but his talents in the ring were far less than his vocal talent, one that would lead him into the entertainment industry in 1965. That year Yamanaka joined the Group Sounds band 4-9-1 and it was from his role as lead singer that he would come to the attention of Japanese rock icon Yuya Uchida. Uchida had been inspired by the new crop of American and UK psychedelic blues acts like Cream and Jimi Hendrix and wanted to form a band that would act as an avenue for this music to enter Japan. In 1968 he helped found the Flower Travellin' Band ostensibly as a psychedelic cover band with Hiroshi Chiba and Remi Aso. A line-up change would lead to Uchida bringing Yamanaka, with his powerful three octave range, in as the lead singer of the band. Its this voice that would lead The Flower Travellin' Band to fame with their 1971 Uchida-produced album "Satori". Yamanaka would also contribute his vocal talents to a number of solo albums as well as collaborations with Bob Marley's band The Wailers after the reggae icon's death in 1981.
Besides his groundbreaking musical contributions Yamanaka also made his prescense felt on the big screen as well. Yamanka would make his screen debut in Toho's 1964 genre film "Car Thief" opposite fellow boxer and tough guy Rikiya Yasuoka. Yamanaka would continue to blend his rough past with his on screen persona in Kinji Fukasaku's 1968 film "Blackmail is My Life" where he played a role very close to himself: a half African-American boxer named Zero. He would work again with Fukasaku in a small role in "Black Rose Mansion" and would parlay these appearances into roles in the films of Junya Sato, Koji Wakamatsu and Takashi Miike. Miike would actually take The entire Flower Travellin' Band album "Satori" and use it as the soundtrack for his 2002 yakuza film "Deadly Outlaw Rekka". Yamanaka would co-star with his old friend Yuya Uchida and Riki Takeuchi in this project.
In recent years Yamanaka and The Flower Travellin' Band had toured throughout Japan, Europe and North America, but in 2010 Yamanaka was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer. we extend our deepest condolences to Yamanaka's friends and family during this difficult time. We'd like to remember Joe Yamanaka for his towering talent, so we leave you with his rendition of The Flower Travellin' Band's defining hit "Satori" recorded at Club Citta in Kawasaki in 2004. Thanks to Kyodo News for details on this story.