There's no underestimating Southern All Stars -- the band's commercially savvy blend of pop/rock that can be ironic, sentimental, or just plain erotic has made them a fundamental staple of the Japanese music scene comparable to the Carpenters in the U.S. or even the Beatles in Britain. Southern All Stars have sold over 47 million records and scored dozens of chart-toppers, and they placed number one in the prestigious survey of the most influential Japanese artists comprised by HMV Japan in 2003 -- a testament to their long-running popularity, which by that time had only grown during the three decades they had been around.
Southern All Stars were born out of a music club at the Aoyama Gakuin University, attended by one Keisuke Kuwata, an aspiring vocalist and guitarist. In the beginning, which dates back to 1975, Kuwata went through a bevy of names such as Onsen Anma Momohiki Band and Piston Kuwata & the Cylinders, but finally settled on Southern All Stars (a mix of "Fania All-Stars" and "Southern rock," shortened to Sazan or SAS) after bassist Kazuyuki Sekiguchi and keyboardist Yuko Hara -- the future wife of Kuwata -- joined the group. Their first serious career move was participating in the Yamaha EastWest ‘77 musical contest; Kuwata won the best vocalist award, and the band acquired Hiroshi Matsuda (drums), Hideyuki Nozawa (percussion), and Takashi Omori (guitar), as well as a gig with Victor Entertainment. Southern All Stars debuted in 1978 with the single "Katte ni Sindbad," which eventually climbed to number three, partly boosted by the band's extravagant live shows; they came across as a comedy band on the first two singles, but proved their musical worth with the ballad "Itoshi no Ellie" (1979), which became one of their signature songs and was even covered in 1989 by Ray Charles (for a Japan-only release). The debut album Atsui Munasawagi was released in 1978, followed by 10 Numbers Carat (1979), which was rushed by the label, leading Kuwata to dismiss it later as "trash." Still, the band's popularity was established by this point, and all of its full-lengths from Tiny Bubbles (1980) onward topped the Oricon.
The band hit troubled waters around the release of the double album Kamakura (1985), which required exhausting record sessions lasting over 1,800 hours and led to a rift between Kuwata and Sekiguchi. The album was a smash hit, but after Hara became pregnant with Kuwata's child, SAS were put on a hiatus and the bandmembers proceeded to work on solo projects, with Kuwata in particular collaborating with songwriter and famous producer Takeshi Kobayashi. However, Southern All Stars returned in 1988, and in 1989 they scored their first number one single with "Sayonara Baby" and had a mammoth chart-topper with Suika, a four-CD box set, which was still only the beginning of things to come. Kuwata seemed to start off the ‘90s with a blunder, as Inamura Jane (1990), his debut as a movie director, was panned by critics, but its original soundtrack recording went on to become the Japan's top-selling soundtrack, and the song "Manatsu no Kajitsu" spawned dozens of covers, including a Hong Kong hit by Jacky Cheung. In 1991, Sekiguchi had to quit the band temporarily for health reasons, returning in 1995, but SAS continued to scorch the charts, releasing the million-selling single "Namida no Kiss"; the album Yo ni Manyou no Hana ga Sakunari (1992), which shifted 1.8 million units; and the remix EP Enoshima (under the name Z-Dan), which was acclaimed as compilation album of the year. Kuwata also recorded the charity single "Kiseki no Hoshi" (1995) with Mr. Children (a band produced by Kobayashi). Four more million-selling singles followed until the end of ‘90s, and the full-length Young Love (1996) sold two and a half million copies, becoming the band's most successful album.
The best-selling streak continued into the 2000s, which opened with the single "Tsunami" shifting 2.9 million units, one of the best results in Japanese chart history. However, Omori soon quit the band -- some rumors ascribed this to his involvement with the Soka Gakkai religious movement -- and the rest of the members went solo again, with Kuwata producing some million-sellers under his own name. Southern All Stars returned in 2005 with the double album Killer Street, another chart-topping best-seller, but then the band's label announced that SAS would be taking another hiatus, which was, however, stated to be temporary. ~ Alexey Eremenko, Rovi