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Friday April 11, 2008

Blast From the Past: Kim Sisters Rock the States

Sandra Lee

Imagine a Korean sister act capturing the heart of American pop culture by singing "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog". It may sound far-fetched today, but that's exactly what America was seeing on the Ed Sullivan show in 1959.

Sue Kim was 9 years old when she and her sisters, Ai Ja and Mia, started singing for American GIs in the midst of the Korean War. The girls' mother, who was once Korea's top recording artist, selected country western songs for the girls including "Ole Buttermilk Sky" and "Candy and Cake".

Looking back, Kim said, "I don't know where she came up with these songs."

Because the girls did not speak a word of English, they learned to memorize the songs phonetically. 

"We kept memorizing songs without knowing what they meant," Kim said. "All these beautiful songs, but we didn't know what the hell we were singing." 

Luckily, the GIs didn't care. Hearing the familiar melodies was enough. And once the sisters expanded their repertoire to include Elvis Presley songs, hearing the lyrics "You can burn my house, you can steal my car . . . " coming from three young girls was no doubt a riot.

"When we learned 10 years later what the lyrics meant, we thought, Oh my God, what were we singing?"

In 1958, an American agent caught the girls' performance and booked them for a four-week engagement at the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas. The show was so good that other hotels in the area immediately booked the act. The temporary job ended up turning into a lifelong career.

The girls' next break came only a year later when Ed Sullivan got wind of the sister act and booked them on his show. Their appearance was a hit, and soon calls started pouring in from Dinah Shore and Steve Allen requesting the sister act. Over the years, the Kim Sisters would appear on the Ed Sullivan show a total of 22 times.

"We really had no clue how big we were," Kim says. "We were just grateful to be working. We ate, we worked, and we sent money to our family in Korea. [My sisters and I] shared a one-room apartment, and we thought it was just great."

Although their family had once been prosperous in Korea, the war had left them impoverished. Their father, Hae Song Kim, was an acclaimed symphony orchestra conductor, but was shot by the North Korean army for consorting with American soldiers.

Because of the Kim Sisters' enormous popularity in the United States, the girls did not take a single day off in their first year in the country. Their fan club eventually grew to include stars like Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.

All three of the sisters had married by the mid-1970s, and the group inevitably began to fall apart. In 1987, Ai Ja died of lung cancer, and Mia and Sue have since become estranged. Sue, who continued performing with her brothers, was in a car accident a few years ago, leaving her unable to perform on stage.

Since then, she has put together a documentary film on The Kim Sisters' meteoric rise to fame, and Koreana News, based in Los Angeles, has compiled a book on this important footnote in entertainment history.

Sue Kim now works as a real estate agent. "I love it. It's just like show business – you're constantly meeting and dealing with people."

Kim is impressed by the Asian Americans in entertainment today, and is an avid fan of Lucy Liu. Despite the current lack of diversity in entertainment, Kim believes that it is impossible to ignore true talent.

"If you have talent, people will accept it," Kim said.

Her only regret is that The Kim Sisters did not promote their album sufficiently – a move that could have made their fame more lasting.

"At the time, we were too busy working and nobody really thought about it," she said. Although the girls did make a record, it was not properly promoted and did not catch on.

But when asked if she would like to be 17 years old again, Kim said, "Hell no, I worked too hard when I was 17."

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