Friday, June 1, 2012


In 2011 we lost an amazing singer, actor and relief activist. Sadly not many people out outside of Japan under the age of 60 have any idea who this man is and it's a shame, because he is quite possibly the most influential rock/reggae artist to come out of Japan. I hope after you read this you will see what a truly amazing and genuine person we lost last year.

Joe Yamanaka  was born Akira Yamanaka on September 2nd 1946 in Yokohama, Japan, right in the middle of World War II. Born to a Japanese mother and a Jamaican father who was serving in the U.S. Army at the time, Joe was raised in a very poor family and never met his father. When his mother and foster father died, Joe was sent to live in an orphanage. Born with Tuberculosis, Joe said that he never thought about his biological father and that those who raise you are your true parents. At the age of 16 he decided to leave the orphanage and become a boxer, inspired by his childhood idol; famous boxer Hiroyuki Ebihara to earn money. It was on his path to becoming a boxer, using the name of Akira Joh after his favorite artist Keito Joh, Joh being the reason he decided to take the name Joe in later years, that he met his life-long friend, a Japanese-Sicilian born boxer by the name of Rikiya Yasuoka. Somewhere along the way the two decided to try and start a career in acting and in 1963 they starred in the Japanese film Bicycle Thieves. However things were about to take yet another turn in Joe's life, one that would impact his life in more ways than he would ever know.

After the release of Bicycle Thieves, Joe met another life-long friend Johnny Yoshinaga, who persuaded Joe to become a musician and in 1969, Joe joined The Flower Travellin' Band which had originally started as a side project of famous singer Yuya Uchida after he returned from Europe after touring with The Beatles and meeting a young Jimi Hendrix. FTB released their first album with Joe on vocals, Satori in 1971, having released one album before he had joined. In 1972 the band relocated to Canada and become friends with Canadian band Lighthouse and relocated to Toronto where they recorded their second album Made in Japan. In 1973 FTB were scheduled to play with The Rolling Stones, but were unable to because of customs denying Mick Jagger's visa due to drug arrests, but managed to reschedule and in February released a live/studio album called Make Up. With one last performance in April at the famous Maruyama Park in Kyoto, FTB then went on a short hiatus so everyone could focus on their solo projects, but the hiatus would go on to last longer than anyone had thought. 

In 1974, free from working with FTB, Joe released his first solo album simply titled JOE and released 8 more over the course of 7 years with 2 in 1977 and '88 respectively. During his time as a solo artist, Joe began traveling the world as a volunteer for disaster relief and began working for the Japan International Cooperation Agency, traveling to more than 30 countries over the span of 20 years. It was along the way that while doing aid work in Jamaica that Joe was introduced to the wonders of Reggae and became good friends with Reggae legend Bob Marley and in 1981 after Bob died, Joe went on to join Bob's band The Wailers for 5 years and released a series of Reggae Vibration albums while still managing to do relief work and release a new solo album, but would not release another until '86 which was commemorated his 20 years in music titled 20th ANNIVERSARY

Joe continued to release solo albums and do relief aid, until in 2007, something amazing happened and The Flower Travellin' Band reunited and a year later, after 35 years since their last, they released their new album We Are Here in September and released a DVD of their final show of the tour called Resurrection in March of 2009. FTB were back and in full force, they had released their new album and had just finished their nation wide tour and a  U.S. tour, but in 2010 things came to a crashing hault. The unthinkable had happened and the future of The Flower Travellin' Band was uncertain. The worst thing possible had happened...

In March of 2010 FTB released a statement that they were no longer touring and all recording for their new album had ceased. Joe announced that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, but he had begun to receive treatments and was optimistic that he would recover and that FTB would return soon. Over the course of the next year Joe remained optimistic and was on the road to a steady recovery, but in September the cancer had spread further and there was a very slim chance that he could recover. Over the course of the year Joe began to realise that he wasn't going to get any better and slowly, but thankfully ended up accepting his fate with as positive an outlook as one could have about death.

Joe Yamanaka died at 6:56 AM on August 7th 2011 at Yokosuka Hospital in Kanagawa. He was 64. 

It's been nearly a year, but every time I think about it I come close to tears, although I know Joe would hate for anyone to be sad because he died, because he's in a better place. With a career that spanned 45 years, Joe Yamanaka reached countless people through his work as an aid relief worker and as a solo artist and singer of The Flower Travellin' Band. I know this sounds like it should possibly be a Flower Travellin' Band profile, but honestly you can't talk about one and not the other because Joe was the face of the band. On the bright side Joe is hanging out with all of his friends and probably having concerts in the afterlife with John Lennon and Bob Marley and someday he will be with his friends Yoko Ono and Mickey Curtis. We lost an amazing man last year, but his life, love and music will live on forever.

I hope you check out the Flower Travellin' Band and Joe's solo works. A DVD of never before seen live footage of Joe's solo project from around the world over the years was released yesterday and they recently began re-releasing his solo works, including a tribute compilation album and The Flower Travellin' Band have the aforementioned live DVD of the reunion. You can also purchase FTB's latest and probably last album We Are Here on iTunes U.S.

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