By David Teszar
Have you heard of the Kim Sisters and their remarkable success story? Composed of Sook-ja, Ai-ja and Mia (also known as Min-ja), they started singing in Seoul during the Korean War (1950-1953) as little children to entertain American GIs and later became national sensations in the United States with their unique combination of singing, dancing and playing more than 20 different musical instruments. Mia Kim, now living in Hungary, talked about this larger-than-life tale of three penniless sisters ― actually two ― who conquered Las Vegas and played more than 20 times on ``The Ed Sullivan Show” through this interview.
Q: Please tell us about the background of the formation of the Kim Sisters
A: During the Korean War, we lost our homes and we didn’t have any money. We came from a musical family ― my father (Lee Bong-ryong) was a famous composer, my uncle (Kim Hae-song) was also a noted composer and my aunt (Lee Nan-young) was a singer ― therefore even as young girls we were always singing and had a natural talent in this field. My father and my aunt decided to form the Kim Sisters, so one day my aunt came to me and asked if I would like to take part in the group. I was a very shy girl, but I had to say yes because at that time it was a matter of survival. In a way we can say that my aunt adopted me and the Kim Sisters were born in 1954.
Q: Are you saying that you are actually the cousin and not the sister of Sook-ja and Ai-ja?
A: That’s right. I’m their first cousin. You know, my aunt wanted it that way (”sisters”), but we actually felt like sisters.
Q: How did you become famous among the U.S. troops?
A: My aunt had an American record that contained two songs, ``Ole Buttermilk Sky” and ``Candy & Cake.” Although we couldn’t speak a word of English, we memorized these two songs and sang them to the GI troops along with my aunt. They just loved us. Our pronunciation was bad, but they knew the melody and always said, ``More, more, more!” We didn’t know more songs, so we kept repeating these two over and over again. That’s how our career started. The soldiers told us we should go to the U.S., because we could make a lot of money there. They also told us that when they would go back to the U.S., they are were going to spread the information about us and one day we would perform in America. We were entertaining the U.S. troops every year and we waited and waited, but nothing happened, so eventually gave up on the American Dream.
Q: Well, it seems you only had to wait a bit longer. When did you get your first contract in Las Vegas?
A: It was in 1959 when Tom Ball was producing an Oriental show in Las Vegas and booked us into the Thunderbird Hotel. He told us, ``I will sign you girls for four weeks. If you’re successful, I will renew the contract, if you’re not, you can pack and go back home.” He was a tough-rough businessman who brought us to America and made us a big success.
Q: Such a big success that you were featured on ``The Ed Sullivan Show” in the same year?
A: After performing at the Thunderbird Hotel, we went to play at the lounge of the Stardust Hotel. We were lucky because the ``The Ed Sullivan Show” was shot there and our agent managed to get us a part in the show. This is how we became a nationally known act. You know, Ed Sullivan really loved us, so he invited us back to his show more than 20 times.
Q: What do you think, was the success formula of the Kim Sisters?
A: Firstly, our timing was perfect. When we started our career in the U.S., there were no Oriental acts as such. We were the first Oriental band that could play Western music and was good at it. We were singing, dancing and playing more than twenty different instruments. Also, we created entertaining stage personalities, you know, the three of us had particular roles. Sook-ja was tall and sexy, Ai-ja was the funny comedian and I was Ai-ja’s partner in comedy with a deadpan expression. So Americans loved us immediately. We were very fortunate.
Q: After the Kim Sisters became famous, did you have concerts outside the U.S.?
A: Of course, we were constantly travelling and had only two weeks of vacation in a year. We performed in Canada, Italy and many other European countries.
Q: What about your home country, South Korea? Did you go back as a well-known, popular girl group?
A: Oh yes, we did go back in the 1960s and it was like a house on fire. The Koreans knew that we made a big success in America, so everybody loved and respected us. Sook-ja and the Kim Brothers went back again to perform, but at that time I was not involved with the band.
Q: What was the reason that you quit the band?
A: In 1967 all three of us got married. I married a Hungarian musician, Tommy Vig, Sook-ja and Ai-ja married two Italian men. My aunt was a very wise lady because she always told us, ``Don’t get involved with a man, because if that happens, your career will be over.” She was right, you know, the priority was instantly changed and after I gave birth to my son, I wanted to be a full-time mother. Also, as we had husbands in our lives, we began to have disagreements and conflicts, so I moved to Los Angeles with my husband in 1970.
Q: What happened to the Kim Sisters afterwards?
A: First, Sook-ja and Ai-ja replaced me with their own older sister. She performed with them for a little while, but as far as I know, she also quit. Then they invited their brothers (the Kim Brothers) to the act and played in Las Vegas until the early 1990s.
Q: What did you do after you moved to Los Angeles?
A: I was a full-time mother and sang only occasionally in my husband’s big band. So in the ’70s, singing became a hobby instead of a job.
Q: Why did you decide to move to Hungary in 2006 with your husband?
A: America has changed. It used to offer great jobs for jazz musicians, either composing, playing or working for movie studios. Those days are gone. If you’re not a rock’n’ roll star, they don’t recognize you. My husband thought the quality of music is very low in the U.S. and decided to come back to his home country. As you may know, he was a child prodigy playing the drums and immigrated to the U.S. after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. He has childhood friends here as well as musicians who were close to him. He was invited many times to Hungary during the communist rule to perform on radio and to hold jazz concerts with his big band. So we very often visited Hungary in the past.
Q: Do you have any plans to do a reunion concert?
A: No. Unfortunately we drifted away and I do not keep contact with Sook-ja and the Kim Brothers. (Ai-ja died in 1987 of lung cancer.) But I still play occasionally with my husband in Hungary. He will have a concert this fall in Budapest introducing his new big band jazz album that has recently come out and I am going to perform with him.
David Teszar is a contributing writer to The Korea Times from Hungary. ― ED.