By Emily Brandenstein| November 27, 2015 |
In 1960, Korean import the Kim Sisters became an American pop culture phenomenon—and brought their girl-group stylings to the Chicago stage.
The Kim Sisters’ nightclub act of American standards was a big hit with crowds at the Edgewater Beach Hotel’s Polynesian Village, where the trio performed in 1960.
From the McGuire Sisters to the Chordettes (remember “Mr. Sandman”?) to later acts like the Shirelles, the Ronettes, and the Supremes, girl groups ruled the airways in the 1950s and ’60s, and Chicago saw dozens of these performers pass through the city in their quest for musical stardom. The most unlikely success story among them might just have been The Kim Sisters.
Born in Seoul, the talented trio—sisters Ai-ja and Sook-ja and their cousin Min-ja—together played more than 20 musical instruments and first gained attention by entertaining American GIs stationed in Seoul during the Korean War with renditions of feel-good American tunes like “Ole Buttermilk Sky” and “Candy and Cake.” The performers particularly impressed a soldier from small-town Marengo, Illinois, named Bob McMackin, who offered to be their manager. Encouraged by their early success, The Kim Sisters, with McMackin’s help, made their way to the States, bringing a fresh look and sound with their quirky takes on American pop standards. The act landed in Las Vegas—and hit it big. By 1959, the singers had signed their first booking: a four-week running show at the Thunderbird Hotel, followed by a residency at the Stardust Hotel, where The Ed Sullivan Show was filming. The trio auditioned for Sullivan’s show, made it on, and returned to the show a whopping 24 times.
On tour in Chicago in 1960, the trio graced the stages of the old Edgewater Beach Hotel and the Gate of Horn folk club on the near North Side and gained a devoted following. (A Chicago Tribune article publicizing their Chicago show dates notes, “Chicago has become [a] second home to them—one of their liveliest numbers is the song ‘Chicago, My Home Town.’”) Not bad for three young women in a foreign country who didn’t speak a single word of English when they arrived, aside from the song lyrics they had memorized. As Min-ja explained in a 2011 interview, the language barrier ultimately didn’t matter to their fans. “They just loved us,” she said. “Our pronunciation was bad, but they knew the melody and always said, ‘More, more, more!’”