Lots of different kinds of songs become hits in the United States, but one that almost all of them have in common (unless they are instrumentals) is that they are sung in English. Once in a while, though, a recording in a foreign tongue will break through and become a huge hit. Here’s a mostly forgotten Top 5 record from late 1960 into early 1961 that, except for a spoken-word narration, was sung entirely in German. More than 20 years would pass until another German-language hit was bigger. Today’s selection from The Top 1,000 Hits of the 1960s is about that song, which was like some U.S. hits in one way: It was the B-side of the single when it was released in West Germany.
Sailor (Your Home Is the Sea) / Lolita / Kapp K-349X
(Total points: 1,405 / Chart debut: 10/24/1960 / Chart peak: 5 / Weeks on chart: 18)
The American pop charts rarely include songs in languages other than English. Every so often, though, one will break through and become a surprise hit. Such was the case with “Sailor (Your Home Is the Sea),” a slow-building Top 5 smash for the Austrian singer Lolita.
Her real name was Edith “Ditta” Zusa Einzinger. Born on January 17, 1931, her producers gave her the name “Lolita,” inspired by the title character in Vladimir Nabokov’s best-selling 1955 book. She was a kindergarten teacher when she made her first single, “Der weiße Mond von Maratonga” (English: “The White Moon of Maratonga”), for the German Polydor label in 1957. The song hit #2 on the West German charts, and she was on her way.
On December 15, 1959, Lolita recorded two sides of a new single, “La Luna” and the quickly written and performed B-side, “Seemann (Deine Heimat ist das Meer).” However, German-speaking countries preferred the flip, and “Seemann” became her biggest hit since her debut when it got to #2 in West Germany in June 1960.
Deutsche Grammophon, Polydor’s parent label, had a deal with Decca Records in the U.S. through which the American label could pick up the rights to anything it wanted from any of its labels. But Decca passed on “Seemann,” figuring that a German-language song would never make it as a hit in the States. The song was then offered to Kapp Records, which had just released “Banjo Boy” by Jan and Kjeld, a duo from Copenhagen, Denmark; that single made the Hot 100 in the U.S. in the summer of 1960. Kapp picked up “Seemann” and issued the song in its original German, but with the translated title “Sailor (Your Home Is the Sea),” in August 1960. Before the song was released in the States, a spoken-word narration in English was dubbed over Lolita’s vocal about a minute and 30 seconds into it. Contrary to some reports, this was not added after its U.S. release; Billboard reviewed the single in its September 12, 1960 edition and specifically mentioned the narration.
More than a month later, “Sailor” entered the Hot 100 at #76; it reached its peak of #5 just before Christmas and slowly dropped thereafter. It was the biggest German-language hit in the history of the Billboard charts to that time, a record that would not be surpassed until “99 Luftballons” by Nena peaked at #2 in 1984.
Lolita never had another American hit, but four albums of her German-language music were issued by Kapp and its “international” label, 4 Corners of the World. She died in Salzburg, Austria, on June 30, 2010.
Collector’s notes: “Sailor (Your Home Is the Sea)” was one of the last 45s released on Kapp’s original silver and maroon label. Two different type styles exist on that label. The single was also issued on a transitional blue label with an eight-pointed maroon star, which was only used during part of 1960. But most copies are on the Kapp label that was black with the word “Kapp” in red across the top; this variation exists with two different typefaces. “Sailor” was also issued with a picture sleeve.
Fast fact: A complete set of English lyrics was written in 1961. Because the German version was a hit in the United States, the first recordings of that version to be released were in England. One of them was by Petula Clark, a show-business veteran in Europe but at that time unknown in the U.S.