From the New York streets to the king of Japanese pop

Tunesmith Joey Carbone gets inside your head and stays there

by Wilson Whyte

Joey Carbone has been bugging me for the last 20 years. In fact, he was bugging me even before I met him. Like a constant itch, he gets inside your head and stays there.

In fact, he doesn’t even do this dirty work himself. Instead, he teaches young kids to do it and gets them to drag other young kids into his hypnotic web. If he were selling drugs, he’d be arrested. But he’s not; he’s selling songs — songs that take over your mind until they drive you crazy. He produces the goods (sometimes with a co-conspirator) and then sells them to unsuspecting music producers in Japan. This is one sick puppy.

The fact is, Joey Carbone is so friendly, he could be a little Labrador. But this little Labrador is reportedly the second-most successful foreign songwriter ever in Japan (The Beatles are No. 1). For more than 20 years, Carbone has been flying to Japan to peddle his wares.

I remember “Tokyo Girl,” a hit for Joleen two decades ago. My first Japanese girlfriend kept singing it; it’s been branded into the musical section of my brain. It’s so light and fluffy, you could feed it to a baby. What you can’t do is get rid of it.

Joey’s genius is to write pop songs that stick in your head no matter how dim or tuneless you think you are. The man’s a walking karaoke library. So how did he get from being just another talented keyboard player in the U.S. to being the king of pop in Japan?

“(Guitarist and producer) Richie Zito and I were producing and composing for John O’Banion,” Carbone said. “One of the singles went to No. 24 on the Billboard magazine charts in America, and we were invited to go to Japan for a five-city concert tour and to compete in the Tokyo Music Festival. We won the grand prize and best arranger awards.”

Carbone, an Italian-American from New York, soon found himself falling in love — with cosmopolitan Tokyo, spiritual Kyoto, and all things Japanese. “When I returned to America, I could feel some kind of magnet pulling me back towards Japan,” Carbone recalls.

“So I asked my music publisher, Tats Nagashima of Taiyo Music, to find me a Japanese project. He offered me the soundtrack for the Kadokawa movie ‘Satomi Hakken Den.’ The theme song for that movie was my first big hit in Japan.”

Carbone also came to Japan with members of The Doobie Brothers to be the backing band for rock superstar Eikichi Yazawa. The connection was established and little by little Carbone found himself composing songs for Japanese artists, TV commercials, movies, and TV, as well as introducing American singers to Japanese record companies and producing their music.

He hit paydirt when he met up with a man with the decidedly un-Japanese name of Johnny. “I met my good friend Johnny Kitagawa, the founder of Johnny’s Jimusho, in 1985, and he recorded one of my songs, which became a No. 1 hit for Shibugakitai,” says Carbone. “Since then, Johnny-san’s artists have recorded about 60 of my songs — artists such as Shonentai, SMAP, Kat-tun, Arashi, N.E.W.S. and others.” Carbone has had around 1,000 songs released in Japan, with many of them hitting No. 1 or the Top 10.

“As a foreigner working in the Japanese market, my success would not have been possible without me studying the market and adjusting to it. Most importantly, I owe my success to people like Johnny Kitagawa and other Japanese music business people who have taught me and accepted me as their friend.”

Carbone knows the value of trusting relationships in the music business and he works very, very hard at cultivating such relationships.

“I come to Japan three or four times a year and stay about four to five months in total,” Carbone notes. “I can speak Japanese a bit to get me through most situations and make people understand me, although occasionally I unintentionally get myself into trouble.”

He also understands that the market over here is quite different from that in his home country. Knowing these differences is the key to being successful in Japan.

“There are many differences both creatively and in business,” Carbone explains. “For example, creatively speaking, Japanese music usually is more melodic than contemporary Western music.

“Don’t forget, the Japanese invented karaoke and they usually like songs that have melodies that are easy to remember and sing. I find Western music these days to be focused on the ability of the singer/rapper and the songs to be very linear and groove-driven in nature. Japanese idol singers are not usually great singers, so they need great songs with interesting musical arrangements and production.

“On the business side, there are also many differences, such as the royalty system, artist management, contracts, the producer system, ways of promotion, etc.”

Carbone, who was born and grew up in New York, initially learned the piano from a Catholic nun, Sister Cynthia. At 13, he moved up to rock ‘n’ roll when he formed a band with Zito (who went on to play with Elton John and became a top music producer in the U.S.) and they were signed to Atlantic Records when Carbone was only 16. The experience he gained was immense.

“I would hang out in the recording studio and watch some of the greatest musicians, arrangers, producers, engineers and artists record.” he says.

“Legendary record makers such as Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin and Felix Pappalardi. I watched recording sessions of Aretha Franklin, Cream, The Rascals and many others. My band didn’t have any hit records, but it was an amazing learning experience for me at such a young age, and it had a great influence on me becoming a music producer.”

Carbone loved New York — “one of the most exciting and vibrant musical cities in the world” — but realized that the music business was becoming more established in California. So he moved to San Francisco for a year and then on to Los Angeles.

“Little by little, I made friends and connections, and started getting jobs as a recording and touring keyboardist. I have played keyboards backing Rick James, Elton John, Bette Midler, Britney Spears, Cher, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, The Righteous Brothers, Air Supply, Stevie Nicks, Little Richard and so on. I was signed as a staff composer for three years to Columbia/CBS Records — now Sony Records — and was the music director and theme composer for many American TV shows including nine years on ‘Star Search,’ the extremely successful predecessor of ‘American Idol.’ “

Carbone works hard for his success, writing the songs, arranging them, producing them and, most importantly, selling them (the hardest part, he says). His musical tastes range from Ken Hirai to Crystal Kay to Miyavi to The Beatles, Coldplay, Frank Sinatra, bossa nova and Beethoven. But above all, he just loves music. For him, music might be a business, but it’s also his calling.

“I didn’t get into music because I thought that it would be my career; I did it because I loved music. Even now, my favorite time is when I am playing music for free, jamming with my friends or playing piano alone at home or at church as a volunteer.

“As a matter of fact, sometimes when I get paid for my music, I almost want to give the money back because I feel guilty that I am getting paid for something I love so much. OK, I’m joking, but I feel so blessed to have been given this gift.

“I feel it is now my responsibility to help younger musicians and composers the same way that older musicians and producers helped me when I was young. There is great joy in giving!”

Joey would be happy to hear from anyone interested in a music career. E-mail him at joeyc123@earthlink.net. He’ll help if he can. And if he can’t, he’ll at least play you a tune that will stick in your brain for the rest of your life.