Guest Post: The Ballad of Chol Soo Lee

I'm on vacation! Taking a much-needed break. But don't worry. While I'm away, I've enlisted some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's Oliver Wang on "The Ballad of Chol Soo Lee."

On a recent visit back to the Bay Area, I stopped by my favorite record store on the planet, the Groove Merchant, and waiting for me was this 7" called "The Ballad of Chol Soo Lee." The store's owner, "Cool" Chris Veltri knows I have a thing for Asian American records and this was practically an uber-example.

Here's "The Ballad of Chol Soo Lee." And here's a scan of the back cover, complete with lyrics and credits.

Lee was an early cause célèbre within the Asian American Movement community in the Bay Area and beyond. A Korean immigrant, he was accused of murdering a gang member in S.F. Chinatown and was sent to prison for life under questionable circumstances in 1973. Just to pour salt in the wounds, he was then charged with killing a fellow inmate in 1977 and then sent to death row. The shodiness of Lee's original prosecution lead to a lengthy appeals process, lead by the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee. They evidently were behind the production of this single from 1978; I'm assuming it was a fundraiser (or at least, awareness-raiser) of some kind.

The band on here was a veritable who's who of Asian American musicians with ties to the Movement. That included San Francisco's current Public Defender, Jeff Adachi, who played bass (back when Adachi was (I'm assuming) still in high school). Sam Takimoto was one of the vocalists; I've seen her name pop up before in my research on Asian American musicians, including her work in Bamboo Brew from the early '80s, which comprised of herself and playwrights Philip Gotanda and David Henry Hwang, as well as musician and vocalist Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo.

Robert, in particular, has been an incredible prolific musician, having been a part of any number of pioneer Asian American bands, including Bamboo Brew, Eth-No-Tec, the Noh Buddies and Yokohama, California. The latter released an album in late 1970s that I have filed away somewhere; it's one of the early, self-consciously Asian American albums and besides Robert and Sam, that band also had Peter Horikoshi, who appears on this single as the band's guitarist.

Rounding out the Chol Soo Lee players was Siu Wai Anderson (a writer and on vocals here) and conguero Duke Santos (a percussionist down with bassist Mark Izu and Paul Yamazaki). All in all, an impressive snap shot of the alignment within the Bay Area's political and creative communities in the mid/late 1970s.

Musically, I can't say either side really appeals to me. Much as I respect the folk-influenced styles of the era, it's not my bag but the point of this was to raise people's awareness of Lee's case, first and foremost. In the end, the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee proved successful - his original conviction was thrown out in 1982 though it wouldn't be until 1992 that he was finally released from prison.

Thanks to Cool Chris for saving this for me and thanks to Phil for letting me share it with all ya'll.

Oliver Wang is an assistant professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and writes the music blog Soul-Sides.com.

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