The Tone-Deaf Man Who Invented Karaoke

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Given how many horrendous karaoke performances we've been subjected to, we weren't at all surprised to learn that the guy who invented the karaoke machine can't sing, can't read music, and plays the keyboards about as well as your average third-grader.

Songs in the Off-key of Life

We were, however, surprised to learn that poor Daisuke Inoue has made almost no money from his invention, and that he didn't even give it a try himself until 1999, on his 59th birthday. Inoue's happy-go-lucky ineptitude has been pretty much the driving force of his entire life. In high school he picked up the drums, which he chose as an instrument because, hey, all you had to do was hit them. Eventually, he took his limited talent and started playing with a Hawaiian band that frequented old dance halls from the days of the American World War II occupation. Inoue, shall we say, marched to the beat of a different drummer. Noticing this, the other band members quickly, and somewhat mercifully, realized that he'd be of better use on the business side, and he started acting as the band's manager. But he still served as occasional drummer, particularly on amateur nights playing backup for rich Japanese businessmen.

Because Inoue couldn't read musical notation, he had to rely on watching the singer's lips in order to strike the right beat. One of his clients apparently found his drum technique flattering and asked Inoue to accompany him to a hot springs resort as his personal drummer. But Inoue couldn't go. Time Asia tells what happened next: "[Inoue] obliged by providing him with a tape of his accompaniment. The boss delivered an emotional rendition of Frank Nagai's "˜Leaving Haneda Airport on a 7:50 Flight,' Inoue collected his money in absentia and karaoke (a term long used in the industry for house musicians "“ it literally means "˜empty orchestra') was born."

Inoue quickly realized he was on to something. With some help from his buddies, he built 11 prototype machines, kitted them out with amplifiers and background music, and then leased them to bars in Kobe. They were an immediate hit.

But Inoue made one crucial mistake: He didn't patent his invention.

Big companies quickly realized they could make a mint on machines and tapes and made their own. Inoue only went so far as to patent two things: a type of plastic-covered songbook for wannabe Frank Sinatras, and a concoction he claimed could ward off rats and cockroaches in more downscale karaoke joints. But hey, give the poor guy credit: He certainly did things His Way.

This piece was excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store. Karaoke image credit: Gwen Bell's excellent guide, 'How to Rock a Karaoke Bar.'

March 2, 2009 - 4:41am
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