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Korea Blog: Yoo Jae-ha’s “Because I Love You,” 30 Years After His Untimely Death

Thirty years ago this month, a Korean singer-songwriter by the name of Yoo Jae-ha died at the age of 25. Had the car accident that killed him happened a few months earlier, before he released his first and only album Because I Love You, Korean pop music, now better known as “K-pop,” might have taken a different sonic direction entirely. Though he died believing it had failed, his record has not just risen to the status of a beloved pop masterpiece but emanates an influence still clearly heard in hit songs in South Korea today. The posthumously granted title “Father of Korean Ballads,” as well as a music scholarship and yearly song contest, honor his memory, but on some level they also acknowledge that Korean pop music may never see — or more importantly, hear — an innovator like him again.

Born in 1962, a year that places him in the middle of the country’s culturally and politically influential “386 Generation” (comparable to the mighty Baby Boomers in America), Yoo grew up as the fifth of six children in a wealthy household full of prestige foreign products, not least a record player. Learning the accordion and cello in elementary school, he picked up the guitar and started singing in fifth grade. While the other kids his age goofed around outside, the reserved Yoo — who in adolescence increasingly modeled his look after that of his idol, Bruce Lee — stayed indoors learning the songs of the shaggy-haired (but nonetheless squeaky clean) 1960s folk-rock duo Onions. In middle school he developed impressive guitar skills and started his own band, called Fresh, only to abandon it for the study of classical music.

But even at that early stage, Yoo’s idiosyncratic nature proved incompatible with any established musical path: he enrolled in classical piano lessons, but neglected his exercises and wrote his own pieces instead. He went on to study composition at Hanyang University in Seoul, where he developed his skills at lyrics and arrangement while attaining proficiency with not just the piano and guitar but the violin, keyboard, and other instruments besides. In his final year there, he found his way to playing keyboards with The Great Birth, the band lead by Cho Yong-pil, a singer then already established and well on his way to the Elvis-like fame he enjoys in Korea today. Yoo even gave Cho “Because I Love You” to record years before making it the title track of his own album.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.