356. Carl Douglas – Kung Fu Fighting (1974)

‘Woah-ho-ho-ho!’ Knocked off in 10 minutes as a B-side, this huge-selling number 1 is one of the most famous novelty hits of all time. It took advantage of the 70s kung fu craze and briefly made Carl Douglas a star.

Yes, the mid-70s wasn’t just about streaking. The films of martial artist Bruce Lee had become popular in the US and subsequently the UK, but he died after the making of his 1973 blockbuster Enter the Dragon, which only added to his legend. He had allegedly also been in the running to star in US action drama Kung Fu, before David Carradine took the role in 1972. The mid-70s was the high watermark of the nation’s fascination with kung fu. There were adverts for Hai Karate aftershave, cartoon canine Hong Kong Phooey and an episode of The Goodies, ‘Kung Fu Kapers’ that concentrated on the ancient art of ‘Ecky Thump’. Famously, this was the episode in which a man literally died laughing at home while watching. What a way to go.

But anyway, Carl Douglas. Carlton George Douglas was born 10 May 1942 in Kingston, Jamaica but also spent his childhood in California before relocating to London as a teenager to study sound engineering, and enjoyed playing football. He also underwent vocal training and developed a strong tenor voice that he would use to sing in church. Douglas loved soul and jazz music, and his heroes were Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.

In 1964 Douglas formed Carl Douglas & the Big Stampede, and they released three singles in the UK but failed to get anywhere. His debut solo single was Serving a Sentence of Life in 1968, but again, no joy. With another group, Carl Douglas & the Explosion, he released the single Eeny Meeny in Spain. No reaction. Douglas returned to the UK and started working with Indian producer Biddu for the first time in 1971.

Biddu Appaiah, better known as just Biddu, would become one of the pioneers of disco. Born in Bangalore, India in 1944, he moved to England in the 60s and became a producer, working on Japanese band The Tigers’ Smile for Me in 1969, before moving on to a number of tracks that became popular on the Northern Soul scene.

Douglas recorded the single Marble and Iron with Biddu, who used the singer again in 1972 on the soundtrack to the spy thriller Embassy, starring Richard Roundtree (Shaft). Biddu hired Douglas again in 1974 to record I Want to Give You My Everything. He asked the singer if he had any ideas on what they could use as a B-side, and Douglas had several, one of which was a bunch of lyrics about watching a kung fu film. Not taking it too seriously, Biddu came up with a tune, and when it came to recording, allegedly I Want to Give You My Everything took two hours, wheras Kung Fu Fighting took 10 minutes as they were running out of studio time.

When the single was taken to Pye Records, an executive couldn’t understand why Kung Fu Fighting wasn’t the A-side, and insisted they swap the two around, for which Douglas and Biddu must be eternally grateful.

You may have heard it a million times, and not consider it something you’d ever need to listen to again by choice, but I’d defy anyone to not have a soft spot for Kung Fu Fighting. Sure, it’s cheesy, but it’s also bloody funky, and I’m a sucker for some wah-wah guitar and a nice bassline. Funk is one of my favourite genres and there’s sadly very few that reached number 1. And for all this is considered a disco classic, and Biddu went on to be one of the genre’s foremost producers, this to me is more funk than disco. Although credit is due to Biddu for the oriental strings. Over-the-top, sure, as are the ‘ha!’ noises at the end of each line, but they only add to the fun. I’d imagine this song must have been incredible for your average child into kung fu at the time, and is still able to make anyone feel young again, no matter their age.

Kung Fu Fighting looked like another failure upon its release, but picked up momentum from airplay in clubs. After reaching number 1 here, it topped charts around the world, including Billboard‘s, making Douglas the first Jamaican to top the US chart. An album was quickly cobbled together, the wonderfully named Kung Fu Fighting and Other Great Love Songs. Douglas is remembered as a one-hit wonder, but he had two more UK hits – the inferior follow-up cash-in Dance the Kung Fu later that year (number 35) and Run Back in 1977 (number 25).

Two more albums were released, Love, Peace and Happiness in 1979 and Keep Pleasing Me in 1983, and then Douglas disappeared into obscurity, moving to Hamburg, Germany, occasionally surfacing to remember his time as the man behind Kung Fu Fighting. And then in 1998 his song was back in the top 10 again thanks to the dance act Bus Stop, reaching number eight. It was pretty pointless, just the original with some rapping added into the mix, but it captured the 90s obsession with the 70s and Douglas was wheeled out once more for TV shows. He seems a genial character, and who wouldn’t be, really, when you can have an income for life thanks to one song made in a hurry?

Written by: Carl Douglas

Producer: Biddu

Weeks at number 1: 3 (21 September-11 October)

Meanwhile…

23 September: The first Teletext information service Ceefax began on the BBC. This precursor to the internet was fascinating to people of a certain age, ie, me.

30 September: With the year’s second general election 10 days away, opinion polls showed Labour were in the lead, with Harold Wilson well-placed to gain the overall majority that no party achieved in the election held in February.

5 October: The Provisional IRA killed five people in the Guildford pub bombings.

10 October: The second general election of 1974 resulted in Labour gaining a majority, but only by three seats. Speculation began immediately that Edward Heath’s leadership of the Conservatives would soon be over. The Scottish National Party secured its highest Westminster party representation to date with 11 seats, and former Conservative MP Enoch Powell was returned to parliament standing for the Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. 

353. George McCrae – Rock Your Baby (1974)

I love George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby. One of my favourite number 1s of the 70s, this is a landmark in early disco music, thanks to the slinkiest of grooves and McCrae’s heavenly falsetto – and to think, his performance was the happiest of accidents. Finally, after seemingly endless 50s rehashes and tributes, here was a new sound.

KC and the Sunshine Band were Florida-based disco pioneers, formed in 1973 by record store employee Harry Wayne Casey (aka KC) and TK Records engineer Richard Finch. The same year, Vince Aletti became one of the first to use ‘disco’ as a term to describe a genre, in Rolling Stone that September. Casey and Finch had begun releasing material with their new band and among the demos they worked on was Rock Your Baby.

The backbone of the track was courtesy of an early drum machine on a Lowry organ left in the TK Records studio, a rare sound back then. Casey took to the keyboards and Finch took care of the bass and real drums, and as they built up the track, they felt something magical. Finch told Songfacts ‘it was like God was in the building or something’. They paid KC and the Sunshine Band guitarist Jerome Smith $15 to lay down some licks and wrote lyrics inspired by Hues Corporation’s hit Rock the Boat. KC and the Sunshine Band were not an established act at this point, and Casey couldn’t reach those high notes, so who should they get to sing it? TK Records owner Henry Stone suggested soul singer Gwen MCrae, but fortune smiled on her husband, George, instead.

George Warren McCrae, Jnr was born 19 October 1944 in West Palm Beach, Florida, the second of nine children. He formed his own singing group, The Jivin’ Jets, before joining the US Navy in 1963. That same year, he married Gwen Mosley. Four years later, the McCraes reformed the group, but they split soon after, and they began working as a duo. Gwen signed a solo contract and began to have modest hits, so George became her manager. He was about to return to college to study law enforcement when he sang over Rock Your Baby.

KC and the Sunshine Band are mainly remembered these days for catchy disco anthems, great blasts of fun, but perhaps short on substance. With Rock Your Baby, they created something magnificent, entering unchartered territory by adding the sweet soul voice of McCrae to a drum machine with a holy melding of man and machine. I Feel Love is the most magnificent disco song, but without Rock Your Baby, would we have got there?

The keyboard melody at the start is almost nursery rhyme-like, setting the scene for a tender serenade in which a blissed-out McCrae surrenders to his love – which is pretty unusual for this time. He’s no alpha male, and is letting her take the lead. Smith’s choppy guitar line is vital, even if it sounds very similar to Rock the Boat. This would in time become one of the key ingredients to the disco sound.

Rock Your Baby is sexual, of course, but it’s sensual and seductive more than anything. Listen to the way McCrae’s falsetto glides over the rhythm in an aural orgasm, and it can move like few disco songs can. The six-minute-plus album version is superior as it lets the song stretch and breathe. To be honest, I could listen to an hour-long mix of this and not tire of it.

Rock Your Baby sold millions and was number 1 in the UK, US and across Europe. It inspired John Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Thru the Night and ABBA’s Dancing Queen. Not bad for a debut solo single. McCrae, the first black artist to top the UK charts in nearly two years, is considered a one-hit wonder, but he actually had other popular material. Follow-ups I Can’t Leave You Alone and You Can Have It All went number nine and 23 respectively later in the year, and in 1975, It’s Been So Long climbed to number four, and I Ain’t Lyin’ reached number 12.

Also in 1975, Gwen recorded a reply to Rock Your Baby, Rockin’ Chair, on which George provided backing vocals. The following year, he and Gwen divorced, and Honey I became his last UK charting single. We Did It! was his last album for some time in 1979, as he left TK Records and went into semi-retirement.

In the meantime, KC and the Sunshine Band became one of the biggest disco acts on the planet, with a string of floorfillers that encapsulated the genre’s positivity. They recorded Rock Your Baby too, but only as an instrumental. It wasn’t until 1983 that they scored a UK number 1, with the effervescent Give It Up.

McCrae surfaced again in 1984 with the album One Step Closer to Love, but it failed to chart. A remix of his number 1, known as the Frankfurst Mix, remixed by Paul Hardcastle, was released in 1986. He continued to make albums up until Do Something in 1996, then disappeared again, and has returned sporadically. He was part of Jools’ Annual Hootenanny in 2017. A cover of Rock Your Baby was a number eight hit for dance act KWS in 1992.

Written & produced by: Harry Wayne Casey & Richard Finch

Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 July-16 August)

Births:

Actress Emilia Fox – 31 July

Meanwhile…

15 August: The collapse of Court Line and its subsidiaries Clarksons and Horizon Holidays results in 100,000 holidaymakers stranded abroad.