Monday, October 13, 2008

Wax On Wax Off - It's Time For Kung Fu Fighting

A decade before the ‘Karate Kid’ hit the big screen, Carl Douglas hit the top of world charts with a reggae tinged disco song called ‘Kung Fu Fighting’. Whilst undoubtedly the biggest hit of his music career, and one of the monster hits of the 1970s, ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ was not the only time Carl Douglas scored a hit record.

Douglas was born in Jamaica, but spent a good part of his childhood/adolescence in England and the U.S. In the early 60s he was based in London, studying sound engineering in preparation for a career, but the call of a vocal career was louder, and Douglas heeded that call. In the mid 60s he fronted a band called the Big Stampede, who recorded a couple of low key singles, then relocated to Spain for a time, during which he formed a group called the Explosions. He then teamed up with a band called Gonzales (who later had the 1979 hit ‘Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet’), which led to work as a session vocalist with Pye Records. Douglas’ career in Britain didn’t ascend beyond white belt level for several years, but he was chosen by pioneering Indian born, disco producer Biddu to record the title track from the soundtrack for the 1972 film ‘Embassy’, an association which would soon lead on to bigger and better things.

Around May 1974, Biddu was in the market for a singer to record a song called ‘I Want To Give You My Everything’ (written by Larry Weiss, who composed the 1975 Glen Campbell #1 ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’). Biddu put in a call to Carl Douglas to do the job. Douglas had missed with his last couple of U.K. release singles ‘Blue Eyed Soul’ and ‘Crazy Feeling’, but Biddu had a high regard for Douglas through their earlier work on ‘Embassy’. They needed a B-side for the proposed single, and Douglas offered up the lyrics and basic structure of a song called ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, and Biddu set about fleshing out the melody. They had around 10 minutes of studio time to record the vocals for the track, and some of the song’s elements were improvised on the fly (the “hoos!” and “haas!” for example). But what had originally been intended as a throwaway flip side, was identified by the suits at Pye Records as having the potential for chart topping sales, due in part to the huge popularity of Bruce Lee at the time and the high rating television show ’Kung Fu’, starring David Carradine, and for once the suits got it right.

For several weeks over the summer period, the song was a real sleeper, but a few London based dance clubs picked up on the song, and word of mouth soon had everyone buzzing about this great new dance track. ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ (produced by Biddu) kick started Carl Douglas’ commercial success, and punched a hole in the British charts when it debuted during August 1974. By September the irresistibly catchy dance-pop song had made Carl Douglas the Bruce Lee of the pop charts, when it managed to out spar the competition to conquer the coveted #1 spot. It held off all competitors for three weeks, and a month later both the U.S. and Australia had succumbed to ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ fever. By year’s end Carl Douglas had battled his way to the summit of both U.S. and Australian charts, and a new dance step called the ‘Kung Fu’ was sparking a whole network of disco dojo.

From his ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ album, Carl Douglas released the follow up single ‘Dance The Kung Fu’, which only heightened the chances of copping a high kick to the head whilst attempting to shake your booty on the dance floor. ‘Dance The Kung Fu’ (also written by Douglas and Biddu) climbed to #35 in the U.K. and #48 in the U.S. (#8R&B).

Carl Douglas continued to write and record through the remainder of the 70s, and actually made a moderately successful return to the British charts in late 1977 with the #25 hit single ‘Run Back’, from his album ‘Keep Pleasing Me’. Producer Biddu released several disco oriented instrumental albums, and went on to produce another British chart topper with Tina Charles’ 1976 #1 ‘I Love To Love (But My Baby Loves To Dance)’. He then returned to his native India to work for a number of years on film scores in ‘Bollywood’.

‘Kung Fu Fighting’ made a major comeback on both the British (#8) and Australian (#14) charts during 1998 for dance club act Bus Stop. The song was updated a bit for the 90s market but was basically the same highly danceable hit of almost a quarter century earlier. Carl Douglas’ vocals were used (in addition to Sue Quin) and the song was credited to Bus Stop featuring Carl Douglas. The singer also made a cameo appearance in the promotional video, busting a few Kung Fu moves along the way. The song also made an appearance in the hit 1994 comedy ‘Wayne’s World 2’, featuring over the top of a memorable sequence in the film.

From what scant information is out there, Carl Douglas currently resides in Hamburg, Germany, and runs a publishing company that co-ordinates music licensing for films, documentaries and advertisements.

Carl Douglas’ vocal chant in the intro to ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ became one of the signature sound bytes in 70s pop music history, and for anyone familiar with that era in music the song continues to deliver a knock out punch any time it’s played.

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