Who Sings Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting?

Song: Kung Fu Fighting

Artist: Carl Douglas (1974)

Album: Single w/ B-side, Gamblin Man (Pye / 20th Century Fox)

Martial Arts mania was at its height in the 1970s and, due to Bruce Lee, kung fu was the biggest of all. I mean, everybody was kung fu fighting, and so goes the song. But did you know that there is a connection between Rhinestone Cowboy and the song Kung Fu Fighting? Yes, indeed. Carl Douglas sang Kung Fu Fighting but Indian-born producer Biddu produced it, hence the connection who was working at the time with Larry Weiss, hence the connection.

Biddu, living in London in 1974, was looking for someone to record a song written by New York songwriter Larry Weiss called “I Want to Give You My Everything.” Larry Weiss would later write Rhinestone Cowboy, in 1975 and had written a previous hit in The Dream Merchant, recorded by Jerry Butler.

Biddu had previously produced with Douglas on the theme song for the film Embassy, with Richard ‘Shaft’ Roundtree and would go on to chart success in 1975 with an instrumental cover of Michel Legend’s 1971 theme for the film Summer of ’42 starring Jennifer O’Neil, recorded by the Biddu Orchestra.

Carl Douglas was born in Jamaica and raised in California. He moved to London as a teenager. Although he had a passion for music, particularly Jazz, and had honed his voice, his intention was to become an engineer and join the family business. Hearing his voice, friends encouraged him to perform during the open mike hour at London’s Two I’s Coffee Bar. After singing a few times, he was asked to front Big Stampede, an all-white soul band, in 1964. Recording as Carl Douglas & The Big Stampede and other names, the band’s songs certainly had a chance at the charts but never achieved mainstream success. They disbanded in 1968 and Carl joined the band Explosion for a tour of Europe before a stint with the band Gonzales.

Biddu had met Carl Douglas through friends in 1972 and had hired him to sing the main song for the movie Embassy. Looking for a singer for Weiss’s new tune, he thought Douglas would be the right fit and Douglas accepted. I Want to Give You My Everything was intended to be the A-side of a single, but they still needed a B-side. Biddu asked Douglas if he had any lyrics. Douglas recited four or five songs, one of which was the lyrics for Kung Fu Fighting. “Fine,” said Biddu, “we’ll have a song called Kung Fu Fighting.” It was only a B-side, after all. It wasn’t taken very seriously. Biddu hastily came up with a melody and the remaining 10 minutes of studio time was used to record it. “We did a lot of hoos! and haas! like someone giving somebody a karate chop,” said Biddu.

Something unexpected happened, however, when Biddu played the Weiss song for the Pye Records A&R chief. He liked the song, but he wanted to hear the B-side. Biddu explained that “it was just a fun thing.” The record label, though, took it seriously and wanted to release it as an A-side, thinking it would sell better than Biddu’s estimate of 20,000 records. And they were right, of course. After a five-week lull, the single took off and became a number one international hit. [1]Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits. Billboard Books, 2003.,[2]Jancik, Wayne. The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders. Billboard Books, 1998.

It was picked up by 20th Century Fox to be released in the U.S., where it also hit no. 1, not only on the Billboard Charts but Cash Box and Record World, as well. It was actually the first British single to reach the top of Billboard’s R&B charts and was later rated number 100 in VH1’s 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders. It has been covered and parodied numerous times.

Carl Douglas could be called a one-hit-wonder although he did reach the top 40 in the U.K. again. He made the charts in Belgium, also in 1974, with Blue-Eyed Soul. He also tried the Kung Fu theme once again with Dance the Kung Fu in 1975, which reached no. 35 in the UK and no. 48 in the U.S. Then, in 1977 he reached no. 25 in the U.K. with Run Back.

A 1998 remix of Kung Fu Fighting by Bus Stop, which sampled Douglas’ vocals and added rap lyrics, reached no. 8 in the U.K. and was later certified gold in Australia. It is still being used in movie and tv soundtracks. Here is a partial list of movies and tv shows that have used the song:

  • Rush Hour 3
  • Police Story 3: Super Cop (Tom Jones and Ruby cover)
  • Kung Fu Panda (original and CeeLo Green and Jack Black cover version)
  • Kung Fu Panda 3 (two versions)
  • Beverly Hills Ninja (Patti Rothberg cover)
  • Scrubs
  • Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
  • Daddy Day Care

Kung Fu Fighting Music

One of the most distinctive features of the song is its nine-note musical phrase that has long been used to represent, well, almost anything Asian. It has been used too many times to name, but you may have heard it in the song Turning Japanese by The Vapors and there is even a variation in David Bowie’s China Girl.

No one seems to be sure that the melody predated Kung Fu Fighting but we can be fairly certain it did. In fact, there used to be an entire website devoted to this simple ode to the pentatonic, compiled by  Martin Nilsson, a Web designer, and pianist from Sweden. Through exhaustive research, he determined, as previous scholars have attested, that the riff is indeed quite old, appearing as early as the 1800s and that, ironically, it is not really from Chinese folk music at all. According to Nilsson, “it’s just a caricature of how [Westerners] think Chinese music would sound.” Since there are, of course, many variations, the boundaries between one and another can become blurry, so Nilsson called these similar riffs the “Far East Proto Cliche.”, which is,

“Any melody with this particular rhythmical pattern and whose first four tones are identical” that usually uses a pentatonic scale…”

The music from many East Asian cultures relies heavily on the pentatonic scale, so westerners may have referenced it as sounding vaguely ‘oriental.’ Nilsson included many examples, some of them the earliest known. Unfortunately, he later shut down his website, determining it to be, as far as I can gather, a waste of time. [3]Chow, Kat. “How The ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ Melody Came To Represent Asia.” NPR, NPR, 28 Aug. 2014, … Continue reading

Carl Douglas Kung Fu Fighting Original Music Video

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References

1 Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits. Billboard Books, 2003.
2 Jancik, Wayne. The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders. Billboard Books, 1998.
3 Chow, Kat. “How The ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ Melody Came To Represent Asia.” NPR, NPR, 28 Aug. 2014, www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/08/28/338622840/how-the-kung-fu-fighting-melody-came-to-represent-asia.