Essay What originally was supposed to be some campy listening turned into a pretty good investment of ’70s soul and, yes, even disco.

Still new on the rental shelves of your local video store is Shaolin Soccer, a 2001 Hong Kong film finally released in the states earlier this summer. It combines Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon special effects with a soccer match. It’s worth buying, but that’s another column. In the film’s closing credits is a rap version of the 1974 camp classic “Kung Fu Fighting.” (Anybody over the age of 35 now has this song stuck in their head. My apologies.)

This film’s release reminded me of a discovery earlier this year. I saw the album (I still call a collection of songs an album, even if it’s on CD) at Vibes Music: Soul of the Kung Fu Fighter, a greatest hits collection of Carl Douglas. Of course, the album begins and ends with the old and new version of the 1974 disco epic, which was No. 1 for three weeks. Now it’s coming back to you ...

Everybody was kung fu fighting

His kicks were fast as lightning

In fact it’s a little bit frightening

Yes, the tale of funky Chinamen in Funky Chinatown (I’ve been to Chicago’s Chinatown and never once thought, “Hmmm, funky ...”) facing The Big Boss in a battle of disco-flavored martial arts. Forget Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. Forget Owen Wilson’s break dance fighting sequence at the end of Zoolander. This was the original mix of an ancient Eastern art and a hideous musical genre.

The song is a camp classic. My mind can visualize the coked-up disco freaks in their flammable polyester clothing trying to do high kicks and karate chops on the dance floor. Besides, martial arts were now somewhat acceptable to white folks. We saw David Carradine (one of our finest Asian-American actors) on TV in Kung Fu and a bloated Elvis Presley busted out some karate moves in his live act.

When I was working for Reporter/Progress Newspapers in Downers Grove, Ill., in the late ’90s, my old managing editor, Bob, said that “KFF,” along with “MacArthur Park,” were the worst songs ever recorded. Tom Jones covered “KFF” for the closing credits of the Jackie Chan/Michelle Yeoh action fest Supercop. It can’t be all bad if Tom Jones covers it. Look what he did with Prince’s “Kiss.”

Once you get past “KFF,” the rest of the music on The Soul Of The Kung-Fu Fighter is pretty decent R&B, soul and, yes, even disco. Occasionally, I come to the defense of the Career Musician in One Hit Wonder Clothing. I’m partial to Elvin Bishop (“Fooled Around and Fell In Love,” featuring the whiny-ass vocals of Mickey Thomas) and Maria Muldaur (“Midnight at the Oasis”) while my wife Lynne has defended Bobby “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” McFerrin. These people have had long, fruitful careers. Just because they never had another song and/or video for the suburban mall masses to see doesn’t mean they were shriveling up and dying. If that was the case, The Grateful Dead were One Hit Wonders with “Touch Of Gray.” Don’t mention these guys in the same breath as Frankie Goes To Hollywood or Men Without Hats. The same can be said for Carl Douglas.

When Chubby Checker hit it huge with “The Twist,” at the advice of the record company, Checker made a few “Twist” knockoff songs. It’s like when Bruce Lee died and downtown movie houses in the ’70s were filled with kung fu films starring Bruce Le, Li, Lei, Lu, etc.

Back to “Kung Fu Fighting.” Yes, the song is a novelty of the times. Not the Ray Stevens yuk-yuk fest that he made a living off of, but a novelty song nonetheless. Since “KFF” was a hit, it spawned sequel songs like “Dance The Kung Fu” and “Shanghai’d.” As I listened to the rest of the songs on The Soul Of The Kung Fu Fighter, they’re not bad. In fact, they’re pretty decent soul and disco tunes. Tunes like “When You Got Love” and “Too Hot To Handle” are very decent. Granted, “decent disco” is an oxymoron, but I’d rather hear this than KISS’ “I Was Made For Loving You” or The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.” Both bands were desperately trying to cash in on the disco craze.

Yes, I’m 34 years old and have been the World’s Youngest Crabby Old Man for a few years now. Yes, I’m one of those High Fidelity music nuts telling you to dig deeper into the musicians you like — with rants like “If you like Stevie Ray Vaughan, listen to Albert King and Lonnie Mack.” Carl Douglas was a good singer. “KFF” may appear on numerous ’70s compilations not available in stores, but the guy had more to say than it was a little bit frightening.

Matthew Socey is host of The Blues House Party and co-host of The Art Of The Matter, both on 90.1 WFYI FM.


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