How Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” Went from B-Side to Monumental Hit

In the mid-’70s, everybody wasn’t kung fu fighting. It only seemed that way.

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Enter the Dragon—the last movie martial arts icon Bruce Lee completed prior to his death—was one of the highest-grossing movies during the summer of 1973. A few months earlier, the ABC prime-time series Kung Fu became the No. 1 program in the U.S. The popularity of martial arts media was international, and the craze also extended to London. That’s where Carl Douglas got the germ of the idea that launched the song that was his biggest hit and one of the best-selling singles of all time.

The fact that “Kung Fu Fighting” became an international smash is all the more amazing, because it was never intended to be the A-side of a single. It not only mashed up the martial arts fad with the growing popularity of disco, but it somehow managed to create a through line from The Alan Parsons Project to Robyn Hitchcock. Here’s how a chance encounter outside a London pinball arcade led to a monumental moment in pop music history.

“Everybody’s Kung Fu Fighting”

Inspiration struck Douglas as he made an off-handed comment while walking past an arcade in Soho. Douglas saw some kids doing karate moves to the music that was playing at the arcade, and he commented to his friend, “Damn, looks like everybody’s Kung Fu fighting.” Then he realized that line might work in a song. In the Billboard Book of #1 Hits, Douglas recalled, “At that moment, I heard it all in my head, melody line as well, so I had to rush home and write it down.”

It wasn’t until Douglas went into the studio to record a song for a single called “I Want to Give You My Everything” that he took the next step toward recording a song about kung fu fighting. Douglas and his producer Biddu had only three hours to record the song plus a B-side. By the time they were ready to record a song for the B-side, they had only 10 minutes left. Since Douglas already had lyrics for what would become “Kung Fu Fighting,” that was the song they recorded. 

Perhaps given the chance, “I Want to Give You My Everything” could have been a hit. However, Douglas’ label, Pye Records, wanted “Kung Fu Fighting” to be the A-side, even though it received a fraction of the attention “I Want to Give You My Everything” got in the studio. Given that “Kung Fu Fighting” went to No. 1 in 10 countries, including the U.S. and UK, the label can’t be faulted for flipping the song onto the A-side.

One Kung Fu Song Wasn’t Enough

Douglas often gets referred to as a one-hit wonder, but that’s not exactly accurate. He recorded a second martial arts-themed song for his 1974 album Kung Fu Fighting and Other Great Love Songs. That song, “Dance the Kung Fu,” was released as the follow-up single to “Kung Fu Fighting,” and it proved that music fans were ready for another kung fu song. While “Dance the Kung Fu” didn’t come anywhere close to the lead single in popularity, it still managed to get to No. 8 on Billboard’s R&B chart and No. 48 on the Hot 100. Kung Fu Fighting and Other Great Love Songs spent a week at the top of Billboard’s R&B albums chart and lasted 17 weeks on the Billboard 200, peaking at No. 37.

Douglas would reach a Billboard chart one more time with “Kung Fu Fighting,” 40 years after its initial release: In 2014, the song spent a week on the Ringtones chart at No. 40.

Covers and Connections

Numerous artists have done their own versions of “Kung Fu Fighting,” with the best-known cover being a rewritten version recorded by Cee-Lo Green and Jack Black for the 2008 film Kung Fu Panda. A 1998 version of the song by Bus Stop, which includes samples of Douglas’ vocals, was a No. 8 hit in the UK. Douglas also appeared in the song’s official video. Robyn Hitchcock recorded an a capella version of “Kung Fu Fighting” for the 1990 compilation album Alvin Lives (In Leeds): Anti-Poll Tax Trax.

“Kung Fu Fighting” has a connection to another well-known artist, but in an unexpected way. At the time Douglas recorded the song, his manager was Eric Woolfson, who would soon become producer Alan Parsons’ partner in a collaboration that came to be known as The Alan Parsons Project. In addition to co-writing songs with Parsons, Woolfson sang the lead vocals on several of their best-known songs, including “Time,” “Eye in the Sky,” and “Don’t Answer Me.”

For a song that was recorded in less time than it often takes to get through the grocery checkout line, “Kung Fu Fighting” has had some incredible staying power. That’s not something you can say about many songs written about a fad. Compared to the likes of “Pac Man Fever,” “Convoy,” and, yes, even “Disco Duck,” “Kung Fu Fighting” has managed to stay relevant far longer than anyone could have expected.

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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