Song Of The Day 11/21/2014: Johnny Wakelin - "In Zaire"

British Hits, American Misses: Johnny Wakelin, born in Brighton, England, had a niche pretty much all to himself: novelty songs about Muhammad Ali at the height of The Greatest's popularity. Wikipedia, the unquestionable authority on the Youghiogheny River and the Mayors of Podgorica from 1879 onward, reveals that Wakelin was discovered by Pye Records' Robin Blanchflower, who masterminded the euphoric rise of Carl Douglas' hit "Kung Fu Fighting." So songs about other people participating in combat sports were kind of Blanchflower's milieu.

Wakelin actually did find some success in America with the slightly, errr, tone-deaf song "Black Superman." It had a reggae-referencing beat, a cloyingly wooden spoken-word attack, and the kiddie chorus "Muhammad -- Muhammad Ali / He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee." We took something of a shine to that song here in the colonies, although Ali reportedly wanted less than nothing to do with the song, Wakelin's earnest but misguided cultural appropriation, or his unconquerably perfect hair. Seriously, that's some springy, Bobby Bittman pomade action right there.

Wakelin managed to mine another European hit single out of his Ali obsession, the somewhat more bearable "In Zaire." This was about the Rumble in the Jungle, possibly the most well-known single boxing match in the sport's history, between Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. (Which reminds me: Wakelin's backup group was called "The Kinshasa Band." His brand strategists knew no limits.) Once again Wakelin attempted to construct a tonal homage to the native musical roots of Africa. Or you could say he bastardized it. I'm just trying to give you as many options as you can handle for this one. "In Zaire" hit #4 in the UK, it hit the Top Ten in much of the rest of the continent, but the U.S. -- well, like Foreman, it hit the floor at the end of the eighth round.

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