Singer Johnny Wakelin traversed the oddest of paths from the seaside cabarets of Brighton, to the top of the British charts. An unassuming, mustachioed white gentleman with a droll humor that sat well within his taste for R&B, reggae, and African rhythms, Wakelin was one of the more surprising of
Britain’s entries into the mid-’70s disco movement. His hits, after all, might have condemned him to be remembered as a mere novelty artist, but he was also capable of some surprisingly effective rhythm and beat.
Discovered by Pye Records producer Robin Blanchflower, the man who launched Carl Douglas to the top of the charts with “Kung Fu Fighting,” and working with Steve Elson and Keith Rossiter in addition to Branchflower, Wakelin set about writing songs that would, he hoped, “catch people’s eye.” His first release did just that, diving into the socio-political arena by way a tribute to boxer Muhammad Ali, “Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)”; the pugilist was making his much-heralded comeback at the time, and “Black Superman” effortlessly rode the wave of attendant interest.
Credited to Johnny Wakelin & the Kinshasa Band, the song appeared in late 1974 and, by January 1975, was making its U.K. chart debut. The catchy tune would eventually peak at number seven in Britain, while it reached number one in Australia and spent a staggering six months in the U.S. charts. 1975 brought a further single, “Cream Puff,” backed by “Gotta Keep on Going”; it flopped, but both songs would be incorporated into Wakelin’s March 1976 LP debut, Reggae, Soul & Rock’N’Roll.
Abandoning the Kinshasa Band, Wakelin returned to Muhammad Ali for his next release, and promptly scored another major hit single in July, 1976. “In Zaire,” replaying the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, surpassed its predecessor, climbing to a stunning U.K. number four. And, while it was to prove Wakelin’s last hit, the remainder of the 1970s would be just as fruitful for him, on a musical level, at least. The next three years brought a further three albums to the racks, African Man, Double Trouble and Golden Hour, respectively. All were accompanied by a fresh crop of singles, including the radio hit “Africa Man” in 1976, “Afro Afrique” and “Doctor Frankenstein’s Disco Party” in 1977, and “Lay down and Rock Me” in 1978.