If you've been reading this stuff through, you'll have sussed by now that I think there's a hell of a lot of people who never got the attention or success they deserved. Here's another one.
Johnny Wakelin only had two hits in Britain: 'Black Superman' and 'In Zaire'. They were both about Muhammad Ali. Which is as it should be, because if you were growing up in the early 70s there was no question that Ali was the coolest man in the whole world. Not only the prettiest, most gifted, most entertaining fighter the boxing world has ever been privileged to witness, but also a politically aware black guy who took a stand at the height of the Vietnam protests and the civil rights struggle. We're talking about a cross between Bobby Fisher and Martin Luther King, a god amongst men. And the height of his hipdom, the moment when every human being on the planet had to recognize his divinity was the Rumble in the Jungle when he re-took his title from George Foreman, when he went home to Africa, when he came back from near-death to Rope a Dope.
That was the moment that inspired Johnny Wakelin - previously a cabaret singer on the South Coast - to write his first single. 'I needed something to write about that would catch people's eye,' he says, 'something which would almost guarantee it being a hit.' He came up with 'Black Superman', not necessarily a great record - the white ska groove, reminiscent of 'Ob La Di, Ob La Da', kinda dates it - but a great title at least, and an entirely appropriate sobriquet for Ali. In fact it was when Ali visited Britain and picked up on the concept of being the Black Superman that the record shot into the charts.
That record and the subsequent 'In Zaire' were all that Johnny got into the British charts, but they don't even start to reflect the totality of his musical interests. Partly that was his problem:
There was indeed an unreasonable diversity of musical styles, but hanging it all together was an instinctive grasp of pop melodies that still works brilliantly. Amongst his best records were 'African Man', a surprisingly intelligent song about the slave trade (even more impressive if you consider the era it was written in, when the dominant popular culture was the racism of Love Thy Neighbour) and the irresistible 'Dr Frankenstein's Disco Party'. Actually he didn't write that one - it was co-written by Harold Faltermeyer of 'Axel F' fame - but it's a damn fine single nonetheless.
Johnny Wakelin's still writing songs, still recording and still playing live, mostly around his native Sussex. Having heard some of his most recent stuff, I'm glad to confirm that the man can still write a wonderfully catchy tune like few others.
1975 Black Superman (Muhammad Ali) (#7)
1976 In Zaire (#4)
1975 Black Superman (Muhammad Ali) (#21)
1976 interview with Johnny Wakelin