If Mrs. Knorr thought that Tommy James’ “I Think We’re Alone Now” was a little too much for the Keener airwaves, then “Jungle Fever” by the Chakachas was well over the edge of the envelope. That it became a hit at all is one of those improbable stories that seem to proliferate in the music business.
Listen to the record, or look at any of the promotional material and you’d be certain that the band was African American, or Afro-Cuban. In fact, they were a bunch of white guys from Belgium, who first got together in the 1950s. By 1965 they had gone their separate ways and it wasn’t until 1970 that producer Roland Kluger pulled the bulk of the group back into studio to record one of the most infamous records of the Keener era.
The album itself is underrated, a Sergio Mendez-esque collection of funky Latin flavored soul that could stand on it’s one even without the last cut on side two, it’s title track. But that’s the one we talk about. Kari Kenton, the only band member who was anywhere close to Cuban, provided the “vocals” that topped a pulsating, steamy, percussive instrumental background. And from the moment it was released as a single, it split the radio community right down the middle.
On the one side were the broadcasters who clearly believed that the thing was borderline smut. On the other were those who knew a hit when they heard one and decided to play “Jungle Fever” without regard for those they might offend.
Keener was firmly in the conservative camp. But across the Detroit River, CKLW had no such scruples. The week of February 7, 1972, “Jungle Fever” was hit bound on the Big 8 and the phones rang off the hook with requests to play it. In one Detroit area high school, a student was suspended for playing a verse over the public address system. And even at 15001 Michigan Avenue, listener requests were off the charts. But firm was the resolve in the front office and “Jungle Fever” never made it into the WKNR control room.
Even Polydor had a premonition that the record might crash and burn if the audience knew the racial make-up of the group. The only photos of Chakachas depict African American band members and when it came time to perform “Jungle Fever” live, an appropriately soulful group of impersonators took the stage at the Apollo. And no one was the wiser.
In the years since, “Jungle Fever” has been repeatedly sampled by hip-hop and dance artists. And a pristine CD version of the song was re-issued on the Dusty Groove label, outing the musicians true colors and giving us the chance to hear the other 10 tracks that make the “Jungle Fever” album a very listenable piece of rock history.