Hooked on the Ooga Chagga: Sweden's First Hot 100 No. 1 Was Unleashed 45 Years Ago Today
April 6, 1974 was a very good day for Swedish music. In Brighton, England, the Eurovision Song Contest was won by a new quartet named ABBA. "Waterloo" was the first song from Sweden to win the Pan-European competition. And in the U.S., Blue Swede became the first Swedish act to top the Billboard Hot 100, as it moved into pole position with a remake of "Hooked on a Feeling," a song that was a No. 5 hit for B.J. Thomas in 1969. The Blue Swede version had something the Thomas recording did not – an irresistible hook that caught listeners' attention right from the opening salvo. But who put the "ooga-chagga" in "Hooked on a Feeling"? Not Mark James, who wrote the song. Not any member of Blue Swede. And not Bengt Palmers, the EMI head of A&R in Sweden who produced the No. 1 single.
No, the man who came up with "ooga-chagga" -- and who insists it's "chagga," not "chaka" -- was British recording artist/label owner/producer/politician/TV presenter Jonathan King.
King (who years later served half of a seven-year prison sentence beginning in 2001 for sexual abuse and has continued to claim his innocence) recorded his own cover version of "Hooked on a Feeling" in 1971. His single peaked at No. 23 in the U.K. and though it was released in America, it failed to crack the Hot 100.
King tells Billboard he loved Thomas' version when it was on the charts. "But I thought the song deserved a pop treatment. I wasn't keen on the country-style guitar riff that was the backbone. The moment I heard it, I thought, 'I'm covering that.' I don't do straight covers – I haven't got the voice – but I have the imagination to render them differently. I'm essentially a singing producer – except for 'Everyone's Gone to the Moon' when I was a teenager [King's 1965 single peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 4 in his native U.K. when he was 20]. My heroes were always producers – Phil Spector, Joe Meek, Bob Crewe and Steve Barri."
Elaborating on where the "ooga-chagga" came from, King explains: "I was doing it vocally on my demo for the arranger, Johnny Arthey. I can't really play any instruments so I'd sing all the parts for each instrument in the string section and brass so he could take them and transpose. I wanted a reggae rhythm, so I did that with my voice. When I played it for Johnny, I said, 'This was going to be on guitars but it sounds rather fun done by male voices so let's keep it as it is.'"
King admits he was disappointed that his version of "Hooked on a Feeling" wasn't a bigger success. "But my 'Hooked' was a hit all over the world and sold around 400,000 copies. In those days you could sell huge quantities of vinyl and that single had a B-side that I wrote and published, so I made around a million dollars. It may not be Ed Sheeran or One Direction but it put petrol in my Rolls. Plus it was featured on every compilation in the tiniest countries."
In the fall of 1971, Palmers was visiting London. "In those days, you rarely saw a pop program on Swedish TV, and so I definitely wanted to watch the BBC's legendary and weekly Top of the Pops in my hotel room. On the show, Jonathan King performed his version of 'Hooked on a Feeling' and I was so intrigued by it that the following morning I went to the HMV record store on Oxford Street and bought a copy," Palmers recalls for Billboard.
Back home in Sweden, Palmers was working with local artist Björn Skifs and his band, Blåblus, which translates as Blue Denim (later changed to Blue Swede for American consumption). When they were looking for songs to cover in their live shows, Palmers handed Skifs a stack of singles to consider. "Included in the bundle I gave Björn were 'Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)' by Edison Lighthouse and 'Baby, Now That I've Found You' by the Foundations." Also in the pile: "Hooked on a Feeling" by Jonathan King.
Sticking with King's arrangement of "Hooked on a Feeling," Skifs and his band added the song to their live set list, and audience reaction was so great, EMI released a studio recording as a single in Sweden. King found out about the remake when Skifs gave him a call. "He asked for permission to cover my version, which was very sweet and kind and good manners. I said 'fine,' knowing a Swedish hit only sold around 20,000 copies. Good luck to him!" King says he still feels the same way today, even though inclusion of the Blue Swede recording on the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack hasn't earned him a penny. "By luck, I earn a hefty royalty on 10cc's 'I'm Not in Love,' also on the soundtrack [King signed the then-unknown band to his label, U.K. records, in July 1972 and named them 10cc]. My version still sells thousands on iTunes every time the film – which I loved – is shown and Spotify clocks up loads of listens."
In May 1973, "Hooked on a Feeling" hit No. 1 on the Swedish singles chart. Convinced that the recording could become a hit in other countries, Palmers wrote letters to EMI affiliates all over the world, stating, "Dear Sirs, enclosed please find the single 'Hooked on a Feeling' by Swedish group Björn Skifs and Blåblus. It is currently No 1 on the Swedish singles chart and I strongly believe it could also become a hit in your territory."
Typical of the very few replies Palmers received was a missive from Capitol Records in Hollywood: "Sorry, but we don't think the recording is suitable for the U.S. market." Frustrated but determined, Palmers sent letters and singles to many other American record companies, including majors CBS, RCA and Warner Brothers and leading independent companies, such as A&M, Bell, Capricorn and Casablanca. He received only one reply, from Sol Rabinowitz, the head of A&R at CBS Records International, who wrote that CBS wanted to release "Hooked" in the U.S. Per a legal clause, Palmers had to notify Capitol about CBS' interest and make a request for CBS to release all recordings released by Björn Skifs and Blåblus over the next three years. Surprisingly, Capitol execs responded that they wanted to release "Hooked" in America after all.
Anders Berglund joined Skiffs' band as keyboardist after "Hooked on a Feeling" was recorded but before it was released in the U.S. "There are many stories about how the song ended up as a hit in America," he tells Billboard. "One unconfirmed story is that a radio station in Hartford, Conn. had a fire and there were very few records left that were undamaged. One of them was 'Hooked on a Feeling,' which led to a massive airplay, which spread to other stations." Berglund recalls, "EMI informed us that the song was climbing on the charts but I can't recall exactly when we got the message about being No. 1. In those days, with no internet, the news didn't reach Europe as fast as today."
Palmers has produced and arranged more than 60 singles that have reached the top 10 on the Swedish charts. "I have written music and lyrics to some 400 songs, quite a few of them hits," he says. "I have written the music scores to 11 successful Swedish feature films; I have co-written two extremely successful Swedish stage musicals and I have written three published books – for which I am deeply thankful, but none of these achievements compare to the gratification of having produced the first Swedish recording ever to hit No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 -- especially since in '74, it was Mission: Impossible to have a Swedish recording released in the U.S."
Success in America meant traveling to the U.S. to do promotion and live gigs. In September 1974, the band -- along with wives or girlfriends and managers -- flew to Los Angeles. "We rehearsed at Capitol Studios in Hollywood," says Berglund, "where Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys and Dean Martin recorded their immortal albums." They played the famed Starwood club on Santa Monica Blvd. in L.A. County, where Cher walked in with the Allman Brothers in tow. She wanted to jam with Blue Swede and they determined the one song they knew in common was the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Runnin'."
Palmers acknowledges that no one associated with Blue Swede thought that people would still be talking about their No. 1 hit four decades later. "In the mid-'70s – and I am pretty sure I speak for all songwriters, producers and artists of that era – it was assumed that if a recording became a hit, it would have a life span of approximately a year. And look how wrong we were! Blue Swede's 'Hooked on a Feeling' was released 45 years ago and has recently been streamed on Spotify more than 200 million times."
As for the coinciding events of April 6, 1974, Berglund says the band was well aware of ABBA winning Eurovision the same day that "Hooked on a Feeling" captured the top spot in America. "This was a big moment in Swedish pop history and might have been the start of the Swedish music success with [bands like] Europe and Ace of Base."