One Is Enough: Rock’s One-Hit Wonders

This story originally appeared in SPIN’s July 1985 issue.
Some performers are great, have careers that last 10 or 15 years, and end up with digitally tuned recordings of their complete works sold in $500 sets. Other performers are good, last a couple of years, and may discover in middle age that they can finance their kid’s braces by playing nostalgia concerts. Then there are performers who were terribly talented and had no luck, or who were just terrible and had nothing but luck, who briefly owned a piece of the Top 40 before vanishing into oldie land. They are One-Hit Wonders, and we offer this tribute in their memory.
On Christmas Eve, a 25-year-old R&B singer, sitting backstage at the Houston City Auditorium, lost a game of Russian roulette to his .32 caliber revolver. Johnny Ace’s unfortunate demise, however, didn’t impede the release of his new record, “Pledging My Love,” which surprised everyone by scaling halfway up the Top 40. The music industry then offered Johnny its highest tribute and rushed out a bunch of records that attempted to cash in on his death, including “Why, Johnny, Why,” “Johnny Has Gone,” and “Johnny’s Still Singing.” Johnny wasn’t, but the cash register was.
The first five million-selling rock ‘n’ roll records were by Bill Haley (two), Pat Boone (two), and Fats Domino. The sixth, “Seventeen,” was by Boyd Bennett and the Rockets. Rock’s first golden one-hit wonder is memorable for lyrics like “Seventeen/Hot rod queen/Purtiest gal I’ve ever seen,” for having a vocalist named Big Moe, and for wasting one of the best names in rock ‘n’ roll history. Today, Bennett reportedly sells gauze in Texas, which is what happens when the follow-up to your hit is called “My Boy Flat Top.”
On November 21, 1955, the strapped-for-cash head of Sun records, Sam Phillips, received $35,000 from RCA in exchange for Elvis Presley’s contract. Phillips had concluded that, while audiences screamed for Elvis, they didn’t buy his records. Presley’s first release had sold 20,000 copies; his second, 5,000, and there was no reason to believe this wasn’t a trend. Besides, Sun had other singers, notably Carl Perkins. So you have to wonder how Phillips felt when he read Billboard the following March and saw Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” sitting in second place, right behind a number called “Heartbreak Hotel” by you know who.
Perkins’ one-hit rock ‘n’ roll career ended when he wrecked his car in Delaware enroute to do “The Ed Sullivan Show.” After his convalescence, he devoted himself to country music. Presley had 107 Top 40 hits.
There are seven one-hit wonders named Harris: Betty, Eddie, Emmylou, Major, Richard, Rolf, and Thurston. Why didn’t “Didn’t We?” have the juice to follow up “MacArthur Park” for Richard? Why couldn’t Rolf build on “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”? Why did Eddie think he could launch a career with a saxophone version of “Exodus”? Why has no one named Harris ever had a second hit? These are deep mysteries. (There’s also a one-hit wonder named Harrison. Wilbert, with the immortal “Kansas City.”)
The best of Harris’ hits is Thurston’s “Itty Bitty Pretty One,” because of his integrity. With rock ‘n’ roll under attack as meaningless, inarticulate and addled, Thurston forthrightly released a record whose lyric consists largely of “Mm-mm-m-muh-muh-mm.” Thurston, wherever you are, this Bud’s for you.
The Bobbettes, five girls from P.S. 109 in Harlem, hit number five with a snappy song about their principal, “Mr. Lee,” which featured world-class hiccuping. The follow-up was “I Shot Mr. Lee.” It was D.O.A.
Charles Patrick, lead singer of the Monotones, was writing a song called “Book of Love,” when over the radio came “You’ll wonder where the yellow went / When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.” Patrick immediately wondered, wondered who, who, who wrote the Book of Love, and a classic was born. The Monotones’ follow-up was “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which perhaps explains where they went.
The Royal Teens would be just another group whose hit (“Short Shorts”) cashed in on a teen fashion preference, except that one member, Al Kooper, went on to form Blood, Sweat and Tears, and another, Bob Gaudio, was asked by Frankie Castelluccio, the lead singer of the Four Lovers, to fill a vacancy in the band. Gaudio became the fourth Lover, Castelluccio became Valli, Lovers became Seasons, and all of them became rich.
Dozens of movie themes dot the charts during the rock era, but the first that reached for the top was “The Blob,” by the Five Blobs, which hit number 33. Actually, there weren’t five blobs, just one, named Bernie Nee, who played all the parts.
In L.A., an ad hoc gang of musicians got drunk in a studio and cut “Ally Oop,” a pale facsimile of a Coasters’ novelty record. The newly dubbed Hollywood Argyles saw the record reach number one.
Two years later, Argyles vocalist Gary Paxton found himself in similar circumstances, doing another novelty song. Bobby ‘Boris’ Picketts “Monster Mash” became a hit on two occasions, in ’62 and ’73. By the way, “Monster Mash” didn’t set a record for a reentry hit. That belongs to a song so incomprehensible that the record company thought it necessary to take the unusual step of explaining right on the label what the song means. “The wondrous story of a little boy who, unknowingly, gave the greatest gift of all on a starry night long ago in history, which began the greatest story ever told,” 20th Century Fox wrote in tiny type next to the big 45 hole. Yes, we’re talking about the inscrutable ‘”Little Drummer Boy,” by the Harry Simeon Chorale, which found its way into the Top 40 every year from 1958 to 1962.
Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs hit number one with “Stay,” a song which, at about a minute and a half, is perhaps the shortest hit in rock history. Now think about the Zodiacs: one hit, lasting ninety seconds, called “Stay.” I wonder if Maurice sees the humor in it.
With “Daddy’s Home,” Shep and the Limelites became the last of doo wop’s one-hit wonders. The group remained a regional favorite until 1970, when Shep was found beaten to death on the Long Island Expressway.
Producer Huey Meaux’s string of one-hit wonders included Joe Barry’s “I’m a Fool to Care,” Barbara Lynn’s “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” and Dale and Grace’s “I’m Leavin’ It Up to You.” Meaux was on the verge of significance when he gave a teenage girl a lift from Houston to a DJ’s convention in Nashville. She turned out to be a prostitute and a diarist, and after the feds read her memoirs, Huey did 14 months.
Johnny Otis, the influential producer, bandleader, and impresario, had 11 R&B hits before he made his lone appearance on the Top 40 with “Willie and the Hand Jive.” During his career, Otis introduced innumerable new acts, one of whom was Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Ballard had eight Top 40 hits, but is best known for writing “The Twist” for Chubby Checker. The Twist craze inspired many variations including that of Billy Joe and the Checkmates, who based their “Percolator Twist” on a Maxwell House commercial (Bupa Bupa Bup Bup).
The immortal “Leader of the Pack” was the object of a hit parody called “Leader of the Laundromat,” which was performed by a studio group called the Detergents. The vocalist was Ron Dante, who later sang for the definitive studio group, the Archies. The record was produced by Barry Manilow.
“Wipe Out,” by The Surfaris, featuring drums and a hysterical laugh, was the first song to emerge from California’s sand-and-gasoline culture. It was followed by the Rip Chords’ “Hey Little Cobra,” Ronny and the Daytonas “G.T.O.,” and The Trashmen’s “Surfin Bird,” with its famous “Papa Oom Mow Mow,” which a judge later determined was hijacked from a group called The Rivingtons.
The last of the Elvoids appeared in ’64. The version from ’62, Bruce Channel, didn’t sing like Elvis, but showed rockabilly roots by amiably baying “Hey Baby!” over the harmonica playing of Delbert McClinton, whose “Giving It Up for Your Love” made him a one-hit wonder 18 years later. But ’64s entry, “Suspicion,” by Terry Stafford, really sounded like Elvis. Unfortunately for Terry, the King was in the midst of releasing 10 go-nowhere songs, including “Do the Clam,” which left Terry peddling Elvis stock in a bear market.
The big news of ’64 was the British invasion. So hot were The Beatles that nearly every British group charted a string of hits. However, the Honeycombs, who got their name from their girl drummer’s nickname (Honey) and her occupation (hairdresser, in which she used a … Get it?), had only one hit with “Have I the Right?”
Many great show biz careers were launched with protest songs, none of which matched the vehemence of Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” Barry made a lot of rude observations about “bodies floatin’” and “the whole world in a grave,” but his undoing came when he sang “You may leave here for four days in space / But when you return it’s the same old place.” When you piss on the space program, pal, you’ve gone too far. Still, he did better than The Spokesmen, whose answer, “Dawn of Correction,” managed to occupy space on the charts for a whole week.
The Year of the Garage Bands: The Bobby Fuller Four might have had a long career after “I Fought the Law,” but then Bobby asphyxiated himself in his garage. The Standells (“Dirty Water”) and The Seeds (“Pushin Too Hard”) were supposed to be America’s answer to the Stones, but like most musical answers, they’d gotten the question wrong. The Leaves got their name when one band member greeted another with “What’s happening?”, and received the reply “The leaves are happening.” They had a hit with a maundering tribute to adultery and murder called “Hey Joe.” People hearing “Black is Black” thought Los Bravos was a tough Tex-Mex band. Actually, they were from Spain, and their follow-up, “Going Nowhere,” was prophetic.
Arguably, the best garage band was ? and the Mysterians, whose “96 Tears” is garagia at its best. ?’s vocals are anguished, petulant, and hostile, just the way spurned teenage swains should sound. His name was Rudy Martinez. The group’s follow-up reached number 22; then they broke up. The Mysterians went on to lay tracks on bubble gum records.
Quickly now, what’s the difference between Music Machine (“Talk, Talk”), Music Explosion (“Little Bit o’ Soul”), and Syndicate of Sound (“Little Girl,” as in “Hey little girl, you don’t hafta hide nothin’ no more”)? Right! All the members of Music Machine always wore black leather. Outside that, they all wanted to be The Box Tops.
Dance crazes create one-hit wonders: Cliff Nobles’ “The Hone,” Van McCoy’s “The Hustle,” Cannibal and the Headhunters’ “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk.” One of the best of this genre was Human Beinz’ “Nobody But Me.” in which the singer posits “No no, No, No no, No-no-no, No, No-no-no, No, No-no-no, No-no-no!-no,” then contends “Nobody can do the Shingaling like I do / Nobody can do the Shake,” and so on, through the Boogaloo, the Rally Dog, and the Twist. More than a few of us who tried to slide through our teens with one all-purpose dance step were exposed by this record.
Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” tried to capitalize on the student rebel spirit of the times, but when it advised to “Send out for guns and ammo,” it went a little overboard. Still, it was just the sort of thing you’d like playing as you stormed the dean’s office.
A studio group called Steam recorded the eminently singable, dancaeable, “Na Na, Hey Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye,” which enjoyed a resurgence after While Sox fans took to singing it a few years ago. Steam, meanwhile, evaporated.
“The Worst That Could Happen,” by The Brooklyn Bridge, was a turgid song about a guy whose girl is marrying someone else, after he resisted marrying her himself. The lyric is the embodiment of sell-pity and insincerity (“I don’t really blame you for having a dream of your own … A woman like you needs a house and a home”), and you just know this guy’s already figured out how to use this story to pick up chicks.
The ultimate one-hit wonder spent six weeks at number on, and was performed by a duo no one ever heard from before or since. It’s Zager and Evans’ “In the Year 2525,” and it’s a total embarrassment. This pretentious song came equipped with a Latin subtitle (Exordium & Terminus), and a lyric that featured lines like “(Man) has taken everything this old earth can yield, and he ain’t put back nothin’, Wo-o-oh.” Woo-oh indeed. In the year 2525, if man is still alive, if woman can survive, they better not hear this record, or they may not realize what a golden era this was.
“The Rapper,” by The Jaggerz, warns a girl not to be seduced by a smooth-talker (“Rap, rap, rap, you know what he’s after”). However, The Jaggerz come across like a bunch of rejected, resentful snots. With them as the alternative, it’s no contest; being seduced by a glib charmer seems downright appealing. “The Rapper” reprised a theme that appeared in 1965, when Bob Kuban and the In-Men did “The Cheater” (“Look out for the cheater / Make way for the foolhardy clown”). Again, this song was so bouncy that it made the Cheater sound like a real fun guy. By the way, did any other rock song ever use the word ‘foolhardy’?
A group called Blue Haze spent seven weeks on the charts with “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Blue Haze then wafted away, joining such other colorful one-hit wonders as Cilia Black, Jeanne Black, Blue Cheer, Blue Jays, Blues Image, Blues Magoos, Shades of Blue, Al Brown, Arthur Brown, Boots Brown, Buster Brown, Chuck Brown, Nappy Brown, Polly Brown, Roy Brown, Shirley Brown, Frijid Pink, Garland Green, Norman Greenbaum, Lorne Greene, Pink Lady, Silver, White Plains, Tony Joe White, The Pastels, and Rosie and the Originals.
It’s strange, but with the exception of Fats Domino, New Orleans seems capable of producing nothing but one-hit wonders. Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time” was only the latest in a series that included Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise,” Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is,” Bobby Marchan’s “There’s Something on Your Mind,” Chris Kennar’s “I Like It Like That,” Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” Joe Jones’”You Talk Too Much,” and Huey “Piano” Smith’s immortal “Don’t You just Know It.” Then again, the Battle of New Orleans was fought a couple of weeks after the War of 1812 ended.
An English studio group called First Class hit the top 10 with “Beach Baby,” which featured the lyric “Beach Baby, given me your hand / Give me something that I can remember.” Most guys would settle for a photograph.
When the sexual resolution was being fomented, rock n’ roll was there, pushing the troops over the barricades. They didn’t take long to fall. What were the fruits of this victory? Sex went pop. lay Ferguson got to say that he and his girlfriend made love on “Thunder Island.” Peter McCann got to ask “Do You Want to Make Love, or Do You Just Want to Fool Around?” Dean Friedman got to mention that “Ariel” wasn’t wearing a bra. The Starland Vocal Band got to record “Afternoon Delight,” about the joys of daylight sex. Sammy johns got to sing about having a sexual encounter with a hitchhiker in his “Chevy Van.” Alan O’Day got to record “Undercover Angel,” which is about jerking off to a Farrah Fawcett poster.
Some one-hit wonders of the ’70s can he described as dirges: Morris Albert’s mopey “Feelings,” Dan Hill’s lamebrained “Sometimes When We Touch” (“… the honesty’s too much” … What?), and Debby Boone’s champion “You Light Up My Life,” which she says she’s singing to God. Well, fine, but does she think God wanted her to be such a drag?
K.C. dumped the Sunshine band and teamed with Teri DeSario to cover Barbara Mason’s 1965 hit, “Yes, I’m Ready.” This song features one of the most preposterous lyrics in rock history, when Teri innocently-but-passionately says “I don’t even know how to hold your hand, but I’m ready to learn.” The only way this makes sense is if Teri’s been in an automobile accident, and K.C.’s her physical therapist.
The 1980s
During the ’70s, albums replaced singles as the primary music product, and Top 40 radio declined, reducing the number and quality of one-hit wonders. Lately, the rise of MTV and the return of the Top 40 format have renewed the possibility that one-hit wonders will return in abundance. Still, it’s more likely that an act will have a hit, hang around on MTV, get some play on album-oriented stations, and completely wreck the ways we recognize one-hit wonders. We may have to develop new standards of insignificance, and think less about one-hit wonders than about flashes in the pan. Like Human League, Flock of Seagulls, The Knack, Men at Work, and Christopher Cross.
Still, there are true one-hit wonders out there. Michael Sembello’s “Maniac,” Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me,” and Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” are perfect examples. Of course, any of these guys could end up with a long career, but if it happened to Boyd Bennett and the Rockets, it can happen to anyone