Once in a lifetime, same as it ever was

Since the beginning of the rock music era, the dream of many artists was to have one big hit single.

Some artists, of course, had far greater ambitions — dozens of hit singles, several million-selling albums — superstars like The Beatles, Billy Joel, U2, Madonna, Elton John, Prince, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Diana Ross.

Other musicians didn’t seem to care about hit singles at all, instead setting their sights on big-selling LPs:  Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Frank Zappa.

The groups who had just one big moment of fame have been derisively labeled “One-Hit Wonders.”  That is, they had one hugely successful song, but then seemed to disappear 1-hit-wonders2entirely from the public consciousness.

About half of these artists earned their dubious distinction for good reason:  They really didn’t have much talent in the first place.  They simply lucked out — once — with the right combination of ingredients, a kind of perfect storm:  An irresistibly catchy melody, a simple lyric, a memorable voice, an infectious hook, a distinctive studio production sound, a persuasive marketing push, an eager public and great timing all come together, and the result is a national (or worldwide) Top Five hit song.  Perhaps the songwriter and producer brought most of the talent to the party, and the artist didn’t really offer much.  Therefore, like catching lightning in a bottle, they found this feat nearly impossible to duplicate, and the band whose name appeared on the hit was never heard from again.  Here are a few:  Carl Douglas, Blues Magoos, Paper Lace, Zager and Evans, Terry Jacks, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Starland Vocal Band.

On the other hand, there are many “one-hit wonders” who deserved a much better fate.  They wrote/recorded many great songs and albums, but for reasons unclear, they images-26never achieved further success on the charts.  (Poor management/promotion, radio station indifference, record company blackballing, etc.). A few examples of this sad phenomenon are:  Karla Bonoff, Argent, Sanford and Townsend, Rickie Lee Jones, Golden Earring, Steve Forbert, Free.

You can find many reference books that explore this subject in great detail, including the one I own, The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders, first published in 1990 and covering the period from 1955 to 1984.  Other books limit their coverage to the Sixties, or Seventies, or more recent decades.

Below are 15 “one-hit wonders” that I’m singling out because I really liked them at the time of release, and I still enjoy hearing them today.  They’re catchy without being annoying, and they hint at the possibility that the artists may have done more good stuff worth exploring.

The Spotify list at the end includes all these songs, and I encourage you to search deeper and listen to other songs by some of these artists.  I’ll bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


R-1745808-1404061595-7025.jpeg“Fire,” Crazy World of Arthur Brown, 1968

Brown emerged from the British town of Leeds, and he pursued theatrical skills in London and Paris.  By 1968, he had formed The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, known for a prototype “shock rock” which influenced Alice Cooper, Kiss and other heavy metal bands of the ’70s.  His one moment in the sun was the organ-dominated “Fire,” which opened with him screaming, “I am the god of hellfire,” and later in the song, “You’re gonna burn, burn, burn, burn, burn…”  It reached #1 in the UK and #2 in the US.  Brown was frontman for Kingdom Come, another British group, and also released a few solo LPs, but he never again made the charts in the US.

R-3473940-1501173395-6640.jpeg“Black is Black,” Los Bravos, 1966

The first Spanish group to make the Top Ten in the US, Los Bravos was based in Madrid.  They sought to make their mark in the European market making English-based pop music.  Their lead singer, the German-born Mike Kogel, had a vocal style that sounded a lot like Gene Pitney’s, so when their single “Black is Black” started getting radio play in the States, many US listeners thought it must be a new Pitney song.  That may have contributed to the success of the track, which reached #4 in the US in mid-1966 (and #2 in England).  Their follow-up, “I Don’t Care,” peaked at #16 in England but failed to make any impression in the US, nor did any of their subsequent releases.

61NBfOEkzYL._SY355_“All Right Now,” Free, 1970

One of the most notable thing about this accomplished blues rock band from England is that, upon their 1968 debut, all four members were under 18 years old.  By the time of their third LP, “Fire and Water,” they had the #2 album in the UK, and charted six Top Ten albums there during their reign.  That album reached #17 in the States, helped along by their 1970 monster hit single, “All Right Now,” which peaked at #4, Free’s only appearance on the US Top 40.  (“The Stealer,” the follow-up single from their next LP, stalled at #49.)  Following the band’s breakup in 1973, singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke joined forces with guitarist Mick Ralphs from Mott the Hoople and Boz Burrell from King Crimson to form Bad Company, which far surpassed Free in sales and chart success throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s.

pilot-magic“Magic,” Pilot, 1974

This hit single, which reached #5 in the US in 1975, was a bit too cutesy for my taste, but I was impressed with their pedigree.  Singer David Paton, keyboardist Billy Lyall and guitarist Ian Bairnson, all from Scotland, combined forces with EMI producer Alan Parsons on Magic’s debut.  Although they never charted again in the US, their follow-up, “January,” went to #1 in the UK.  Paton and Bairnson went on to become regular contributors to the repertoire of The Alan Parsons Project, and participated on four US hit singles with that group in the 1980s — “Eye in the Sky” (#3), Games People Play” (#16 ), “Time” (#15 ) and “Don’t Answer Me” (#15 ).

MV5BMDE5MTU0ODgtNjQ4My00OGM2LThhNzctMzYzZDBiN2U5NmRlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzA5MzkyOTM@._V1_“99 Luftballons,” Nena, 1984

Gabriele Kerner, a German-born singer/songwriter/actress, took the stage name Nena, which also served as her band’s name, and their debut single, “99 Luftballons,” topped the charts in West Germany and throughout Europe in 1983.  They made the decision to record a second version, “99 Red Balloons,” with English lyrics (although not a direct translation of the original German) and watched it reach #1 across the British Isles and Canada.  Curiously, it was the German version that climbed to #2 in the US in 1984.  Radio personality Casey Kasem merged parts of each version to play on his syndicated program.  First with her band and then on her own, Nena went to chart 10 Top Five albums in Germany and Austria, but she never showed up again on US charts.

R-6113942-1411405941-4421.jpeg“Ooh Child,” The Five Stairsteps, 1970

Five siblings who comprised the Burke family made up the lineup of The Five Stairsteps, a Chicago-based soul vocal group developed with the help of R&B legend Curtis Mayfield.  The group enjoyed many Top 20 hits on the R&B charts between 1966 and 1980, but only one song made the Mainstream Top 40 — “O-o-h Child,’ which reached #8 in the summer of 1970 and ranked #402 on Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”  Keni Burke eventually signed with George Harrison’s Dark Horses label as a solo artist and went on to become an in-demand bass player for dozens of artists throughout the 1980s.

Hocus_Pocus_Focus“Hocus Pocus,” Focus, 1973

This Dutch band of progressive rock instrumentalists emerged in 1969 and had a solid run of success in 1971-1975 with albums in The Netherlands, England and, to a lesser extent, the US.  They are still an active band today playing small European venues, although with numerous personnel changes.  In 1971, their second LP, “Moving Waves” (also known as “Focus II”), included their best-known track, “Hocus Pocus,” which featured Deep Purple-ish fast guitar riffs and some startling yodeling instead of vocals.  At 6:42, it was too long to gain much traction as a single, but in the spring of 1973, Focus’s label truncated the track to a more radio-friendly 3:18, and became the group’s only hit in the US at #9.

Little_Girl_(Syndicate_of_Sound_album)“Little Girl,” Syndicate of Sound, 1966

This garage-rock band out of San Jose won a “battle of the bands” contest in the Bay Area in 1965, and the prize was the chance to record a single.  Unfortunately, “Prepare for Love” could muster only local airplay, but they were given a second chance, and band members Don Baskin and John Sharkey came up with “Little Girl,” which caught the ear of execs at Bell Records, who gave them a national distribution deal, and the song went to #8 in early 1966.  They won a spot on a tour with Paul Revere & The Raiders and The Young Rascals, but the Bell deal never amounted to anything else, and the Syndicate of Sound faded away.

MI0000392284“867-5309/Jenny,” Tommy Tutone, 1982

Guitarist/singer Tommy Heath and guitarist/keyboardist Jim Keller founded Tommy and the Tu-Tones in California in 1978, and by 1981, they shortened their name to Tommy Tutone and recorded “867-5309/Jenny,” a contagious song brought to them by songwriter Alex Call.  Peaking at #4 in early 1982, it became probably the most successful song in pop history to feature a phone number, but Tommy Tutone went in absentia from then on.  While the phone number has been eliminated in many parts of the country, it’s still a working number in a few places, and rock fans still delight in calling it now and then to ask for Jenny.

822571947“I Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” Elvin Bishop, 1976

Bishop was an integral member of the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band out of Chicago from 1964-1968.  He then began a solo career while also appearing and recording with other illustrious blues groups like The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and B.B. King.  His solo albums never sold well but he had a decent following throughout the ’70s.  In 1976, he struck gold his one and only time with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” a #3 hit that appeared on his 1975 LP “Struttin’ My Stuff.”  The single featured vocals by Mickey Thomas, who would become frontman for Jefferson Starship three years later.

55fe3db3fa3a4ea9c7799e8420873f47.939x954x1“Ride Captain Ride,” Blues Image, 1970

The Blues Image was a Tampa-based band formed in 1966 who moved on to Miami and then eventually Los Angeles, hoping for success. They were signed there by Atco Records, and released two albums, “Blues Image” and “Open” in 1969 and 1970.  From that second LP came “Ride Captain Ride,” a commercially appealing tune that rose all the way to #4 on US charts, but that was the extent of it as the band soon went their separate ways.  Several members went on to join other groups like Three Dog Night and Iron Butterfly, and the most notable alumnus of Blues Image was percussionist Joe Lala, who performed with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joe Walsh and Manassas, and appeared on Andy Gibbs’ #1 single “Shadow Dancing.”

brewer-and-shipley-one-toke-over-the-line-kama-sutra-3“One Toke Over the Line,” Brewer & Shipley, 1971

Among the many acoustic duo singer-songwriters in the early ’70s was this twosome from Missouri, who were known for tight harmonies and intricate acoustic guitar work, much like Seals and Crofts.  Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley achieved only modest success on the charts, except for the infamous “One Toke Over the Line,” the country-ish #10 song from 1971 with the obvious marijuana references.  Incredibly, a squeaky-clean duo called Dick and Dale performed the song on the ultra-straight “Lawrence Welk Show” that year, where it was described as a “modern spiritual”!  It’s there on YouTube if you want a good belly laugh.

Hold_Your_Head_Up_-_Argent“Hold Your Head Up,” Argent, 1972

Keyboardist Rod Argent was a pivotal member of The Zombies, a British band that had three big hits (“Tell Her No,” “She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season”) in the ’60s, as well as the critically praised LP “Odessey and Oracle.”  He then went on to form Argent, which lasted for about four years, and enjoyed big success with their only hit, “Hold Your Head Up,” which reached #5 in the US in the summer of ’72.  The song still gets plenty of airplay today, and was covered by several bands in the late ’70s, including the Marc Tanner Band, Jellyfish and Mother Love Bone.  Argent’s bassist and drummer eventually became members of The Kinks in the 1980s.

220px-Edie_Brickell_-_What_I_Am_7-inch“What I Am,” Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, 1989

The “New Bo’s,” as they were affectionately called, made quite a wave in the Dallas clubs in the mid-’80s, especially after Edie Brickell joined as their lead singer.  Their first official LP, “Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars,” was widely praised, reaching #4 on the US album charts.  The debut single from that LP, “What I Am,” was a #7 hit in early 1989.  But the band broke up the following year, and Brickell married the great Paul Simon in 1991.  Simon helped gather multiple veteran session musicians for Brickell’s excellent solo LPs, 1994’s “Picture Perfect Morning” and 2003’s “Volcano,” but both albums failed to generate airplay.  I encourage you to check them out!

2939-300“Pictures of Matchstick Men,” Status Quo, 1968

There have been a number of bands over the years who were huge in England but were virtually unknown in the States.  Perhaps the most remarkable example of this is Status Quo, who debuted in both countries in early 1968 with the psychedelic rock hit, “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” which peaked at #12 in the US and #2 in England.  That was the end of their chart success in the States, but Status Quo went on to set records that still stand today.  Once they switched from psychedelia to a boogie band, they have charted more than 20 Top Ten LPs in England and Europe, including four #1s between 1972 and 2016, and they have more than 60 singles, with 40 of them reaching the Top 20.  In the US, 99% of music listeners have likely never heard of them…


Honorable mention:

(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet,” The Blues Magoos, 1967;  “Cool Jerk,” The Capitols, 1966;  “Get It On,” Chase, 1971;  “Evil Woman,” Crow, 1970;  “Come On Eileen,” Dexys Midnight Runners, 1984;   “Friday On My Mind,” Easybeats, 1967;  “Rock On,” David Essex, 1974;    “Precious and Few,” Climax, 1972; “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” Georgia Satellites, 1986;  “Dancing in the Moonlight,” King Harvest, 1973;  “Into the Night,” Benny Mardones, 1980;  “More Today Than Yesterday,” Spiral Starecase, 1969;  “Thunder and Lightning,” Chi Coltrane, 1972;  “Romeo’s Tune,” Steve Forbert, 1980.



Wrote a song for everyone, wrote a song for truth

“I would write five songs to get one song.  I’d have a big junkyard of stuff written as the year went by.  If something wasn’t complete, I just pulled out the parts I liked, like taking bruce-springsteen-october-2016-ss01the parts you need from several cars, and you put them in the other car so that car runs.” — Bruce Springsteen, on the songwriting process

To the layman, the art of writing a song seems magical, almost otherworldly.

Many people find it hard enough just to write a coherent sentence or a paragraph, let alone an essay, a speech or, God forbid, a book.  The idea of conjuring up song lyrics and then putting them to music is… well, a Herculean task, and pretty much impossible.

So how do the songwriters do it?  How do they do it even once, never mind dozens of times?  How do icons like Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney write memorable song after memorable song every year from their teens until well into their 70s?

images-25Clearly, it’s a very rare, God-given talent.  And it is mysterious.  Even the songwriters themselves are hard-pressed to explain exactly how it works or where the songs come from.

“Songwriting is a very mysterious process.  It feels like creating something from nothing. It’s something I don’t feel like I really 2e0a4cf67d454c9de58e985e44e318d3688beff0control.”  — Tracy Chapman

“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.  It’s a mysterious condition.”  — Leonard Cohen

Those fortunate few who have the ability to craft a song concede that they often struggle to produce something they’re satisfied with.  The late Leon Russell, an exceptional pianist, arranger and recording artist, admitted that songwriting never came naturally to 0798c90a-49f7-42a3-aa91-de253523e4e8-large16x9_1280x720_60719P00WWVGPhim.  “Songwriting was very tough for me.  I would go in and sit, and hope for inspiration to come, but it was rarely forthcoming.”

Most classical music composers studied the intricacies of music for many years before attempting to write an aria, sonata or symphony.  By contrast, many pop songwriters confess that they had little or no musical education.  McCartney, the most PaulMcCartney_wide-f63b946213ed3b3b0fd9ed854a92e1be36a852a2-s800-c85successful songwriter of the past half-century, says he can’t read nor notate music.  It just comes to him by playing around with notes and chords as he plays guitar or piano.

“If I was to sit down right now and write a song,” McCartney said, “I’d use my usual method:  I’d either sit down with a guitar or at the piano and just look for melodies, chord shapes, musical phrases, some words, a thought just to get started with. And then I’d just sit with it to work it out, like I’m writing an essay or doing a crossword puzzle. That’s the system I’ve always used.”

neil-diamondNeil Diamond may have put his finger on it when he explained what he saw as a major deficiency in his songwriting toolbox.  “I don’t deny now that it would have been nice to have had more background in music theory.  But because I never had any of that, songwriting is easily the hardest part of what I do.”

C1A2RBlB6BS._SL1000_.pngPaul Simon admits that it takes him a long time to write songs.  “For me, the music — or more accurately, the rhythm — usually comes first, and then a melody will suggest itself.  This may take weeks, even months.  Then I struggle a long time to settle on the lyric.  It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true.  If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks.”

1208-ctm-kchdonhenley-1Some artists have had considerable success by regarding songwriting as a process.  Here’s Don Henley‘s take on it:  “My process hasn’t changed much at all.  I still use legal pads.  I do a lot of writing in my head when I’m engaged in other activities, like driving, or loading the dishwasher.  I find that when I’m doing menial tasks, my mind lets go of all the clutter, and then the creative stuff can bubble up from the subconscious.” 

The late great David Bowie, whose lengthy career underwent numerous stylistic bowie2_2446365bchanges, said he found it helpful to have rules and a structural process, but he never minded breaking those rules now and then.  “I think process is quite important. To allow the accidental to take place is often very good.  So I trick myself into things like that.  Maybe I’ll write out five or six chords, then discipline myself to write something only with those five or six chords involved.  Of course, I’ll cheat as well.  If I’ve got the basis of something really quite good coming out of those five or six chords, then I’ll allow myself to restructure it a bit, if I think, well, that could be so much better if instead it went to F-sharp, or something like that.”

Artists of all types talk about having a muse — an intangible inspiration, stimulus or creative influence.  In Greek mythology, the Muses were the nine goddesses (daughters of Zeus) who presided over the arts and sciences, and the Muses could be very unpredictable.

carlysimon-1119-1447935762Songwriters point out that their muse ebbs and flows, and can sometimes seem to disappear for long stretches (the so-called “writer’s block”).  Carly Simon offers this recollection:  “My songwriting artistry has gone through many phases, including one time where it has been very quiet and abandoned me completely for a few years.  That was really frightening.  I didn’t know if I’d ever get it back.”

ìììSongwriting is a curious art form that, like most art forms, cannot be rushed.  It is for this reason that artists and their corporate benefactors are often at odds about how much time is necessary to produce quality work.  As rocker Nick Cave puts it:  “My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times, and I feel it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.  My muse is not a horse, and I am not in a horse race.”

Springsteen, a notoriously prolific songwriter for most of his 50-year career, concedes even he has had times when he couldn’t come up with anything:  “I wish I could write every day, but I’ve sometimes gone for long periods of time without writing because I didn’t have any good ideas, or whatever is in there is just sort of gestating.  Sometimes, I’ve had to force myself to write.  I think what happens is you move in and out of different veins.  You’re mining, and you hit a vein, and then you go with that, and then it dries up.”

hqdefault-10Patience and perseverance are crucial for songwriters, they say.  Many failures come before they hit on a song they really like.  Gerry Goffin, the lyricist and ex-husband of songwriter Carole King, was part of the famous Brill Building stable of songwriting teams who reported for work each day and were expected to crank out hit songs like some sort of factory assembly line.  Goffin was pragmatic about that kind of creative environment:  “You’ve got to realize it’s a hit or miss process.  But my advice would be, Don’t be afraid to write a bad song, because the next one may be great.”

a45512834_s800b1b5My daughter Emily Hackett is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter who writes on her own or in collaboration with others.  Either way, she says, it’s a process of exploration.  “There’s a lot of discovery in songwriting.  If you’re doing it right, you’re constantly discovering new avenues.  You could take a certain road for five or ten minutes and not get anywhere, but that’s okay.  Try a different road.  Eventually you’ll land on the right path, and the song will unfold.”

TomPetty-2The late Tom Petty drew an analogy between writing a song and catching a fish:  “Songwriting is pretty lonely work.  I think a lot of people don’t have the patience for it.  You’re not necessarily going to get one every time you try.  In fact, most times you try, you’re not going to get one.  It’s like fishing.  You’re fishing, and you either caught a fish, or you didn’t.  If you did, there’s one in the boat; if you didn’t, there’s not.  But you’ve got to go back and keep your pole in the water.  That’s the only way you’re going to get a bite.”

We music lovers should be grateful that songwriters are often almost addicted to their art.  They p01br0nwenjoy writing songs, certainly, but sometimes it becomes an obsession that haunts them, and doesn’t let go until the piece is finished.  John Lennon had this to say about that:  “It’s like being possessed.  It won’t let you sleep, so you have to get up, make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep.  That’s always in the middle of the bloody night, when you’re half awake and your critical facilities are switched off.”

dolly-parton-yellowCountry songwriter Dolly Parton has said she looks forward to those times when she isn’t touring or leading a busy life so she has the opportunity to focus on writing new songs.  “I always long for that block of time and space when I can go on a writing binge, because I’m really addicted to songwriting.”

keith-richardsSome songwriters are amazed when they come up with a great song and wonder why no one had beaten them to the punch.  Says Keith Richards:  “With most of the songs I’ve written, I’ve felt there’s this gap waiting to be filled, and I think, man, this song should have been written hundreds of years ago.  How did nobody else pick up on that little space before?”

joni-mitchellOther tunesmiths are such perfectionists that, once they’ve recorded and released a song, they find themselves forever unhappy with the result.  Here’s Joni Mitchell talking:  “When I listen back to my early music, it’s always, ‘Why didn’t I put a guitar fill there?  Why did I sing the line like that?  And why am I whining?'”

R-6446275-1427469478-5531.jpegSome pop songwriters have found themselves facing lawsuits because their song sounds like another song that’s already been written.  In 1976, a court found George Harrison had “subconsciously plagiarized” The Chiffons’ song “He’s So Fine” when he wrote “My Sweet Lord,” and awarded millions in royalties, which later spurred Harrison to write “This Song,” with these lyrics:  “This song has nothing tricky about it, this song ain’t black or white, and as far as I know don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright, so this song we’ll let be…”

Lennon once said:  “You know, there are only so many notes.”  Springsteen maintains, “Everyone steals from everyone else.”  Folk singer Pete Seeger famously wrote, “So sing, change, add to, subtract.  But beware multiplying.  If you record and start making hundreds of copies, watch out.  Write a letter first.  Get permission.”  


As a postscript here, I wanted to mention how, since the dawn of the Internet, songwriters have watched helplessly as their intellectual property has been devalued to Songwriting-and-writers-blockthe point of absurdity.  Downloads and streaming services have given consumers easy access to so much music, but the royalties paid to the songwriters have been reduced to a mere fraction of what they used to receive.  It’s grossly unfair, and needs to be remedied.

The good news is, within the past year, the Music Modernization Act — supported by a broad cross-section of artists, producers and others throughout the music industry — has overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives and is currently pending before the Senate.  It will overhaul copyright law and result in songwriters and artists at last making their fair share of money from digital and streaming services.

The bad news is, a last-minute amendment to the legislation, proposed by The Blackstone Group (a multi-billion-dollar private equity and financial services firm that stands to gain handsomely), is threatening to kill the MMA bill dead in its tracks.  It’s a classic example of corporate greed and a blatant attempt to halt what is widely viewed as a long-overdue correction of songwriter remuneration.

I implore you, on behalf of songwriters everywhere, to contact your U.S. Senator and demand the removal of the offensive amendment and insist on passage of the MMA in its original wording.