“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” — Andy Warhol, 1968
It’s no surprise that this iconic quotation, referring to the phenomenon of short-lived media celebrity status, was born in the 1960s. It was a time of an ever-increasing pop culture when small-time players in television, music, politics and current events made fleeting appearances, were suddenly famous for a little while, and then were gone.
In the popular music arena, bands and/or artists who come out of nowhere to have an enormously popular hit single and then are never heard from again are derisively described as “one-hit wonders.” There are so many of them that Billboard Magazine published a whole book about them.
In the purest cases, these are instances when a perfect storm occurs: 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. But, like catching lightning in a bottle, this feat is nearly impossible to duplicate, and the band whose name is attached to the hit disappears into oblivion.
Let’s take the 1970 hit “Spirit in the Sky.” A refugee from East Coast jug bands named Norman Greenbaum was performing at The Troubadour in LA when he was discovered by producer Erik Jacobsen. The twosome collaborated to write “Spirit,” recorded it with the aid of session musicians, Warner Bros. released it, and to everyone’s surprise, it rocketed to #3 and sold two million copies. Without a touring band, Greenbaum was unable to capitalize on its popularity, and after several follow-up songs bombed, he called it quits. He took it casually, though; “I sat back and said, ‘Well, I’m no rock and roller. I got some money from it. Screw it, I’ll go into the dairy business.'” And that’s just what he did.
Bands become “one-hit wonders” for several reasons. Many times, the artists were loaded with talent, but were victimized by meager promotion or poor management for their subsequent unsuccessful attempts at hits. Singer-songwriters like Karla Bonoff (“Personally”), Phoebe Snow (“Poetry Man”), Rickie Lee Jones (“Chuck E.’s in Love”) and Edie Brickell (“What I Am”) fit this sub-group.
Other times, there have been bands with huge followings who sold millions of albums and drew rave reviews, but they managed only one appearance on the Top 40 charts (Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Randy Newman, Buffalo Springfield, Free, Robert Cray, Mott the Hoople, Dr. John, Marc Bolan and Thin Lizzy). Usually, they weren’t all that interested in scoring hit singles anyway.
In too many cases, the “one-hit wonders” have 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, as explained above, and the resulting hits were cringe-inducing embarrassments that have listeners scratching their heads wondering why they were ever popular. Examples: Debby Boone (“You Light Up My Life”), Paper Lace (“The Night Chicago Died”), The Cuff Links (“Tracy”), Jeannie C. Riley (“Harper Valley P.T.A.”), Terry Jacks (“Seasons in the Sun”), Zager and Evans (“In the Year 2525”), Jessi Colter (“I’m Not Lisa”), Tee Set (“Ma Belle Amie”).
The category I’m focusing on here are the many dozens of “one-hit wonders” from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s who produced truly timeless classic singles — once — that are still hugely popular, well regarded and worthy of attention decades later. I recognize this is a subjective area, but I don’t think I’ll get too many objections to my choices. I’ve singled out 15 songs to briefly discuss, with a corresponding Spotify playlist. If you scroll down further, you’ll find a longer list of “honorable mentions,” also with its own Spotify playlist.
“Lies,” The Knickerbockers, 1966
Buddy Rendell, singer and sax player for the Royal Teens (whose “Short Shorts” was a #3 hit in 1958), formed the Castle Kings in 1964, later named The Knickerbockers after a street in his Jersey home town. With guitarist Beau Charles, he wrote “Lies” in late 1965 in an attempt to mimic The Beatles’ “Help!”/”Paperback Writer” era, and it worked. Many people still think this is a Beatles track! All subsequent attempts to duplicate that success failed, and they disbanded barely a year later.
“Smoke From a Distant Fire,” Sanford-Townsend Band, 1977
Ed Sanford and John Townsend were Alabama-based songwriters and session musicians who formed a band to showcase the songs they’d been writing. They recorded in the famed Muscle Shoals studios, and found Top Ten success with the energetic “Smoke From a Distant Fire” in the summer of ’77, but their follow-ups fell flat, and they soon returned to songwriting, working with the likes of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins.
“In the Summertime,” Mungo Jerry, 1970
Multi-instrumentalist/singer Ray Dorset assembled a goodtime jug band known as Mungo Jerry in England in the late ’60s, with emphasis on washboards, banjos, jug-blowing and the like. They snared a label contract and became something of a phenomenon in England, totaling seven Top 20 hits. In the US, though, their lone hit was the infectious shuffle “In the Summertime,” which reached #3 in 1970.
“California Sun,” The Rivieras, 1964
When you mention surf party music, most people think of The Beach Boys, but dozens of other classic surf tracks were recorded by one-hit wonders. Even obscure bands from Indiana were able to cash in on the craze. The Playmates (soon to be The Rivieras, after the popular Buick model) turned their revved-up version of a failed 1959 Joe Jones single into a nationwide hit in early 1964, just before the “British Invasion” crowded out most America bands from the charts. The Rivieras never recovered.
“Smiling Faces Sometimes,” The Undisputed Truth, 1971
The award-winning Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote this fabulous R&B tune as another chart-topper for The Temptations, who recorded it but chose to delay its release as a single. Undeterred by this, Whitfield and Strong gave it to the up-and-coming Undisputed Truth, who also recorded it and released it first, scoring a #3 hit, their only Top 40 appearance.
“Come on Down to My Boat,” Every Mother’s Son, 1967
Brothers Dennis and Larry Larden had been a New York City-based folk duo when they formed Every Mother’s Son and signed with the conservative MGM label based on their clean-cut image. Their first and only single, written by their producer Wes Farrell, reached #6 in 1967 and landed the band an appearance as a night club act in an episode of MGM’s TV series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” But that was all the fame they could muster, and the group soon broke up.
“Brother Louie,” The Stories, 1973
When this soulful R&B song (written and recorded by British band Hot Chocolate) went to #1 for The Stories, they were actually dismayed. Their cover version had been added only as an afterthought to their second album, and they felt it wasn’t representative of their own material. They found themselves at odds with their label over this, and lead vocalist/bassist Ian Lloyd and keyboardist Michael Brown both left. The dynamic changed, the momentum was lost, and that was that.
“Dirty Water,” The Standells, 1966
One of the top two or three “garage rock” classics, this nasty tribute to Boston’s Charles River is the unofficial anthem of the Red Sox and Bruins. It’s one of my “go to” karaoke songs. The Standells are regarded by many as “the punk band of the ’60s,” inspiring the Sex Pistols and The Ramones. Why they had only one hit is a real mystery.
“She Blinded Me With Science,” Thomas Dolby, 1983
Born as Thomas Robertson in England, this techno wizard got the nickname of “Dolby” because of his incessant fiddling with noise reduction controls during studio sessions, and he chose to adopt it as his stage name to avoid confusion with British singer Tom Robinson, who was popular at the time. His only hit single in the US, “She Blinded Me With Science,” features heavy synthesizer and quirky vocals, and includes interjections by British TV presenter Magnus Pyle periodically shouting “Science!”
“Judy in Disguise (With Glasses),” John Fred & His Playboy Band, 1968
John Fred Gourrier of Louisiana formed a band called The Playboys that concentrated on blue-eyed soul and swamp rock. The group eventually changed to John Fred and His Playboy Band to differentiate themselves from Gary Lewis and The Playboys, who had numerous hit singles in the mid-’60s. Fred’s only claim to fame was “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses),” his play on words of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Although the single was successful (#1 for two weeks in 1968), its silliness and use of sound effects branded them a novelty act, which doomed their career.
“How Long,” Ace, 1975
Originally known as Ace Flash and The Dynamos, this English band lasted for four years and three albums, but managed only one hit single, the wonderful soft rock hit “How Long.” Its lyrics appear to be about a lover’s betrayal, but its composer, singer Paul Carrack, has said it’s about the discovery that bass player Terry Comer had been secretly recording and performing with other groups. No doubt that hastened the group’s demise.
“Play That Funky Music,” Wild Cherry, 1976
Wild Cherry was a straight-ahead rock band playing clubs in Pittsburgh in 1975 when a group of black patrons asked them one night, “Are you white boys going to play any funky music?” Lead singer Rob Parissi immediately sat down and wrote a song around that, and within two months, “Play That Funky Music” was the #1 song in the nation, ultimately snagging two Grammy nominations in the year disco began its rule of the airwaves. The group toured and released follow-up singles but failed to generate any more Top 40 hits.
“Little Bit O’ Soul,” The Music Explosion, 1967
This garage rock group from Mansfield, Ohio, took a song written by a British songwriting team and turned it into a huge #2 hit in the spring of 1967. Lead singer Jamie Lyons, whose sneering, slurred vocal style was perfectly suited to the group’s pre-punk sound, pictured himself a solo star and started recording alone, which pretty much spelled the end of the Explosion.
“Tighter, Tighter,” Alive N Kickin’, 1970
This Brooklyn-based band attracted the attention of singer-songwriter Tommy James, who helped the group sign to his label and record some of his songs. They were preparing to record a new one he’d written called “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” but James decided he liked it so much he wanted to keep it for himself, so instead he wrote “Tighter, Tighter” for the band. The song, which reached #7 in the summer of 1970, recalls Janis Joplin’s style on the chorus. Subsequent singles were duds, and Alive N Kickin’ were soon dead.
“Tainted Love,” Soft Cell, 1981
“Tainted Love” was a failed single in 1964 for Gloria Jones in its faster R&B arrangement, but it later became popular in Northern Soul clubs in England in the mid-’70s. Marc Almond of the British group Soft Cell chose to record a drastically different version in 1981 using synthesizers and drum machines, which were in vogue at the time. It became the #1 song of the year in the UK, and five more Top 10 singles followed. In the US, the song reached #8 the following summer, but curiously, it was their only chart appearance here.
“Hold Your Head Up,” Argent, 1972; “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet,” The Blues Magoos, 1967; “One Toke Over the Line,” Brewer & Shipley, 1971; “Cool Jerk,” The Capitols, 1966; “Get It On,” Chase, 1971; “Evil Woman,” Crow, 1970; “More Today Than Yesterday,” Spiral Starecase, 1969; “Friday On My Mind,”Easybeats, 1967; “Rock On,” David Essex, 1974; “Ooh Child,” The Five Stairsteps, 1970; “Hocus Pocus,” Focus, 1973; “Romeo’s Tune,” Steve Forbert, 1981; “Precious and Few,” Climax, 1972; “Keep On Dancing,” The Gentrys, 1965; “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” Georgia Satellites, 1986; “Black is Black,” Los Bravos, 1966; “Talk It Over,” Grayson Hugh, 1989; “Earth Angel,” The Penguins, 1955; “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” Status Quo, 1968; “Fire,” Crazy Wolf of Arthur Brown, 1968: “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” Steam, 1969; “Ride Captain Ride,” Blues Image, 1970; “Thunder & Lightning,” Chi Coltrane, 1972; “Funkytown,” Lipps Inc, 1980; “99 Luftballons,” Nena, 1984.