Fame! What you get is no tomorrow

“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.

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“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.

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Honorable mentions:

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.

He coulda been the champion of the world

Two of the most popular pasttimes across the United States and around the world are live music concerts and live sports events, both of which have taken a big hit during the pandemic. Stadium crowds were either limited in size or eliminated, while concerts have been banned outright. We are all hoping and praying that, as more of us receive the vaccines, things will start to return to something like normal, and concerts and sports may once again resume their place on our to-do lists.

But it got me thinking about the relationship between music and sports, especially rock and pop music. I went searching for songs of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that have lyrics dealing with sports, and I was surprised to find precious few of them. Even some of those I decided to include have only the barest of connections to sports or the athletes who play them. Kind of puzzling, I think.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is my playlist of a dozen songs that mention athletics in some form or another, with a brief back story on each one. I hope you enjoy them, but if not, don’t sweat!

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“Glory Days,” Bruce Springsteen, 1984

The rollicking organ playing of the late Danny Federici carries this great track from Springsteen’s mega-platinum 1984 LP “Born in the USA.” It’s a rousing anthem musically, but it belies poignant lyrics that warn against being the guy who, in middle age, has only “boring stories” of his glory days in high school sports. First time I heard this, I was really getting into the groove but then read the words and realized this was to be another life lesson from Professor Bruce: Enjoy your memories, but don’t let them define you. Live in the now, and participate. The song topped out at #5 on US charts in 1985 as the fifth of seven Top Ten singles from “Born in the USA.”

“Backfield in Motion,” Mel & Tim, 1969

Melvin Hardin and Timothy McPherson were cousins from small-town Mississippi who headed to Chicago in the late ’60s and became an R&B musical duo who enjoyed a small measure of success for a few years. Most notable was “Backfield in Motion,” an infectious soul tune with clever lyrics that use sports terminology to describe a romantic relationship ruined by infidelity: “You know you’re cheatin’, baby, fakin’ the bout, /You know you’re balkin’, baby, oh yeah, strike three, you’re out, /And I caught you with your backfield in motion, yeah, /I’m gonna have to penalize you…” The song, written by the duo, peaked at #10 in 1969. They also had one more Top 20 hit, “Starting All Over Again,” in 1972.

“Centerfield,” John Fogerty, 1985

This track by the former leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival is probably the most genuine sports-related song in this bunch. Fogerty always enjoyed baseball but grew up in California at a time when there were no major league teams on the West Coast yet. The lyrics mention specific star baseball players and make use of phrases like “rounding third, heading for home” and “Put me in, coach.” In 2010, Fogerty became the only musician ever celebrated by the Baseball Hall of Fame when “Centerfield” was honored at that year’s induction ceremonies. The song stalled at #44 on the pop charts but peaked at #4 on mainstream rock charts, and the “Centerfield” LP reached #1.

“Faster,” George Harrison, 1979

In 1977, Harrison took a year off from music-making to spend time pursuing his interest in Formula 1 auto racing, traveling the world to attend various racing events and befriending such auto racing luminaries as Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda and Emerson Fittipaldi. As he made plans to return to the recording studio, Harrison wrote “Faster,” a song about the life and motivations of professional race car drivers. He titled it after Stewart’s published 1972 diary, which explains Stewart’s obsession behind his desire to participate in a dangerous profession. The song, which uses race car sound effects throughout, appeared on the ex-Beatle’s “George Harrison” LP in 1979.

“We Are the Champions,” Queen, 1977

Musically based on Freddie Mercury’s jazz-chords piano and four-part harmonies that built into anthemic proportions, this huge international hit was adopted by sports teams of all kinds when they won championships. It was paired with the far less interesting “We Will Rock You” on their 1977 LP “News of the World” and performed as the finale of most Queen concerts during that period. Lyrically, it appreciates the difficulty of overcoming adversity (“It’s been no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise, I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face, but I’ve come through…“) and the exhilaration of coming out on top (“I’ve taken my bows and my curtain calls, ’cause we are the champions of the world…”)

“I Go Swimming,” Peter Gabriel, 1983

After departing Genesis in 1975, singer-songwriter Gabriel began a critically acclaimed solo career, confounding retailers by releasing four solo albums in 1977, 1978, 1980 and 1982 all titled “Peter Gabriel.” They came to be known by their album cover artwork (“Car,” “Scratch,” “Melt” and “Security”). This period was summed up very nicely on the 1983 double live album “Plays Live,” recorded during a 1982 U.S. tour. The only previously unreleased track was “I Go Swimming,” which had been intended for the 1980 LP but was shelved. The song, featuring the phenomenal bass playing of Tony Levin, focuses more on the sensations of floating and immersing yourself in water than on competitive swimming.

“Sail On, Sailor,” The Beach Boys, 1973

There seems to be some discrepancy about this song’s authorship, but the prevailing opinion is that Brian Wilson collaborated with Van Dyke Parks on the basic track in 1971, and then others contributed a line of lyric here and there along the way, which is reflected in the “all-over-the-map” final product. Essentially the song is more about the rigors of persevering through life’s choppy waters than the competitive sport of sailing. The tune was added at the last minute to the lineup of their celebrated 1972 “Holland” LP and then released as a single, but it stiffed badly at #79, improving to #49 upon re-release in 1975. The lead vocals are by guitarist/singer Terry “Blondie” Chaplin, who was a full-fledged Beach Boy for a couple of years.

“Anyone For Tennis?” Cream, 1968

Admittedly, this strange little tune co-written by Eric Clapton and Martin Sharp has almost nothing to do with the sport of tennis, except that its lyrics suggest a round of tennis would be a nice distraction from the hectic psychedelic images that dominate the rest of the words. Clapton wrote it on commission for the lame outlaw biker film “The Savage Seven,” but the soundtrack featured the song as performed by the unknown band American Revolution. Despite it sounding very little like Cream’s usual material, “Anyone For Tennis?” was recorded by the trio during the sessions for “Wheels of Fire,” but it was released only as a single. It stiffed at #64 in the US and #40 in the UK.

“The Boxer,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1969

One of my very favorite Paul Simon compositions is this masterpiece from 1969, which reached #7 on the pop charts. It tells, in first-person narrative, a heartfelt story of a young man struggling against loneliness and poverty in a tough world. Then in the final verse, it switches to a third-person description of the hardscrabble life of a boxer: “In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him till he cried out, in his anger and his shame, ‘I am leaving, I am leaving,’ but the fighter still remains.” “The Boxer” also appeared on the following year’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Simon and Garfunkel’s final studio album.

“Run For the Roses,” Dan Fogelberg, 1981

ABC-TV, who in 1980 had recently taken over the broadcasting of The Kentucky Derby, wanted a new song that would commemorate horse racing, and commissioned singer-songwriter Fogelberg to come up with one. In short order, he wrote and recorded “Run For the Roses,” which has since endured as a sort of unofficial anthem of the annual event. It was included on Fogelberg’s 1981 double LP “The Innocent Age” and released as the album’s fourth single, reaching #18 in May 1982. Fogelberg, who grew up on a farm in Illinois, loved horses and accepted the assignment with enthusiasm: “And it’s run for the roses as fast as you can, /Your fate is delivered, your moment’s at hand, /It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance, /And it’s high time you joined in the dance…”

“Baseball,” Michael Franks, 1980

A talented practitioner of the late ’70s/early ’80s smooth jazz/romantic R&B genre known among radio biz folks as “quiet storm,” Franks is a literate songwriter and appealing singer who has more than 15 albums to his credit. Jazz greats like guitarist Larry Carlton, saxophonist David Sanborn and horn men Randy and Michael Brecker were regular session players on his soothing records. In 1980, he wrote and recorded “Baseball,” a whimsical piece that adroitly compares the face-off between a league-leading closer and a rookie batter with the tentative relationship between a seasoned woman and a young man new to romance.

“Basketball Jones,” Cheech & Chong, 1973

In early 1973, a Chicago-based R&B group called “Brighter Side of Darkness” had a Top 20 hit with a half-spoken, half-sung single called “Love Jones,” about a boy who felt addicted to his romantic feelings for a girl. Six months later, the drug-humor duo Cheech and Chong made their own Top 20 appearance with a funny quasi-parody called “Basketball Jones,” about a young man named Tyrone (as in “tie-your-own”) Shoelaces who is obsessed with basketball: “I need someone to stand beside me, I need someone to set a pick for me at the free-throw line of life, /Someone I can pass to, someone to hit the open man on the give-and-go and not end up in the popcorn machine…”

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Bonus track on the playlist:

“Baseball and Football,” a brief comedy routine by the late great George Carlin comparing the two sports

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