Scouring the internet for info on “one-hit wonders”, one theme keeps popping up. It seems that most of the articles paint these artists and their lone hits with a bit of a cynical, jaundiced eye, treating them as a bit of a joke. The thinking being perhaps that these artists weren’t very good, that these songs just happened to catch on at a specific time in history and it was flukey that everyone seemed to love them, sending them up into the higher reaches of the Billboard charts. As if the artists weren’t good enough to have a second hit.
Before we go on, let’s define “one-hit wonders” for the sake of clarity. The term applies to an artist that has placed only one song in the Top 40 of Billboard’s venerable pop chart. This artist may have had other “hits” but they never again entered the Top 40.
The idea that these artists simply weren’t good enough to have another Top 40 hit will rankle us here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure where, as my regular readers can attest, we treat things from the past with respect. Now, I know what you’re thinking and you’re right; it is indeed hard to respect certain one-hit wonder songs that would also fall into the category of “novelty songs”. Take Sheb Wooley. His novelty song “The Purple People Eater” went to #1 in 1958 but the song is goofy kid’s stuff and, you could argue, has no real redeeming value. (Wooley, it should be noted, earned much respect on TV’s Rawhide and would go on to place many songs on the country charts) Also, you can name many other one-hit wonders of more modern times that were more novelty than anything else and a second hit from these artists was unthinkable. And would probably have been most unwelcome. You cringe when you imagine what would have been on a full album from these “artists”. (Think Lou Bega, Baha Men and Right Said Fred) Additionally, there are some artists that had one hit and never intended to have another hit or even another song. Take actor Phil Harris who’s song “The Thing” was a chart-topper but Harris was never going to become a pop vocalist. And, in more recent times, “We Are the World” by Artists for Africa can be included on a list of one-hit wonders but the group assembled for the charity song was certainly a one-off.
The songs and the era that concern us here, though, have a certain sheen to them. Let’s face it; the golden era of 1954-1963 features wonderful music that is revered today. This music is not usually dismissed as “dated”, a fate that often befalls the generic music found on the charts in, say, the late ’70’s or early ’80’s. One-hit wonders of this era, then, have aged much more gracefully than Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck”. Something else to consider as we look at the best one-hit wonders of this era is the machinations of the music business at this time. “Groups” that released singles and albums were often just created in-studio for the purpose, the members staying together and making music not being part of the plan. Let’s also consider the struggles some short-lived acts may have faced in trying to stay afloat and make music for mercenary producers who were intent on mining an artist and lining their own pockets.
An artist will often be able to “eat out” on his one hit for the rest of his life (just go to Frankie Ford’s website to see what I mean) by performing it on-stage at PBS-type oldies revues and, if he did his business right, he’ll be able to receive an income from it indefinitely; Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett said he never tired of his #1 hit “The Monster Mash”, remarking “When I hear it, I hear a cash register ringing”. There’s something else less tangible we should consider. While I was compiling this list, I realized that many of the most cherished songs of this era came from one-hit wonders. As we’ll see, some songs on this list have been used countless times on TV and in movies as they perfectly exemplify what we consider “oldies”. Just wonderful songs.
Consider the Contours’ “Do You Love Me”. When it was featured in the hit film Dirty Dancing (1987), it became part of a soundtrack that is cherished by the millions of women (and me) that love that film dearly. (Which brings to mind another one-hit wonder, Patrick Swayze. His “She’s Like the Wind” from that film peaked at #3 and was his only Top 40 appearance) This example makes me think of the pure joy these songs have given us over the years. Oftentimes, an artist may have been in the industry for literally only months but the song they gave us has become a part of us and we hold it dear. For this alone these artists deserve our gratitude and respect. Take Curtis Lee. Gave the world one fantastic song and then went on to build houses in Arizona. I would love to have visited the job site after finding out my contractor also gave me “Pretty Little Angel Eyes”. I’m sure I would have embarrassed him immensely by gently weeping as I embraced him.
The point I hope to make here is that – generally speaking – one-hit wonders are not to be dismissed solely on the basis of the lack of career success of the artists that recorded them. These songs are dearly loved and people don’t seem to care that these artists only placed one song in the Top 40. Artists like Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters, Tyrone Davis, Hi-Five and Kenny G have all had multiple Top 40 entries but don’t enjoy the same level of devotion from fans as the artists listed here. Indeed, some of these songs are the finest of the era and the favourites of many. I’ve highlighted ten of these songs and ranked them based on their highest chart position.
Sea Cruise – Frankie Ford (February, 1959) Peaked at #14 — Frankie hailed from Gretna, Louisiana and plied his trade in New Orleans. Huey “Piano” Smith, already an R&B legend in the city and a label mate of Ford’s, wrote and recorded “Sea Cruise” but Ace Records never released Smith’s version. Instead, Ford recorded his vocal over Huey Smith’s backing track and it was released in early ’59. Ford released only a few songs in the wake of “Sea Cruise” and none were successful. In 1960, he released “You Talk Too Much” at the same time that Joe Jones released his version and Jones’ version became the hit and Ford’s disappeared. Frankie was drafted in ’62 and performed for troops overseas. Later, he operated locally and was a crowd-pleaser at events in Louisiana. Ford died in his hometown in 2015, aged 76.
Pretty Little Angel Eyes – Curtis Lee (June, 1961) Peaked at #7 — Curtis Lee was a singer who left his native Yuma, Arizona and traveled to New York to pursue a career in music. Lee initially made contact with fellow songwriter Tommy Boyce and the two wrote songs together. One of their songs was “Pretty Little Angel Eyes”, a tune Curtis took into the studio to record under the direction of Phil Spector; it was one of the first songs Spector produced. With “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” enjoying a chart run, Lee and Spector cut “Under the Moon of Love”, also co-written with Boyce. When this second single stalled, Spector moved on and Lee’s career dried up. Spector would go on to redefine pop music and Tommy Boyce would pair with Bobby Hart and write many hit songs, mostly for the Monkees. Lee returned to Yuma, perhaps disappointed but with a wealth of life experience. His father had started a successful construction company which Curtis took over and ran until his death at 75 in 2015. (See Lee’s fascinating obituary here)
The Book of Love – the Monotones (February, 1958) Peaked at #5 — The Monotones were a six-member vocal group out of Newark. One of their members heard a Pepsodent commercial on the radio that featured the line “I wonder where the yellow went” and was inspired to write “The Book of Love” with two other members. The doo-wop classic was a major hit and it is certainly one of the songs on our list that ranks among the greatest and most-loved songs of the era. The Monotones are also unfortunately a prime example of a group from this era that simply could not be sustained. They released a dozen or so follow-up songs – including “Reading the Book of Love” in ’59 – before disbanding in 1962, though variations of the group have re-formed for the oldies circuit.
Do You Love Me – the Contours (June, 1962) Peaked at #3 — The Contours were an early group that Berry Gordy signed to his fledgling Motown Records label. Actually, the group’s first audition was a failure and afterwards they visited Jackie Wilson who was related to one of the members. Wilson himself took them back to Gordy and they auditioned the same songs sung in the same way and Gordy signed them; as if Jackie’s “stamp” had made the difference. Gordy gave them a song he had written, “Do You Love Me”, and the group released it at the end of June, ’62. The song was a major hit and topped the R&B charts for 3 weeks and reached #3 on the pop charts. “Do You Love Me” has the rare distinction of having entered the Top 40 two different times over 25 years apart. The song proved so popular when it was included in the wildly successful film Dirty Dancing that it entered the Top 40 again in the summer of ’88, peaking at #11.
Rockin’ Robin – Bobby Day (July, 1958) Peaked at #2 for 2 weeks — Fort Worth’s Bobby Day is an interesting guy. He was the original “Bob” in Bob and Earl (“Harlem Shuffle”), he was a part of the Hollywood Flames (“Buzz, Buzz, Buzz”) and he wrote the great oldie “Little Bitty Pretty One”, a hit for Thurston Harris. “Rockin Robin'” was written by Leon René (“When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano”) and released by Day in the summer of ’58. The cream of the crop of session musicians play on the track; Plas Johnson, Earl Palmer and Barney Kessel are all world-renowned artists and have played on countless hit records. Countless. “Rockin’ Robin” was a hit for Michael Jackson in 1972 and the Dave Clark Five had a hit with Day’s composition “Over and Over” in 1965.
Wipe Out – the Surfaris (January, 1963) Peaked at #2 for 1 week — “Wipe Out” is probably one of the most recognizable songs of this era. The Surfaris were a surf rock band formed in Glendora in 1962, at the height of the surf music craze. The group wrote “Wipe Out” in the studio and it featured the sound of a broken plank of wood meant to sound like a shattering surf board followed by the maniacal laughter of the band’s manager, Dale Smallin. The legendary, energetic drum work is courtesy of Ron Wilson, who also sang lead on the only other song the Surfaris are known for, “Surfer Joe”. “Wipe Out” re-entered the charts in ’66, peaking at #16 and has been used in countless TV shows and movies regularly since its release.
Stay – Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs (August, 1960) Peaked at #1 for 1 week — Maurice Williams was born in South Carolina and formed a vocal group in Nashville. Williams wrote and recorded the song “Little Darlin'”, a tune that Canadian group the Diamonds made a classic. Williams and his group took a stab at a song Maurice had written when he was 15. “Stay” was released in August of 1960 and began its ascent up the charts. When it hit the #1 spot, it became – and remains – the shortest song to ever top the pop charts at 1 minute and 36 seconds. “Stay” is another of the songs that was introduced to a new generation by the film Dirty Dancing.
Get a Job – the Silhouettes (Nov, 1957) Peaked at #1 for 2 weeks, 13 weeks on chart — I hesitated to include this song on a list of one-hit wonders because “Get a Job” is so much more than that. Indeed, it could be included on a list of the most cherished and recognizable songs of the era. I would go so far as to say that if you had to pick one song to define rock ‘n’ roll, many would pick “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes. This group was formed in Philadelphia in 1956 and wrote “Get a Job” together. The lyrics were notable at the time as they addressed unemployment. Lyricist and tenor Richard Lewis says that when he came home from the service and didn’t immediately go back to work his mother would hound him to “get a job”. The lyrics and the vocal arrangement the group came up with are nothing short of the very epitome of the joyous style of vocal groups of the era. The song was a colossal success, topping both the pop and R&B charts. Notably, the rock ‘n’ roll revival group Sha-Na-Na took their name from the repeated lyrics of “Get a Job”. The Silhouettes sang the song on American Bandstand and were awarded a gold record for sales.
Teen Angel – Mark Dinning (December, 1959) Peaked at #1 for 2 weeks, 14 weeks on charts — Mark Dinning was a farm boy from Oklahoma who had three sisters that comprised the vocal group the Dinning Sisters, Capitol Records’ answer to the Andrews Sisters, who had a few hits in 1947-48. One of the sisters, Jean, wrote “Teen Angel” with her husband. The song was given to Mark to record and it became one of the biggest hits of 1960. The song is perhaps the prime example of what was called “death rock” or simply teenage tragedy songs of which there were many, “Tell Laura I Love Her”, “Ebony Eyes” and “Patches” among them. Dinning’s song succeeded despite being banned by some US radio stations and the majority of stations in the UK; the subject matter was deemed too morbid. Poor Mark Dinning struggled with alcohol which sabotaged his career. He died in 1986 at the age of 52.
Hey! Baby – Bruce Channel (December, 1961) Peaked at #1 for 3 weeks — I don’t think I would have picked “Hey! Baby” as the biggest one-hit wonder song of this era but here it is. Bruce started out performing country and western with his friend and harmonica player, Delbert McClinton. Channel co-wrote “Hey! Baby” and performed it live for a time before recording it. When he did and released it at the end of 1961, the song was a smash, reaching #1 at the start of spring, ’62 and staying there for three weeks. The song sold in excess of a million copies, earning it a gold disc. “Hey! Baby” is notable for inspiring John Lennon to play the harmonica. Lennon apparently loved McClinton’s work on the song, leading him to employ a similar sound on “Love Me Do” and down through the years “Hey! Baby” has been linked with Lennon as it was always one of his favourites. This song became popular again in the late ’80’s due to its use in – you guessed it – Dirty Dancing, which only helps to prove that the music used in that film was given new life due to its inclusion.
As I look back on this list, I realize that these are some excellent songs, some of the most-loved of the era. This only proves that one-hit wonders – from this time at least – should not be dismissed.
** This is one of the monthly articles I write for a great Friend of SoulRide, Norwood Media, home of “The Doo-Wop Express”, an essential internet radio station for living the vintage life **