My pal Willie (who has his own fine blog, Baseball Is My Life) sends along a link from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in which several Milwaukee-area experts weigh in with their favorite one-hit wonders of all time, by decade. It’s an impressive list of experts, including chart god Joel Whitburn and WKLH/Milwaukee jock Steve Palec, whose Rock and Roll Roots show on Sunday mornings is the thinking man’s oldies show. They didn’t ask me, but if they had, I could have said plenty. I’m a bit more doctrinaire than the experts in the Journal Sentinel article, because I don’t consider you a one-hit wonder if you put more than one single on the charts, even if the second one was a complete stiff. That said, here we go.
1950s: One of the classic one-hit wonders from this or any decade is Joan Weber, whose song “Let Me Go, Lover” collected dust in record stores until it was featured on the CBS-TV anthology series Studio One late in 1954. Talk about your shooting stars–Weber didn’t stick around long enough to collect the money. In the late 1960s, when her record company tried to send her a big royalty check for her performance, the envelope came back “addressee unknown.” Two other great one-hit wonders of the 1950s were doo-woppers from 1958: the Elegants, whose “Little Star” hit Number One in the summer, and the Monotones, whose “Book of Love” is probably embedded in your DNA somewhere.
1960s: You’re sitting there, minding your own business with the radio on, when suddenly a demented voice roars: “I AM THE GOD OF HELL FIRE . . . AND I BRING YOU . . . FIRE.” “Fire” by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown (1968) might feature the most attention-grabbing opening in all of rock and roll. The second most attention-grabbing opening in all of rock and roll might belong to another great one-hit wonder, Desmond Dekker and the Aces, whose “Israelites” sounded like nothing else on the radio in 1969. In the category of records you may not have heard, I’d put “Tracy’s Theme” by Spencer Ross, a delicate little instrumental from 1960, and “Dear Mrs. Applebee” by Flip Cartridge (1966), which I have never actually heard myself, but I adore the name “Flip Cartridge.”
1970s: Start with “Funky Nassau” by Beginning of the End, a band from the Bahamas that failed to follow up its single hit in the summer of 1971 because, as a record company insider put it, “They just didn’t trust Americans.” In 1972, Chi Coltrane from Racine, Wisconsin, channeled Janis Joplin from one direction in time and Kiki Dee from the other with “Thunder and Lightning.” The best song ever about the radio and record industry was Pete Wingfield’s “Eighteen With a Bullet,” which actually reached Number 18 with a bullet on the Billboard chart one happy week in the fall of 1975. And any short list of the greatest one-hit wonders of all time must include the Sanford-Townsend Band’s magnificent “Smoke From a Distant Fire” from the late summer of 1977. I loved this record so much that I wrote a letter to my then-girlfriend, who was spending the summer in Europe, telling her about it.
1980s: During my college radio days, we played a lot of records by bands nobody had ever heard of before, or would hear of again. (Just like alternative radio now, only we didn’t have a name for it back then.) One of the better ones was “Stay in Time” by Off Broadway, which crept into the lower third of the Hot 100 in 1980. Legitimate Top 40 hits, all from the Killer Hook department, include “Sausalito Summernight” by Diesel (1981), “If the Love Fits, Wear It” by Leslie Pearl (1982), and “Tragedy” by John Hunter (1985). The single greatest one-hit wonder of the 1980s, however, might have been the Blow Monkeys, who produced a superb fake R&B record–I say “fake” and not “blue-eyed soul,” because these boys were English and incredibly, terminally white–with “Digging Your Scene” in 1986.
1990s: I’m not too good on the ’90s, because I was doing adult contemporary in the early part of the decade and everything is blurry–not through any fault of mine, but because AC in the early 90s was desperately boring. (By the end of the decade, I was doing classic rock.) But I can pick at least one great one hit wonder: New Radicals, and “You Get What You Give” (1998). The highest tribute I can pay anything new is that if it had come out in the 1970s or 1980s, it would have been Number One–and this would have been.
As always, feel free to add your own.