A Century of One-Hit Wonders

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(Pictured: Kim Novak, Susan Strasberg, William Holden, and Cliff Robertson show some skin in the 1955 movie Picnic, which featured a performance of “Moonglow” that turned out to be a classic one-hitter.)

This post is longer than I like ’em to be around here but too short to split into two parts, so here’s the whole thing. 

Today is One-Hit Wonder Day. Back in 2007, I researched a list of the most successful one-hit wonders in recorded history for almost a century, going back to the 1800s via Joel Whitburn’s Pop Memories: 1890-1954. Songs on the first part of the list each made #1 or #2, and represent the only record the act charted.

1892: “Love’s Old Sweet Song”/Thomas Bott (#1, four weeks)
1892: “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon”/F. F. Burnham #2, three weeks)
1893: “Rastus and the Watermillion”/D. C. Bangs (#2, two weeks)
1897: “Departure from the Mountains”/George Schweinfest (#2, one week)
1899: “Gypsy Love Song”/William F. Hooley (#1, five weeks)
1900: “In the Shadow of the Pines”/Byron Harlan and A. D. Madeira (#2, two weeks)
1901: “Good-Bye, Dolly Gray”/Big Four Quartet (#3, three weeks)
Once recordings started to become popular with music buyers, the top artists at the top record labels, Columbia, Victor, and Edison, recorded in various combinations. William F. Hooley sang in the Haydn Quartet, American Quartet, and Edison Male Quintette with several stars including Steve Porter, Harry McDonough, and Len Spencer, and later recorded with both Billy Murray and Ada Jones, two of the mega-stars of the pre-1920 Pioneer Era of Recording. Meanwhile, Byron Harlan and A. D. Madeira made up half of the Big Four Quartet; another quartet member, Arthur Collins, teamed with Harlan, and they became one of the most prolific recording acts of the era. So the last three probably deserve an asterisk.

1917: “Till the Clouds Roll By”/Anna Wheaton and James Harrod (#1, six weeks)
1917: “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag (And Smile, Smile, Smile)”/James F. Harrison and the Knickerbocker Quartet (#1, five weeks)
1919: “Till We Meet Again”/Nicholas Orlando’s Orchestra (#1, two weeks)
“Pack Up Your Troubles” was the only chart hit for the Knickerbocker Quartet (and the most popular of many versions of the song in the United States), although Harrison scored hits under his own name, so it’s asterisk time again. “Till We Meet Again” was on the flipside of “Beautiful Ohio” by the Waldorf-Astoria Dance Orchestra (not a one-hit wonder), which also reached #1. There have been plenty of two-sided #1 in history, but I can’t think of another by two different artists.

1922: “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”/Gallagher and Shean (#1, six weeks)
1930: “The Peanut Vendor”/Don Azpiazu and His Havana Casino Orchestra (#1, seven weeks)
1934: “The Continental”/Jolly Coburn and His Orchestra (#2, three weeks)
1934: “Carioca”/Harry Sosnik and His Edgewater Beach Hotel Orchestra (#2, three weeks)
1944: “Time Waits for No One”/Helen Forrest (#2, one week)
Helen Forrest was one of the most popular big-band singers, appearing on dozens of records by Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Harry James, so she probably deserves an asterisk, too.

1947: “Open the Door, Richard”/Three Flames (#1, one week). This R&B trio got a daytime show on NBC-TV’s New York affiliate in 1949, and eventually a brief national slot.

1948: “My Happiness”/Jon and Sandra Steele (#2, two weeks)
1950: “Third Man Theme”/Anton Karas (#1, 11 weeks) 
1952: “It’s in the Book”/Johnny Standley (#1, two weeks)
“My Happiness” was the song Elvis famously recorded for his mother in 1953. Whitburn calls Anton Karas “the most remarkable of all one-hit artists.” His song was from the movie The Third Man, starring Orson Welles. The comic piece “It’s in the Book” was one of my father’s 45s.

Once we get to 1955, Whitburn makes it easy for a lazy researcher to spot artists who charted once regardless of chart position. These were the highest-charting one-hitters on the Hot 100 in each year.

1955: “Let Me Go Lover”/Joan Weber (#1, four weeks)
1956: “Moonglow”-“Theme from Picnic“/Morris Stoloff (#1, three weeks)

1957: “Rainbow”/Russ Hamilton (#4, one week) 
1958: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”/Laurie London (#1, four weeks)
1959: “Sea of Love”/Phil Phillips (#2, two weeks)
1960: “Alley Oop”/Hollywood Argyles (#1, one week)
“Alley Oop,” a tribute to the long-running comic strip, was the first song played on WLS when they went to the Top 40 format that would last for 29 years.

1961: “Mexico”/Bob Moore (#7, one week)
1962: “Party Lights”/Claudine Clark (#5, one week)
1963: “Dominique”/The Singing Nun (#1, four weeks)
1964: “Popsicles and Icicles”/Murmaids (#2, two weeks)
1965: “The Jerk”/Larks (#5, one week)
1966: “Psychotic Reaction”/Count Five (#5, two weeks)
1967: “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son”/Victor Lundberg (#10, two weeks)
1968: “Fire”/Crazy World of Arthur Brown (#2, one week)
1969: “In the Year 2525″/Zager and Evans (#1 six weeks)
1970: “In the Summertime”/Mungo Jerry (#3, one week)

1971: “Sweet Mary”/Wadsworth Mansion (#7, one week)
1972: “Sunshine”/Jonathan Edwards (#4, three weeks)
1973: “Dueling Banjos”/Weissberg and Mandel (#2, four weeks)
Weissberg and Mandell win the 1973 honor by a nose over “Playground in My Mind” by Clint Holmes, which did two weeks at #2. The cheese was ripe in those days.

1974: “The Entertainer”/Marvin Hamlisch (#3, two weeks)
1975: “Rockin’ Chair”/Gwen McCrae (#9, one week)
Gwen McCrae was married to George McCrae, whose “Rock Your Baby” hit #1 in the summer of 1974. They’d be the only husband-and-wife one-hit wonders were it not for George’s “I Get Lifted,” which spent a couple of weeks in the Top 40 in early ’75.

1976: “Junk Food Junkie”/Larry Groce (#9, one week)
1977: “Float On”/Floaters (#2, two weeks)
1978: “I Can’t Stand the Rain”/Eruption (#18, two weeks)
1979: “Pop Muzik”/M (#1, one week)
1980: “Tired of Toein’ the Line”/Rocky Burnette (#8, two weeks)
1981: “Sweet Baby”/Stanley Clarke and George Duke (#19, two weeks)
1982: “Chariots of Fire”/Vangelis (#1, one week)
Stanley Clarke was famous already as a jazz bassist, including a stint in ’70s fusion supergroup Return to Forever. Vangelis gets an asterisk, as he charted with Jon Anderson on “I Hear You Now,” mentioned earlier this week.

1983: “Puttin’ on the Ritz”/Taco (#4, two weeks)
1984: “99 Luftballons”/Nena (#2, one week)
1985: “We Are the World”/USA for Africa (#1, four weeks)
1986: “Friends and Lovers”/Gloria Loring and Carl Anderson (#2, two weeks)
“We Are the World” probably deserves an asterisk. “Friends and Lovers” went to #1 on the country charts in 1986 under a different (and quite terrible) title, “Both to Each Other,” by Eddie Rabbitt and Juice Newton.

So: if we want to crown the greatest one-hit wonder of the century, we have two solid candidates: Zager and Evans and Anton Karas,with six and 11 weeks at #1 respectively. Has any one-hit wonder come close to 11 weeks in the streaming-and-download era? A less-lazy researcher might be able to tell you.

6 thoughts on “A Century of One-Hit Wonders

  1. Wesley

    Things I didn’t realize until this post (and no apologies necessary about bringing out a long one when it’s one of this quality, JB):

    1. The “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean” vaudeville routine was actually a hit record. I may have seen that in the Whitburn book, but it didn’t stick with me.
    2. Two one-hit wonders did two of the first nominees for the Oscar for Best Song, “The Continental” and “Carioca.” (Sosnik was a pretty active radio and TV conductor, I did know that.)
    3. Given the disco-heavy year of 1978, the fact that the one-hit wonder peaked all the way down at #18 is rather a shock. I would’ve expected something else to have crested much higher at the time.

  2. Leo Edelstein

    Great Great column Jim. Alley Pop is such a cool, funny song. So many comic tunes in the 60s, Dickey Lee stands out.
    1960 was a great year for rockin’ 12 year olds and Bill Mazeroski.

  3. Pingback: Makin’ It – The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

  4. Don’t forget the novelty “They’re Coming To Take Me Away Haaa!” – #3 on the Hot 100 by Napolean XIV, in 1966 & “The Yellow Balloon” by The Yellow Balloon in 1967. It went to #25. The laltter featured Don Grady- Robbie from MY 3 SONS and Daryl Dragon (The Captain). Both 45 RPMs featured the the hits played backwards on the B side.

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