(For One-Hit Wonder Day today, here’s something rebooted from posts that originally appeared in 2007 and 2008.)
Imagine that you are a musician, and through a combination of hard work and luck, you score a hit record. For 12 or 14 weeks, you’re on the radio. Old friends are calling you up; promoters want to get you on concert bills; in the back of your mind you think, “This is what it’s like to be a star.” As all records do, yours eventually slides down the charts, but not to worry. You’ll be back. But you never get back. The fact that people don’t forget your record is a small consolation, but all things considered, you’d probably rather be Paul McCartney. You’re a one-hit wonder.
If you had to be a one-hit wonder, the 60s through the 80s was probably the best time to be one. Boomer nostalgia and the proliferation of oldies-based radio formats conspire to keep lots of records alive that would otherwise have disappeared into the void. Those factors also keep musicians working as musicians, when in past times they might have had to take up less glamorous careers to pay the mortgage.
We have noted here before that many artists people think are one-hit wonders really aren’t. It comes down to how you define “hit.” Lots of people go by “only one song anyone remembers,” but that’s really not enough for geeks such as we. Some people think it means only one hit in the Top 40, even if that artist had other hits between #41 and #100 on the Hot 100, or hits on other charts. Some say one hit in the Hot 100 and that’s all. At this blog, I think I’ve probably defined them in all of these ways at one time or another. As years go by, I get less dogmatic about it, but at least I have some standards. As Professor O’Kelly noted just today, some people don’t.
On the flip are two artists who hit the Top 40 once and the lower reaches of the Hot 100 at other times.
(Pictured: Morris Albert, who looks satisfied with having had just the one big hit.)
September 25 is One Hit Wonder Day. We’ve written about it on and off over the years, whenever I remember to. A variation I find interesting is “One Hit Wonders Who Aren’t, Actually.” There are a number of ways to determine this. You can be an absolutist and say that if an artist made the Hot 100 one other time, you can’t call them a one-hit wonder. You can be a little less dogmatic and draw the line at one Billboard Top 40 hit. You can stick to the Hot 100 only, or you can look at other charts. This post contains a little bit of all three.
—Morris Albert, whose “Feelings” was climbing during this week in 1975, is one of the quintessential one-hit acts. Or he would be, if he hadn’t hit the Hot 100 a second time. After “Feelings” went to #6, “Sweet Loving Man” had a 15-week run on the adult contemporary chart and two weeks on the Hot 100 as January turned to February 1976, topping out at #93. “Sweet Loving Man” is livelier than “Feelings” and would have sounded OK next to the other stuff on the radio at the time.
—The only Debby Boone record anybody knows is “You Light Up My Life,” which was blasting up the charts 40 years ago this week on its way to a record-setting streak at #1. But she hit the Hot 100 two more times and the AC chart eight times between 1977 and 1981. “Are You on the Road to Lovin’ Me Again” was a #1 country hit in 1980, and is quite the dollop of processed cheese.
—Guess Who lead singer Burton Cummings embarked on a solo career with the Top 10 hit “Stand Tall” as 1976 turned to 1977. But he wasn’t done. “I’m Scared,” a pop tune with a religious edge that doesn’t fit him at all, went only to #61 on the Hot 100 but #10 on the AC chart as the followup to “Stand Tall.” The far-superior “You Saved My Soul” spent a couple of weeks in the pop Top 40 in the fall of 1981.
—One of our favorite one-hit wonders is Liz Damon’s Orient Express, a group from Hawaii remembered for the hypnotic “1900 Yesterday” at the end of 1970. Although it didn’t make the Hot 100, “Loneliness Remembers (What Happiness Forgets)” spent a month on the AC chart early in 1972.
—Deodato scored in the spring of 1973 with “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a jazz-rock instrumental version of the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme. He just missed the Top 40 with a version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which stalled at #41 during the week of September 29, 1973.
—If you are of a certain age, the Doodletown Pipers might spark a tiny glimmer of recognition. They were a made-for-TV vocal group that started with 30 members, was pared to 20, and eventually to nine. According to a very sketchy Wikipedia article (so who the hell knows), they were recruited by entertainment moguls Jerry Weintraub and Bernie Brillstein (among others), and they first appeared on The Red Skelton Show in 1965. The group was a fixture of TV variety shows and the nightclub circuit well into the 70s. In the summer of 1967, they were among the stars of a summer replacement TV show called Our Place, produced by Ed Sullivan Productions, which co-starred the comedy team of Burns and Schreiber and Rowlf, one of the Muppets. That same year, the Pipers’ lone hit song, a cover of Chad and Jeremy’s “A Summer Song” (which is not available at YouTube) hit #29 on the AC chart without cracking the Hot 100. Two former members became halfway famous outside the group: Teresa Graves, who ended the 60s as a Laugh-In regular and starred in the crime drama Get Christie Love! in 1974; and Jim Gilstrap, a session singer who performed on, well, everything.
And that, my friends, is almost certainly far more than you care to know about the Doodletown Pipers.
If this blog ever needed a second tag line, “Far more than you care to know about” would be good.
(Pictured: Louise Lasser, star of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and Chevy Chase, doing a bit for Saturday Night Live. Lasser’s 1976 hosting gig was one of the most notorious in SNL history.)
September 25th is One-Hit Wonder Day. I usually forget to observe it, because every day is some kind of day and the good ones get lost in the shuffle. But here, a day late, is a list of one-hit wonders from 1976. It’s not the complete list for the year, but each one is the only chart entry for that artist.
“Junk Food Junkie”/Larry Groce. If I were still teaching social studies, I’d use “Junk Food Junkie” as a snapshot from the Me Decade because it rings so true. Idealism has its limits today, and it did back in the 70s, too. Groce has continued to record since the 70s and has been a host on West Virginia Public Radio since 1983. (Chart peak: #13, March 20)
“Baby Face”/Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corps. The Corps was a studio group assembled by Harold Wheeler, who had been Burt Bacharach’s musical director in the 60s and would go on to a long career working in movies and TV, including many years as musical director of Dancing With the Stars. “Baby Face” is a disco version of a song made famous by Al Jolson in the 20s, if you think that’s something you need. (Chart peak: #14, March 6)
“Wham Bam (Shang-a-Lang)”/Silver. The distilled essence of 70s radio music and one of the glorious frozen moments from the fall of ’76. (Chart peak: #16, October 2)
“I’m Easy”/Keith Carradine. Oscar-winning song from Nashville. (Chart peak: #17, August 7)
“Street Singin'”/Lady Flash. A female trio who backed Barry Manilow during the last half of the 70s. Their lone hit is not as interesting as the story of one member. Lorraine “Reparata” Mazzola had joined Reparata and the Delrons (a group better known for their name than their music) in 1969. Although she wasn’t the original Reparata, she was happy to let people think she was. The original Reparata, Mary O’Leary, sued Mazzola and won her case when Mazzola didn’t show up for court. But Mazzola then legally changed her first name from Lorraine to Reparata, and continued to let people believe she had been lead singer of the Delrons. According to Wikipedia, that is, so who the hell knows. (Chart peak: #27, September 18)
“Roots, Rock, Reggae”/Bob Marley and the Wailers. Their only American chart single, from their most successful American album, Rastaman Vibration. (Not counting the back-catalog compilation Legend, which is one of the great success stories in pop music history. (Chart peak: #51, July 17.)
“BLT”/Lee Oskar. Oskar’s harmonica gave War its distinctive sound until he left the band in 1992. He’s been selling his own line of harmonicas ever since. (Chart peak: #59, July 24)
“You to Me Are Everything”/The Real Thing and “Mighty High”/Mighty Clouds of Joy. The question we often ask about one-hit wonders is how they could be so good yet manage to hit only once. In the case of the Real Thing, “You to Me Are Everything” was hamstrung by two competing versions in the marketplace at the same time. As for the Mighty Clouds of Joy, who knows? They were a gospel group who made the transition to pop in the 70s, and “Mighty High” is a rager. (Chart peak for the Real Thing: #64, August 28; for Mighty Clouds of Joy: #69, March 27.
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”/Deadly Nightshade. Soap-opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, premiered in January 1976 and was one of the TV sensations of the year, syndicated around the country and running at all different times. It was supposed to be a comedy and sometimes it was, but it could be strange and disturbing, too. Members of the Deadly Nightshade had been playing together in rock bands since the 60s, but because they were all women, major labels didn’t take their groups seriously. Their disco version of the Hartman theme comes from an album called Funky and Western. (Chart peak: #79, July 31)
“The Game Is Over”/Brown Sugar. This Philly soul trio’s lone hit was written and produced by Vince Montana, who had been a member of MFSB and founded the Salsoul Orchestra—and it’s really good. (Chart peak: #79, March 13)
You can read about many more one-hit wonders if you revisit my Down in the Bottom series from a few years ago, in which I wrote about all of them to peak on the Hot 100 between #90 and #100 from 1955 through 1986.
Although “Birthday” is one of the most familiar songs in the Beatles’ catalog, they never scored a hit single with it. That distinction belongs to Underground Sunshine, whose bubblegum version of “Birthday” reached #26 on the Hot 100 in September 1969. It was a bigger hit in several places, hitting #1 at KIRL in St. Charles, Missouri, and reaching the Top 10 at both WLS and WCFL in Chicago, and also in St. Louis, Washington, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Raleigh, Buffalo, New Orleans, Portland, Birmingham, Edmonton, Clarksburg (West Virginia), Gary (Indiana), and Council Bluffs (Iowa).
Underground Sunshine began as a three-piece band from Montello, Wisconsin, 65 miles north of Madison, made up of two brothers, drummer Frank and bassist Bert Koelbl (brothers who later changed their surname to Kohl) and guitarist Rex Rhode. They were managed by Madison radio personality Jonathan Little. Stories vary as to how they became a quartet. In Do You Hear That Beat?: Wisconsin Pop/Rock in the 50s and 60s, Little told author Gary E. Myers that he wanted the band to add keyboards to get a Doors-type flavor; Bert Kohl told Myers they needed a keyboard to play the solo on “Birthday.” However the need arose, the band ultimately met it within the family—Little’s sister Jane, a senior in high school who was dating Frank Kohl, got the gig. After Underground Sunshine recorded “Birthday” in Milwaukee and Little released it on his own label, he took advantage of his radio connections to get airplay for it. Before long, Mercury Records picked it up for national release on its Intrepid label.
After “Birthday,” Underground Sunshine bubbled under with a second single, “Don’t Shut Me Out.” An album, Let There Be Light (said to have been recorded in seven hours), reached #161 on the Billboard 200 in November 1969. It contained a cover of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” as well as “Bad Moon Rising,” “Proud Mary,” and “Gimme Some Lovin'” (an eight-minute fuzz-tone guitar/organ freakout), plus an 11-minute psychedelic opus called “Take Me Break Me,” which appears in a short version on the B-side of “Don’t Shut Me Out.”
The seeds for Underground Sunshine’s sunset were planted practically from the beginning, when they made an agreement with a local backer who paid for their equipment in exchange for a 20 percent commission on whatever they made. That was fine for a band playing central Wisconsin bars for $100 a night, but not for a group with a national hit. Their lawyer advised them to break the agreement, which they did—although it cost them Rex Rhode, a close friend of the original backer, who quit only weeks before the band was scheduled to appear on American Bandstand. Rhode’s replacement was recruited via an ad in the Milwaukee Journal, a musician named Chris Connors. According to one member, Connors would play a key role in the band’s demise.
The story, as told to Myers, is a small-town rock ‘n’ roll Rashomon. Jonathan Little blamed substance abuse. Jane said it was partly a culture clash between “pretty innocent Montello High School kids” and Connors’ “Milwaukee ideas and big-time thoughts,” and partly her own distaste for the groupie scene they encountered on tour. “The whole thing was really tacky to me,” she said. Bert Kohl told Myers that Jane’s parents made her quit “because the rest of the band was using pot,” and that after Jane and Frank got married, she made Frank quit. Frank said that weed had nothing to do with it. “We did some pot but none of us are pot-heads,” he said. “How many bands back in the 60s did, in fact, smoke pot?” Frank blames the breakup on conflicts over the fact that Jonathan Little was making more money than the band members, a situation Bert echoed: “The biggest paycheck I ever got was $325, and I was doing an awful lot of work.”
Whatever the reason, Underground Sunshine was over by the end of 1970. By the early 90s, when Myers interviewed the members for his book, they looked back on it fondly. “I had a lot of great opportunities,” said Frank Kohl. “Got to see a lot of the country, got to see a lot of different things.” Bert Kohl said, “Even the way it was done, I would not trade anything for it.”
Those big radio hits and favorite albums woven into the tapestry of memory, the songs that illuminated our nights and commented upon our days as we were living them? That whole thing was a series of happy accidents. The radio doesn’t really talk to us. Start taking the memories apart and the butterfly effect is suddenly real. The DJ who played that song in the moment you have never forgotten was no agent of the universe; he was just some poor sap making a living, and it was his job to play one song then and not another. He had no more connection with you than you have with some random teenager in Bangalore.
It’s only later, when you sift through the memories, that the elements converge, and only then that you realize that the perfect moment with the perfect song might never have happened—should never have happened, probably. That it happened at all is thanks to a series of coincidences: a record executive chooses one song as a single over another; a radio station tweaks its format today instead of tomorrow or yesterday; the station’s music director forgets to put a record into a particular bin, or take one out; the DJ screws up and plays a record out of order. And so on.
You, out there on the receiving end of the signal, never know any of this. You know only the perfection of the moment—and it may be months or years before you know it, after a further series of happy accidents has imposed its own layers of meaning on your life, and becomes the prism through which you view everything that ever happened to you.
It could have been entirely different, is what I’m saying.
In June 1976, a British group called the Real Thing hit #1 in the UK with “You to Me Are Everything,” a soul-on-the-edge-of-disco sing-along that glides happily in summery Philly-style perfection. At the moment of its UK success, it was released in the States, charting on the Hot 100 36 years ago this week. It should have been on the radio every couple of hours alongside the other hits of August, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Turn the Beat Around,” “Baby I Love Your Way,” and all the rest. So why wasn’t it? There’s no way to tell for sure, because of the number of accidents that have to happen for a record to become a hit in the first place. But in the case of “You to Me Are Everything,” we can guess.
Despite the Real Thing’s British success—and probably because of it—two competing versions of “You to Me Are Everything” were released at almost precisely the same moment. If a radio station was going to play one, it wouldn’t play the others. A New York soul group called Revelation cut a near-soundalike version produced by Freddie Perren and released on RSO, then best known for releasing albums by the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton. No doubt its pedigree helped it get some adds to radio station playlists, although it’s perfectly fine on its own. An obscure group called Broadway released a busier arrangement of it on the Granite label, an American subsidiary of European giant ATV. Some music directors may have preferred it to the others—or preferred the record rep working Granite releases to the ones working releases from RSO or United Artists and added the song as a favor to a friend.
There are no listings for any of them at ARSA, so I suspect much of the three versions’ airplay came on soul and R&B stations, which are not well represented there. During the week of July 31, 1976, the three versions crowded together in the lower reaches of the Hot 100: the Real Thing at #86, Broadway at #88, and Revelation at #98. At the end of August, the Real Thing would top out at #64 after the other two had left the chart, but the damage was done.
It’s easy to say it should have been otherwise, that the Real Thing’s “You to Me Are Everything” should have been one of the indelible hits of the summer of 1976. But maybe it should have been the one by Revelation, or the one by Broadway. Knowing what we know about accidents and coincidence, maybe it happened exactly the way it should have. Or it shouldn’t have happened at all.
So I am in the car listening to the American Top 40 show from April 9, 1977. At #40, “Spring Rain” by Silvetti might be the single most generic disco record of all time. At #39 is Ambrosia’s cover of “Magical Mystery Tour,” which must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But then things take a turn: at #38 is the magnificent “Dancin’ Man” by Q. And up next, debuting at #37, Casey introduces “Sometimes” by Facts of Life.
After all this time, I expect to have heard, or at least heard of, everything that might turn up on an AT40 show, but somehow “Sometimes” slipped by. Obscure as it is, if AT40s modern-day producers needed to cut something for time, “Sometimes” was the thing to cut. So the song runs for maybe a minute-and-a-half at the most. And as Casey comes back on and I realize what is happening, I’m sitting there behind the wheel thinking, “No, dammit, let the thing play, this is great.”
Casey mentioned that Facts of Life was produced by soul singer Millie Jackson, who was big enough in the mid-to-late 70s to choose her own projects. But there’s more to Facts of Life than a star’s side project. Jackson credited Keith Williams (who had been with Little Anthony and the Imperials and the Flamingos) and Chuck Carter, two-thirds of the group, with having taught her how to sing. The third member, Jean Davis, was a friend Millie made on the road, and the sister of Chicago soul singer Tyrone Davis. Jackson was too busy to produce individual records for the three singers, so she suggested they form a group (which she managed). They eventually got a record deal with the fabulously named Kayvette Records, owned by Jackson’s manager.
At first, they were called Gospel Truth, and they released one single under that name. After becoming Facts of Life, their splendid “Caught in the Act (Of Getting It On)” hit the R&B top 20 in 1976, in which a trysting couple learns that their spouses are down in the hotel lobby looking for them: “We were in the midst of heaven when all hell broke loose.” Their next single was “Sometimes,” which had been a #1 country hit for Bill Anderson and Mary Lou Turner. It’s a magnificent cheatin’ song with a couple of spoken interludes, delivered at an adulterous tempo, the sort of Southern soul that was out of fashion by 1977, and in fact a lot closer to country than what was considered soul music there on the cusp of the disco era. (Considering how down-home it is, maybe Casey’s producers cut it short in 1977.) “Sometimes” went to #3 on the R&B charts, and #1 at soul station KATZ in St. Louis. It spent four weeks on AT40, peaking at #31, falling to #96 on the Hot 100 the next week, and vanishing into the void the week after that.
The Facts of Life album Sometimes came in a sleeve riddled with typos, and with a cover photo that looks a Polaroid snapped at a wedding. It managed to get up to #146 in a seven-week run on the Billboard 200, but a second album sank without a trace. After that, Millie Jackson found other fish to fry. One of the facts of life is that nothing lasts forever, and so the group disappeared.
There’s a mysterious alchemy in popular music, something none of us—fans, artists, producers, disc jockeys, record executives—can completely understand, when a moment’s union of people and talent and time and circumstances produces three-and-a-half minutes of magic as ephemeral as a soap bubble. Which describes “Sometimes” pretty well.