Classic rock one hit wonders? In the dictionary, we find the phrase is defined “An individual or group with only one success, such as a hit song, bestselling book, etc.”
It’s a sure bet that most Baby Boomers can name a handful of one-hit wonders, even if they’re not big music fans. The term made its way into pop culture (and most dictionaries) in 1977, and has been used as a somewhat derogatory description for songs that came and then went without follow-up success by the artists.
Who knows who the first one-hit wonder was, but it had to have been long before someone coined the phrase. Considering that Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville was the very first person to record a sound, in 1857, he would be a likely candidate. Unfortunately, the device he used, the phonautograph, only recorded sound and was unable to play the recordings. Not until 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, could sound waves be recorded and then replayed. This leads to the conclusion that Edison was the first one-hit wonder. [Listen to the very first audio recording here.]
From then on it becomes confusing, so we’ll just leave it at that. When it comes to classic rock, a list of such songs would be quite long, diverse, and almost impossible to`reflect any popular agreement. With that in mind, we submit the following nominees for your consideration as the “Number One One-Hit Wonder”. (Our list is based on the premise that the first Baby Boomers were age 18 in 1964).
Amidst the conflict playing out in Southeast Asia, in 1965 Barry McGuire released “Eve of Destruction”. The tune was first offered to The Byrds, who declined and passed the song to The Byrds, and they included it on their debut album. The McGuire version contained a rough vocal track that was to be reworked, however, a “copy” of the studio tape ended up in the hands of a local DJ who began playing it and the song became an overnight hit. The planned polished vocal track was abandoned and McGuire’s single reached the top spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and got as high as number 3 on the U.K. charts in September 1965.
In 1966 the first international hit by a Spanish band, Los Bravos (“The Braves”), hit U.S. radio stations in the form of “Black Is Black”, a debut single produced by the Decca label. The vocals were styled after Gene Pitney and most thought it was his voice. The song debuted as the last entry on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart; it reached position 4 and spent 12 weeks on the chart. In Canada, it hit Number One, made the Number Two spot in the U.K., on the U.S. Cash Box charts the tune landed at third place. In Spain alone, the single sold two million copies. In later years journeyman rocker Rick Springfield performed a version on his 1982 album, Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet. A dance-oriented remix of “Black Is Black” was released in 1986 as a single.
We’re not going to hide the appeal of a smash that topped the US charts, as well as Germany and Switzerland, and went to Number 3 in the UK and Ireland. John Fred and his Playboy Band broke the mold when “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” hit the airwaves in late 1968. It’s a tune that almost everyone knows, and it is extremely “catchy”. The song utilizes bass, guitar, drums, strings, brass, a sitar, piano, and other string sounds. With the success of the single, John Fred & His Playboy Band was labeled a novelty act and the group was unable to achieve any other major success. Most fans agree that the song is a “take off” on “Judy In The Sky With Diamonds”. Members of the band voiced their disregard for the unusual slow abrupt ending, with Fred ‘speaking’ the final line, “I guess I’ll just take your glasses.” After years of legal struggles, Fred obtained full legal rights to “Judy in Disguise” and its royalties.
If you sense that there is “Something In The Air” around this article it’s probably a thunderclap, as in Thunderclap Newman. The band was a 1969 pet project of The Who guitarist Pete Townshend, who wanted to create a band to perform songs written by drummer and singer Speedy Keen, a friend of and songwriter for The Who. Townshend drafted his art school classmate and jazz pianist Andy “Thunderclap” Newman, and guitarist Jimmy McCulloch, who went on to success with Paul McCartney’s Wings from 1974 to 1977, then, unfortunately, died at age 26 of a heroin overdose in 1979. Townshend produced the recording, arranged all of the string tracks, and played bass with the alias Bijou Drains. The single reached Number One in the UK Singles Chart just three weeks after release, besting an Elvis Presley song along the way. The tunes’ success was surprising and there were no plans to promote Thunderclap Newman with live performances. A follow-up single reached number 44 for just one week, so the song and the band were forever linked as a one-hit wonder.
Above and beyond something in the air you may encounter the “Spirit in the Sky”. In late 1969 Norman Greenbaum put it there. He was inspired to write the song after watching Porter Wagoner on TV singing a gospel song. It slowly worked up the charts and made Gold Record sales, selling two million copies from 1969 to 1970. The tune eventually ended up at number 3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, where it lasted for 15 weeks. Billboard ranked it the 22nd best song of 1970, and it rose to top the list of the UK, Australian and Canadian charts. Rolling Stone magazine lists “Spirit in the Sky” at the 333 slot on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The tune contains lyrics that make several references to Jesus, although Greenbaum is Jewish. In a VH1 episode focusing on one-hit wonders, Alice Cooper commented about his surprise when he heard someone with a Jewish-sounding name performing a song which appeared to be about Jesus. Of the song, Greenbaum observed: “It sounds as fresh today as when it was recorded. I’ve gotten letters from funeral directors telling me that it’s their second-most-requested song to play at memorial services, next to “Danny Boy”.
At this point, if you see the “Spirit in the Sky” then you could be “One Toke Over The Line”; in the late sixties, singer-songwriters Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley were. Known for their intricate guitar work, vocal harmonies, and socially conscious lyrics, they echoed the concerns of their generation — especially the Vietnam War and the struggles for personal and political freedom. “One Toke Over the Line” spent 14 weeks on the charts, reaching Top Ten during April 1971 (got up to number 5 in Canada). The song was performed on The Lawrence Welk Show, a family-oriented television program, by the duo “Gail and Dale”. When the song was finished, Welk remarked, without any hint of irony, “There you’ve heard a modern spiritual by Gail and Dale.” This caused Michael Brewer to comment “The Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, named us personally as a subversive to American youth, but at exactly the same time Lawrence Welk performed the crazy thing and introduced it as a gospel song. That shows how absurd it really is. Of course, we got more publicity than we could have paid for.” In Hunter S. Thompson’s epic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dr. Gonzo breaks out with “One toke over the line, sweet Jesus, one toke over the line” during the story while on the ride from Barstow to Las Vegas. “One Toke Over the Line” is featured in the popular video game Grand Theft Auto IV.
People that are one toke over the line might display “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, and that is the Undisputed Truth. They were a Detroit act that released the song which had been written for the Motown label. The song was originally recorded by The Temptations in 1971, then re-recorded the same year by the Undisputed Truth, with their version resulting in a number 3 Billboard Hot 100 position for the group. Both versions deal with the same subject matter, “back-stabbing” people who cross their friends (“Smiling faces sometimes…they don’t tell the truth…smiling faces sometimes tell lies…”). In 1971 Billboard ranked the single as the 14th best song of the year; it’s since been covered by Bobbi Humphrey, Joan Osborne, Rare Earth, and others. The O’Jays’ similarly themed 1972 hit ‘Back Stabbers’ quotes the lyrics “smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes…(tell lies)” near the end of the song. As with ‘One Toke Over The Line’, the song was featured in a version of Grand Theft Auto (V).
From the music of Motown, we head south, back in time to “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”. Released in the summer of 1972, the song wound up as a chart-topping success for Lawrence on the Hot 100 chart for two weeks in early 1973. It was number one for two weeks before stepping aside for Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”. Billboard ranked it just outside Top Ten at number 11 on the Best of 1973 rankings. The lyrics revolve around the events in the story of a young woman and her brother returning from a two-week trip to a location known only as “Candletop,”. He meets his best friend Andy Wolloe at Webb’s Bar who tells him that his wife has been having an affair with a local named Seth Amos; “she’s been seeing that Amos boy.” Andy then reveals that he too has “been with her.”
The story progresses to an epilog in the final verses, the singer reveals that they “hung my brother” before she could confess to two things: the tracks mentioned previously were hers and that she killed Andy. “His cheatin’ wife had never left town,” she goes on, also confessing to killing the wife at the same time, and ends the story by claiming the woman will be “one body that’ll never be found,” because “Little Sister don’t miss when she aims her gun.”
Hopefully, our list is not one hit too many, for there are literally hundreds, possibly thousands, of possible nominees. In the future, we’ll take up where we left off. Please leave any comments or suggested nominees in the dialogue box below.