One-hit wonders may have found commercial success fleeting, but they’ve certainly succeeded in staying on the airwaves and in our heads for decades. Check out the stories behind these 10 singular sensations.
“Spirit in the Sky,” Norman Greenbaum
Norman Greenbaum may have been a one-hit wonder with his “spiritual” guitar licks, but the song has been good to him over the years. He has said it took him just 15 minutes to pen the song in 1968 after seeing gospel singer Porter Wagoner on TV. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that,’” he told the New York Times in 2006. He was right — and the song has been a mainstay ever since, even if the rest of Greenbaum’s career didn’t make quite the same splash. Because “Spirit” has been featured in countless movies and commercials over the years, Greenbaum’s 15-minute songwriting session more than paid off.
“Afternoon Delight,” Starland Vocal Band
The song that quickly became synonymous with hanky-panky had fairly innocuous origins: In 1974, band member Bill Danoff was enjoying Happy Hour at Clyde’s restaurant in Georgetown when he noticed their menu referred to the specials as “afternoon delights.” He filed the phrase away and later built it into the one-hit wonder everyone (including Ron Burgandy) knows and loves today. Starland Vocal Band never found the same smash-hit success, but they’ve made peace with it. "We didn't sustain a career but we lived the average life span of any band - five years,” said lead singer Taffy Nivert. "But because we were a one-hit wonder, we got our name on the wall at the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame," she added. "If we had another hit, that would never have happened."
“Hooked on a Feeling,” Blue Swede
It may be famous for its “Ooga-Chaka” opening lyrics, but “Hooked on a Feeling” was around for three years before the catchy intro was added. The song was originally recorded by singer B.J. Thomas, known for the ballad “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” British musician Jonathan King added the “Ooga-Chaka”s when he covered the song in 1971, and Blue Swede picked it up when they released their version in 1974. It was this version that found its way into 8-track players across the nation — and, eventually, movies like Reservoir Dogs and Guardians of the Galaxy. The Swedish band (yes, they really were) was only active for two years - 1973-1975 - but the impact they made has lasted a lifetime.
“Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” Looking Glass
Had Looking Glass’s lead singer Elliot Lurie gone a more literal direction with the lyrics to this one-hit wonder, we’d be singing, “Randye, you’re a fine girl.” Randye was the name of his high school girlfriend; Lurie sang her name over the chords of a song he was working on. Eventually he created a story to go along with the tune and changed the name to better fit the story: “In my mind, it was a 19th century port with sailors and barmaids and things like that,” Lurie told The Hollywood Reporter. “So, the name is borrowed from my high school girlfriend and then changed to Brandy because obviously that makes a lot more sense when you are a barmaid.” Looking Glass did have one other Top 40 hit, “Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne,” but it lacked the timelessness of “Brandy.”
“Black Betty,” Ram Jam
It’s hard to tell from the hard-rocking version that was a hit for Ram Jam in 1977, but “Black Betty” was originally a folk song sometimes credited to Lead Belly. Lead Belly’s version was just 59 seconds, but when Ram Jam expanded it to nearly 4 minutes, they had a #18 hit on their hands - their only hit. The true meaning of “Black Betty” has never fully been explained, but theories include that it refers to a bottle of moonshine, a musket, or a whip used in a prison yard.
“Wipe Out,” The Surfaris
The surf-rock band The Surfaris really only had two songs — and “Wipe Out” was made up in mere minutes just so the song “Surfer Joe” would have a B-side Bob Berryhill, co-writer of the song, said the base was a marching band cadence made up by drummer Ronnie Wilson, who — surprise, surprise — was in his high school marching band. The whole song came together in about 15 minutes, with manager Dale Smallen providing what they called “the witch’s laugh.” The instrumental song became a national hit, charting at #2 in 1963. Though The Surfaris released many other albums and singles, none even came close to the popularity of “Wipe Out.”
“Stuck in the Middle With You,” Stealers Wheel
If you ever confused “Stuck in the Middle With You” with a Bob Dylan song, then mission accomplished: The tune was meant as a Dylan parody. The lyrics themselves - think, “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right” - were intended to represent an industry cocktail party. Though the Scottish band had three studio albums and lead singer Gerry Rafferty went on to have solo hits like “Baker Street,” “Stuck in the Middle With You” has become particularly cemented in music history thanks to its placement in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and, in more recent years, as the theme song to the Netflix show Grace and Frankie.
“Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” Rupert Holmes
This one-hit wonder has the distinction of being the last song to chart in the 1970s. Surprisingly, Holmes had a hit bigger than “Escape” - “Him,” which charted at #4 in 1980. But today, he’s definitely more well known for the pina coladas — which, as of 2019, he still doesn’t drink. And although he may not be so well-known for the rest of the music he sang, Holmes is famous among industry insiders and musicians, writing songs for Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Barry Manilow and Judy Collins, among others.
“Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Jeannie Riley
Released in 1968, this sassy song about a mom singled out by her daughter’s straight-laced PTA apparently resonated with a lot of people. The tune hit number one on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot Country Songs charts (a feat not matched until Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” in 1981) and Riley won a Grammy for her vocals. She never had a mainstream hit afterward, but that’s likely due to her career change – in 1972, she became a born-again Christian and switched to singing gospel instead.
“Hey! Baby,” Bruce Channel
For a song that only held the #1 position on the Billboard charts for three weeks in 1962, it’s sure had a lasting impact - pep bands and sports arenas still play it nearly 60 years later. The song was written by Channel and his acquaintance Margaret Combs when they were teenagers trying to create hits like they heard on the radio. Channel’s only other commercial success was a song called “Keep On,” which made the Top 40 in the U.K., but didn’t do much in the States.
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