Stephen is a lifelong music lover and worked as a professional DJ, operating his own DJ service in the 1980s and '90s .
The One-Hit Wonder Through the Decades
Since 1955, which is considered to be the beginning of the modern era of rock and roll, the music charts have seen scores of hits by so-called one-hit wonders, a surprising number of which went all the way to number one. In this article, we will be looking at these songs and the artists behind them, who were unable to repeat the magic formula that got them all the way to the top of the charts.
Though there is some debate as to what constitutes a one-hit wonder, the Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as "a performer of popular music who makes one successful recording but then no other." For this article, we will be looking at those groups or artists whose one hit reached number one on the Billboard charts. It does not take into account groups or artists that may have had other hits prior to 1955, hits in other genres on genre-specific charts, or chart success in countries other than the United States.
Joan Weber has the dubious distinction of being the first one-hit wonder of the modern rock and roll era, and, interestingly enough, to hit number one, with her song from January 1, 1955, "Let me Go Lover." She subsequently released four more songs that failed to hit and was thus dropped by the Columbia Label. "Let me go Lover" was also released in 1954 by Teresa Brewer and, later that year, by the Lancers, who took it to number six. This song has also been covered by such music legends as Dean Martin and Patti Page.
It took a little over three years for another act to take their one hit to number one, and that was the Silhouettes, a doo wap/R & B group, in February of 1958 with "Get a Job." Five other artists accomplished this feat in 1958. Laurie London hit in April with what is now considered pretty much a children's song, "He's got the Whole World in His Hands." Sheb Wooley did it in June with his novelty hit "Purple People Eater."
Domenico Modugno went to number one in August with his international hit "Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)." Also in August was the Elegants with "Little Star." Rounding out the year was the Teddy Bears with their December hit "To know Him is to Love Him," which was later covered by such notables as the trio of Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstat, as well as Amy Winehouse and Martina McBride.
1960 saw four one-hit wonders make it to the number one spot. The first of these was Mark Dinning, in February, with his "tearjerker" "Teen Angel." Written by Mark's sister, Jean, and her husband, Red Surrey, and released in October of 1959, the song had a slow rise to the top due to the fact that many radio stations in the U.S. and abroad refused to play it due to it being "too sad."
Despite this, "Teen Angel" still managed to climb all the way to the top spot. It has since been featured on a number of compilation albums, including the soundtrack album to the 1973 Spielberg hit movie American Graffiti. Mark Dinning went on to release just one more single, "A Star is Born (A Love has Died)," in 1960, which failed to chart.
The next two songs by one-hit wonders to top the charts in 1960 were a couple of novelty hits: "Ally Oop" by the Hollywood Argyles in July and "Mr. Custer" by Larry Verne in October.
"Ally Opp" was based on a syndicated comic strip from the 1930s by the American cartoonist V. T. Hamlin, about a caveman from the fictional prehistoric kingdom of Moo. "Mr. Custer" is a comical little tune about a less-than-heroic soldier of the 7th Cavalry begging General Custer not to make him go to the battle of Little Big Horn. Both songs received a resurgence of sorts when they were included on the 1975 Tee Vee records release "25 Funny Funky Hits."
Rounding out the number ones for 1960 is Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs with their November hit "Stay."
May 1961 saw Ernie K-Doe hit with his tail of matrimonial woe "Mother in Law." Bruce Channel made it ten months later, in March of 1962 with "Hey Baby, followed by Mr. Acker Bilk in May of the same year with "Strangers on the Shore." Kyu Sakamoto reached the number one spot in June of 1963 with his international hit "Sukiyaki."
December of 1963 saw a very surprising hit by an equally surprising artist when the Belgian performer The Singing Nun (Jeannine Deckers) took the french language song "Dominique" all the way to number one. This quaint little number about Saint Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order, was recorded by the Singing Nun in seven languages—French, English, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Japanese, and Portuguese—and hit the top 10 in 11 countries. It is also the only Belgian song to ever reach number one in the United States. The singing Nun, aka Jeannine Deckers, was also Sister Luc-Gabrielle of the Dominican Order.
The years 1964, 1965, and 1966 each saw one one-hit wonder reach number one. The Canadian-born actor and star of the popular TV western Bonanza did it in December of 1964 with his tale of a wild west gunslinger, "Ringo."
September 1965 saw Barry McGuire do it with his protest song "Eve of Destruction," and the English group The New Vaudeville Band did it in December of 1966 with their silly little novelty song "Winchester Cathedral," beating out both the Beatles and the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" for a Grammy that year. Interestingly enough, this group was managed by Led Zeppelin's future manager Peter Grant.
1967 saw no one-hit wonders reach the top spot, but then they exploded in 1968 with five acts managing to pull off the feat. First for that year was Fred Lewis and His Playboy Band with their January hit "Judy in Disguise (with Glasses)." This title was a play on the title of the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."
The Lemon Pipers followed in February with "Green Tambourine." Also in February was Paul Mauriat and His Orchestra with their instrumental hit "Love is Blue." July saw Hugh Masakela reach with "Grazing in the Grass." And rounding out the year was Jeannie C. Riley with her September hit "Harper Valley PTA." This song, written by Tom T. Hall, made Jeannie C. Riley the first woman to hit number one on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the U.S. Hot Country Singles Charts. It was also the inspiration for the 1978 movie of the same name.
July 1969 saw Zager and Evans at number one with "In the year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)." Finishing off the 1960s was Steam with "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." This song went on to be covered by a number of other acts, including Bananrama, Crazy Frog, and the Canadian A cappella group the Nylons, and it has become a favorite at hockey stadiums during elimination games.
The 1970s was the decade that saw the most one-hit wonders make it to the top spot with a total of 23. The first such act was shocking Blue with their number one from February of 1970, "Venus." Next up was Janis Joplin, from March of 1971, with "Me and Bobby McGee." It is hard to imagine that a cultural icon such as Janis Joplin, whose music has become synonymous with the Vietnam era, falls into the category of one-hit wonders, but "Me and Bobby McGee" was her only chart success.
Actress, comedian, and singer Vicki Lawrence, who is best known for the many characters she played on The Carol Burnett Show, hit in April of 1973 with "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia." Also in 1973 was the Stories with their August hit "Brother Louie."
Canadian singer, songwriter, and record producer Terry Jacks scored a number one song in March of 1974 with "Seasons in the Sun." He had originally written this song for the Beach Boys, but when they decided not to release it, he went ahead a recorded the song himself on his own record label, Goldfish Records. The single went on to sell 14 million copies worldwide and became one of the biggest selling Canadian singles of all time. Terry Jacks also had a couple of earlier hits with his band, The Poppy Family, that he had formed with his wife, Susan.
In April of 1974, TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) topped the charts with MFSB. The British pop group Paper Lace did it in August of 1974 with their song about a deadly but historically inaccurate gun battle between Chicago police and Al Capone's gang, "The Night Chicago Died." "Kung Fu Fighting" gave Carl Douglas a number one hit in December of 1974.
Minnie Riperton's "Lovin You" went to the number one spot in April of 1975. Also in 1975, from July of that year, was the Van McCoy song that started a dance craze, "The Hustle."
1976 saw the biggest year for one-hit wonders making it to number one, with six acts reaching the top spot. The first of these was John Sebastion, from May of that year, with the theme song from the hit TV series Welcome Back Kotter, "Welcome Back." In July, it was "Afternoon Delight" by the Starland Vocal Band; August was "Don't Go Breaking my Heart" by Kiki Dee, and September was "Play That Funky Music" by Wild Cherry.
October saw two unusual songs in the top spot. First was Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band with their disco cover of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, "A Fifth of Beethoven," followed by Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots with "Disco Duck."
David Soul, best known for his role as Hutch in the '70s hit TV series Starsky and Hutch, went to number one in April of 1977 with "Don't Give Up On Us Baby." In July of that year, it was Bill Conti with the theme from the movie Rocky, "Gonna Fly Now," and in October, Debbie Boone hit with "You Light Up My Life."
Only a single one-hit wonder made it to number one in 1978, and that was Nick Gilder with "Hot Child in the City." 1979 saw a pair of disco songs make it—Amii Stewart with "Knock on Wood" in April and Anita Ward with "Ring my Bell" in June. Rounding out the decade was M with "Pop Muzik" in November.
Lipps Inc. got things started in the 1980s with their number one from May of 1980, "Funky Town." Two years later, in May of '82, the Greek Composer Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou, better known as Vangelis, hit the top spot with "Chariots of Fire," the theme for the movie of the same name, for which Vangelis wrote the entire score. He also wrote the musical score for Blade Runner, Missing Antarctica, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, and Alexander. Toni Basil followed in December with "Mickey."
In February of 1983, it was Patti Austin with "Baby, Come to Me." Then in April of that year, an English pop band, Dexys Midnight Runners, topped the Billboard charts with their song "Come on Eileen." This was their only song to hit in the United States, even though they had another number one hit in the UK with "Geno," and an additional six singles made it to the top 20 on the UK singles charts.
It took two more years for another one-hit wonder to reach the number one spot, and that was USA for Africa with their charity single "We Are the World." This is a unique case in that this song was recorded by a group of artists and performers brought together specifically for this project to release a single that the profits from which would go to famine relief in Africa. "We Are the World" was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and included such notable performers as Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and many more. To date, this single has raised over $100,000,000 for charity.
In November of 1985, Jan Hammer hit with the "Miami Vice Theme." It was January of 1987 before the feat was accomplished again with "Shake you Down" by Gregory Abbot. In November of that year, Bill Medley scored with "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," from the final dance scene of the movie Dirty Dancing, where Johnny (Patrick Swayze) pulls Baby (Erin Grey) up on stage at the end of season revue at Kellerman's and wows everyone: "Nobody puts Baby in a corner."
The only act to do it in 1988 was Bobby McFerrin with his uplifting little tune "Don't Worry, Be Happy" from September of that year. Finishing off the '80s was Sheriff with "When I'm With You," from February of 1989.
The 1990s saw only eight one-hit wonders make it to the number one spot. The first of these was Sinead O'Connor, with her hit from April of 1990, "Nothing Compares To You." Although this controversial Irish singer-songwriter released a total of 10 solo albums, numerous singles, songs for films, and collaborations with other artists, having only one song on the billboard top 100 charts gets her included as a one-hit wonder.
Loleatta Holloway hit number one in October 1991 with "Good Vibrations." In February of 1992 Right Said Fred made it with their novelty hit "I'm Too Sexy," which quickly became a favorite at weddings, with many a groom removing a garter, or dancing with the bridesmaids while this group sang about all the things they, and by extension, the groom, were too sexy for.
Sir mix-a-lot hit in July of 1992 singing about the virtues of a large behind with "Baby Got Back." The Heights did it in November of the same year with "How Do You Talk To an Angel." "A Whole New World" was a number one for Regina Belle in March of 1993. Ini Kamoze made it to number one in December of 1994 with "Here Comes the Hotstepper," and Coolio feat L.V. finished off the '90s with "Gangsta's Paradise" and inspired the Weird Al Yankovic parody "Amish Paradise."
The 2000 to 2015
The twenty-first century has, up to 2015, seen 21 one-hit wonders make it to number one. The first was The Product G & B with "Maria Maria," in April 2000. Ricardo "RikRok" Ducent followed in February 2001 with "It Wasn't Me." In March of that same year, it was Crazy Town with "Butterfly." It took over three years for the feat to be repeated when Souja Slim went to number one in August 2004 with "Slow Motion." Also in August of 2004 was Terror Squad with their hip hop hit "Lean Back."
2006 was a big year for one-hit wonders, with five acts making it to the top spot, two of which were in January. First was D4L with "Laffy Taffy," followed by Ali & Gipp with "Grillz." James Blunt came next in March with "You're Beautiful," and Daniel Powter did it in April with "Bad Day." Finishing off 2006 was Taylor Hicks asking the musical question "Do I Make You Proud," from July of that year.
It took just under two years for another one-hit wonder to hit number one, and that was Static Major with "Lollipop," in May of 2008, and yet another three years before "LMFAO Rock Party Anthem" by Lauren Bennett and GoonRock made it in July of 2011. 2012 saw the feat accomplished twice. Janelle Monae did it first in March with "We Are Young," followed by Gotye and Kimbra with the international hit "Somebody That I Used to Know."
Four one-hit wonders made it to the number one spot in 2013: Wanz with "Thrift Shop" (February), Baauer with "Harlem Shake" (March), Nate Ruess with "Harlem Shake" (April), and Ray Dalton with "Can't Hold Us" (May). Magic did it in July of 2014 with "Rude." 2015 saw two acts make it to the top spot. First was Mark Ronson in January with "Uptown Funk," followed by OMI with "Cheerleader (Remix)", in July.
2016 and Beyond
Over the last several years it has become much more difficult to track one-hit-wonders. This has happened for a couple of reasons. One is, there are so many hits these days that feature this artist or that artist with another artist. So, an artist may have only one hit as a solo artist but may hit several times on songs with other artists, or may have hits with other artists and no solo hits. This same goes for bands.
Another reason is that with all of this artist featuring artist stuff going on charts are being crossed. The Billboard charts are still being used exclusivily for the data for this article but artists are showing up on multiple Billboard charts. A solo artist may have one hit on one chart then disappear only to reappear on a different chart a year or two later featured on someone else's hit.
Also, five or six years is too soon, especially the way the music industry is today, to determine if someone is actually a one hit wonder. It will probably take another few years, and perhaps a redefining of the one-hit-wonder, before 2016 to 2020 one-hit-wonders can be acuratly included here.
This doesn't alter the fact that as long there have been Billboard charts, there have been one-hit wonders, and there most likely always will be, and many of them will continue to make it all the way to number one, but it is clearly evident that this nomenclature is very much a misnomer.
Many of these so-called one-hit wonders have had hits on other American charts or international charts. Or have, over years of hard work and creative output, in spite of only have one chart hit, built up large cult followings, or have had popular successes outside of chart rankings.
The" true" one-hit wonders, persons or groups that explode onto the scene with a chart hit and then disappear from music never to be heard from again, are few and far between. And regardless of whether or not any of the artists listed here have had, or ever will have, another chart hit, they have given us some great music.
© 2016 Stephen Barnes
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on December 02, 2019:
I know some songs may have gotten left off the list depending on what chart they hit #1 on. The songs you mention here are all excellent additions to those in the article, thank you for this.
LaustCawz on December 01, 2019:
I forgot to also mention "Hooked On A Feeling" by Blue Swede.
LaustCawz on November 29, 2019:
Check "Telstar" by The Tornados (1963); "Ode To Billie Joe" by Bobbie Gentry (1967); & "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams (1968). I think they all qualify. Also, "Dirty Dancing" featured Jennifer Grey. Erin Gray co-starred on "Buck Rogers In The 25th Century" & "Silver Spoons". Finally, "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" was a duet (Elton John & Kiki Dee). I believe Kiki also had a solo hit with "I've Got The Music In Me".
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on December 25, 2016:
Thank you, I am glad you enjoyed it. I had a lot of fun researching it.
Mary Wickison from USA on December 24, 2016:
That was a walk down memory lane. I hadn't thought about some of those in years. Some are best left behind such as disco duck but other's I enjoyed.
I haven't thought of Winchester Cathedral for ages, but I use to sing that with my family.