38 Hit Songs Recorded in One Take
One and Done
Getting something just right typically requires multiple tries, especially if you're a perfectionist. There are so many things that could possibly go wrong in the recording studio, even for superstar professional singers: bad pitch, achieving the right tone, tempo, and volume, forgetting the words. And we're just talking vocals.
However, just as needles occasionally do show up in haystacks, sometimes singers nail a song on the very first try. Then, if the magic is really with them, that rare one-take song becomes a commercial success. Rare indeed! Here is a collection of hit songs by various artists and they were recorded on the first take. One and done!
1. "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes
This 1981 international chart-topper was the biggest hit of Kim Carnes' career. The sultry rock song was a remake of a cheesy-sounding, jazz-influenced number (no offense) that was originally recorded by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon in 1974.
Carnes' cover features her raspy Rod Stewart-like voice, and the song was intentionally recorded with the cheapest drums available, for effect. The first time Carnes recorded it in the studio was an absolute charm.
When Carnes won a Grammy Award for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year, Bette Davis sent roses to the singer, writer, and producer of the song in appreciation for keeping her culturally relevant in the 1980s. Carnes developed a friendship with the elderly acting icon that lasted until Davis' death in 1989.
The song's lyrics describe an alluring blonde heartbreaker who is "pure as New York snow." The dangerous woman has large, expressive eyes and uses her knockout looks and edgy sex appeal to manipulate even the worldliest of men. Bette Davis was known for her eyes, sensuality, and bold, plainspoken manner. Davis' distinctive eyes were possibly the result of Graves disease, a thyroid and immunological disorder. It is unknown, however, whether she actually suffered from the illness.
Not all of us can have Bette Davis eyes. Celebrate these windows to the soul in a playlist of songs about eyes.
2. "Cum on Feel the Noize" by Quiet Riot
English hard rock band Slade first made this headbanging party anthem a hit overseas in 1973, but it failed to make much of a dent in the US market. A decade later, the producer for heavy metal group Quiet Riot wanted the American band to record it.1
The lead singer, however, particularly despised the tune and planned to intentionally sabotage the band's recording efforts by getting the group to do the worst job possible so the producer couldn't possibly release it. The lead singer wanted the band to write all of its own music rather than perform any cover songs.
Perhaps here's where reverse psychology entered in (or maybe it was just blind luck). Whatever the case, Quiet Riot totally nailed the song on the first attempt. The 1983 heavy metal number became a rock/pop crossover hit. It also resulted in Quiet Riot becoming the first metal band to reach the number one spot on the Billboard album chart with their album, Metal Health.
3. "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley
Practice doesn't always make perfect. Cee Lo Green laid down the vocals to this prominent ditty in one impressive take. Even better, in recording its lyrics, he was referring to a piece of paper with the written words, and what you hear was the first time he ever attempted to sing the 2006 song. The result? A one-take song that became a Grammy Award winner. It was named by Rolling Stone magazine as the best song of the decade (2000-2009) and one of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." Total magic, I'd say.
An electronic-infused, neo-soul song, "Crazy" alludes to being crazy as a means of truly knowing what you're about. It was written after Cee Lo and DangerMouse (the duo that comprises Gnarls Barkley) discussed how only artists that are unbalanced are taken seriously. This led to a tongue-in-cheek conversation about all the ways an artist could make others think they were crazy.
Regardless of whether you're crazy in love or convinced the whole world has gone a little bonkers, make a playlist of pop, rock, and country songs about being crazy.
4. "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" by Rupert Holmes
Today we have online dating sites like Tindr and Match.com. However, back in 1979 when this soft rock number was released, classified ads were a popular method that complete strangers connected. Yep, people actually put personal ads for dating partners in the newspaper, then waited for responses.
This song tells the story of a man who places an ad in the personals because he is bored with his long-term relationship. Intrigued by a mysterious lady's ad, the man arranges a meet-up, only to discover it's his existing partner. The two cheaters have a good laugh about the situation and realize they still have a lot in common.
Originally, the tune was written with the lyrics, "If you like Humphrey Bogart and getting lost in the rain." However, Holmes changed the lyrics just minutes before recording it. It was the first time singing the song.
The first take was supposed to be a mere "dummy" track with temporary lyrics, but when Holmes later rewrote his lyrics again and went to re-record the song, he found that his voice didn't project enough enthusiasm. Thus, his first cut—perfectly imperfect as it was—prevailed, and that's the one that you hear today.
"Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" was the last number one song of the 1970s. It performed well globally and was the highest charting single of Rupert Holmes' career.
Which is more true?
5. "Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen
Don't let the seemingly upbeat nature of this 1984 ditty fool you. "Born in the U.S.A." is not intended to be a patriotic song. Instead, its lyrics bemoan the shattered illusions of Vietnam soldiers and the poor treatment faced by veterans upon their return home:
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man.
The song was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time" and was one of the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA's) Songs of the Century. The version on Springsteen's album of the same name was an early live take. Remarkably, it was part of a jam session wherein the song's instrumental parts weren't written in advance. They recorded both vocals and instrumentals once as practice, then discarded the rehearsal track without listening to it. (You could argue this was a second take, but whatever.) Following that, the legendary hit was recorded for posterity. Who da man?
Honor those who have protected your liberty with a playlist of songs about soldiers and veterans.
6. "A Boy Named Sue" by Johnny Cash
Having been raised poor, Johnny Cash always had empathy for the disadvantaged among us. In 1969, the esteemed Man in Black recorded a live album at San Quentin State Prison as a part of a series of prison concert albums. He read over the lyrics for "A Boy Named Sue" only a few times in advance, then played it for the live audience unrehearsed, repeatedly referring to the lyrics sheet in the performance as the band improvised.3 What you hear on the recording—including the inmates' laughter and his own spontaneous chuckling—was Johnny Cash's one off-the-cuff take.
"A Boy Named Sue" is one of Johnny Cash's signature songs, and it describes a young man's lifelong fight for respect. Sue's alcoholic father abandoned the family when the boy was three years old, leaving the son with a legacy of shame: his girly name. The name subjected him to relentless bullying growing up. In retaliation, Sue made it his mission to find and kill his father when he became an adult. Having learned to fight, Sue tracks his father down in a bar and has an unlikely reunion, discovering the surprising real reason for his name.
Performed in the talk-singing style, this tune became a country/pop crossover hit for Cash, not only in America but also abroad. Johnny Cash never did any hard time himself, but he did go to jail seven times for various misdemeanors, including trespassing to pick flowers.
7. "Lose Yourself" by Eminem
Even those who are not hip-hop fans must certainly acknowledge that Eminem's talent is on full display in this 2002 song. The artist recorded this song between breaks while on the set of the motion picture, 8 Mile, laying down all three verses in one adrenaline-fueled take.3
The rapper's autobiographically-inspired, global hit song was heralded as one of his best. Moreover, it was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." Eminem nabbed an Academy Award, Grammy Awards, and a list of other accolades as a consequence of this one-take song—particularly fitting if you consider this refrain:
You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.
8. "El Paso" by Marty Robbins
With this 1959 cowboy ballad, Marty Robbins put the "western" in what used to be dubbed "country western music." The protagonist in the Grammy Award-winning ditty describes how he fell in love with a Mexican maiden in the border town of El Paso. In a jealous rage, he kills another man over her, and then flees, fearful of being hanged. Even though he is a marked man, the fella risks his life by returning to the scene of the crime to see the woman he loves. In so doing is mortally wounded by a posse.
Marty Robbins recorded this storytelling song only once, although there were versions that deleted a verse to make it shorter. Both he and audiences generally preferred the longer version. The chart-topper became a country/pop crossover hit, and Robbins sang it at every performance throughout the rest of his career.
If you enjoy songs like "El Paso" that not only entertain but also have a plot, make a playlist of popular songs that tell a story.
9. "My Way" by Frank Sinatra
Ol' Blue Eyes repeatedly told audiences how much he detested this signature song. It describes both the unfiltered expression of what is on one's mind and the brazen pursuit of one's goals without regard to others. Although the 1969 easy listening pop tune performed well on the American charts, it spent nearly a year and a half on the Top 40 Billboard charts in the United Kingdom.
Sinatra was known as "one-take Charlie," but he earned that nickname more for his acting than his singing. With music, he was all business and sang as many takes as required to perfect the song.4 Nevertheless, he aced this song in one take with a live orchestra backing him up.
10."Are You Lonesome Tonight?" by Elvis Presley
Elvis revived this 1927 vaudeville tune at the behest of "Colonel" Tom Parker's wife because it was her favorite song. In anticipation of reigniting his musical career, The King of Rock and Roll recorded this hit in 1960, several months before completing his service in the Army.
The song is about a heartbroken narrator who yearns to reunite with the lover who rejected him. Elvis sought to create the right somber mood by recording it in a dark studio. Unfortunately, there was a minor mishap with the ending of the hauntingly lonely number. Depending on what account you read, it was the background singers bumping into a microphone stand, a small problem with the guitar, and/or too much echo.
Elvis wanted to scrap the entire song as a result, arguing he couldn't do it justice. However, a record executive knew the artist had just recorded a hit record. He directed that the backup singers re-record their last few bars so that the producer could splice it together. The executive had a good ear. The song topped the mainstream charts and crossed over to both country and R&B charts.
11. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Bonnie Raitt
Inspiration for this 1990 pop song came from an unlikely place. The songwriter spotted a newspaper article about a man who appeared in court after having been arrested for public drunkenness and shooting at his girlfriend's car. When the judge asked him what he learned from the incident, the heartsick man replied, "you can't make a woman love you if she don't."
"I Can't Make You Love Me" is a heartrending tune about the pain of rejection at its most intimate level. The emotionally vulnerable narrator spends one last night with her lover after having finally internalized that her love is one-sided. Bonnie Raitt recorded this now-classic song in one soul-sapping take, and when the producer asked her to do it again, she refused. Raitt had poured every last drop of emotion into that first take and had nothing more left to give.
Although many other singers recorded the song after her, Rolling Stone magazine named the blues singer's version of "I Can't Make You Love Me" to their list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." The sad ditty was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. If you like Raitt's version, look at Who Sang It Best?: "I Can't Make You Love Me" and compare her efforts to those of other singers.
12. "Twist & Shout" by The Beatles
The Beatles had been covering this song for years in concert when they finally recorded it, with John Lennon on lead vocals. It describes the narrator's enthusiasm for his crush's sexy dance moves.
Following a protracted 13-hour recording session, the Fab Four had only 15 minutes of recording time left to complete this song. Lennon suffered from a bad cold and was attempting to preserve his voice by taking cough drops and gargling milk. One take of "Twist & Shout" is all his voice could muster. A second voice-killing take was attempted but could not be completed, so that single take was used. Lennon reported that for a long time afterward his throat felt like sandpaper when he swallowed.
The 1963 rock song appeared on The Beatles' first studio album, "Please Please Me." It was a transatlantic hit and helped to launch Beatlemania.
13. "Bodysatchers" by Radiohead
In 2008, English rock band Radiohead recorded this song when lead singer was coming down with an illness. The song is about feelings of unreality because you're trapped playing roles in life that do not fit. The song's vocals were laid down in one live take, and it became a hit for the band on the US Alternative Charts (modern rock).
14. "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson
In 1983, Michael Jackson first moonwalked to "Billie Jean" on the Motown 25 special, with that iconic costume: the hat, the sequined glove and socks, and those high waders. The King of Pop's performance has been named by Entertainment Weekly as one of the most important pop culture moments in history. I recall gathering around the tv with my siblings to watch it as a kid.
One of the highest-selling songs of all time, it became a worldwide smash hit as part of the Thriller album and helped to catapult Jackson into superstardom. Most people don't know, however, that Jackson recorded his vocals in one phenomenal take. Rolling Stone magazine included the Grammy Award-winning tune on its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." In 2009, when Jackson died, the song re-entered the charts across the world.
"Billie Jean" describes a scheming woman's claim of paternity and the narrator's adamant denial of fathering her child even though "his eyes were like mine." Its inspiration has been alternately reported to be the many women claiming that Jackson's brothers fathered their children or a stalker's letters claiming Jackson fathered one of her twins.
15. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" by James Brown
If you think Michael Jackson could dance, then you should get a look at what James Brown could do. Most of his song performances involved fancy footwork. This 1965 R&B song's lyrics referred to classic dance moves like the Jerk, the Fly, and the Mashed Potatoes.
The Grammy Award-winning tune is about an older man getting out on the dance floor and being proud of the new way he's doing things ("a brand new bag"). Named by Rolling Stone as one of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time," this contagious song was a pioneering influence in the emergence of funk music. The Godfather of Soul recorded the R&B/pop crossover hit in one take. Although Brown hadn't memorized the words yet, he read the lyrics from a paper in from of him. He commented that there were a lot of words on the sheet. Then, before the horns started, he blurted out, "This is a hit!"
16. "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen
The lyrics of this classic 1955 rock song are simple but virtually unintelligible. It's about a Jamaican man who sails back to the island for his sweetheart.5 The sexually repressed people of the 1950s, however, believed they heard filth in the song, and the FBI conducted a 31-month investigation into the matter, ironically missing the only actual obscenity. (The drummer later admitted that he dropped both his drumstick and an f-bomb at the :54 point in the song.)
The song was recorded in one frenetic take after the band had played a version of it for about 90 minutes at a teen party just before the recording session. "Louie Louie" is included in both the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and among other honors, it was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of "The 40 Songs That Changed The World."
17. "Hail Mary" by 2Pac (featuring The Outlawz and Ital Joe)
With its references to Catholicism, gang warfare, and prison, this 1997 gangsta rap tune took a mere 15 minutes to write and just five minutes for Tupac and company to record the vocals. The one-take song is one of his most famous and became a rap/R&B crossover hit.
Over the years, fans have sometimes searched for clues about whether the rapper faked his own death; they looked in this song and The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, the album the song appears on. Interestingly, in 2016, a church in Sri Lanka accidentally printed the lyrics to "Hail Mary" in its Christmas hymnal instead of the Catholic prayer by the same name.6 With lyrics like the following, can you imagine? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!
I ain't a killer, but don't push me
Revenge is like the sweetest joy next to gettin' pu**y.
18. "I Say a Little Prayer" by Aretha Franklin
Although it was just nine months earlier that Dionne Warwick had achieved crossover R&B/pop success with the original version of "I Say a Little Prayer," The Queen of Soul recorded her 1968 rendition of the song in one take. The song is about being crazy in love for someone and hoping that they love you as much in return. While recording for her album, Aretha Now, she and her backup singers were having fun in the control room, and this one-take international hit was the unplanned result.7
19. "That's All Right (Mama)" by Elvis Presley
It's been argued that Elvis' recording of this old R&B number represented the first-ever rock and roll song, and there was no turning back. But did you know this watershed moment in music history was the result of coincidence? Elvis was in the recording studio between sessions when he and two band members started goofing off playing the old R&B number at a considerably faster clip than it was normally played. The producer told them to play it again so he could record it.
The song is about a man whose sweetheart isn't good for him. His parents disapprove of the woman, and he decides to leave town to escape her bad influence. Elvis was just breaking into the music business, and remarkably, although the song performed well in the Memphis region, it failed to chart nationally. Nevertheless, "That's All Right (Mama)" was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time."
20. "The House of the Rising Sun" by The Animals
This 1964 international hit was based on a folk song with a long and diverse history. The Animals' dramatic version is set in New Orleans and features a narrator who is the son of a seamstress and an alcoholic gambler. He returns to The Crescent City and regrettably follows in the wayward footsteps of his father while simultaneously warning others about the pitfalls of leading such a life.
The Animals performed "House of the Rising Sun" as a part of their concert tour with rocker Chuck Berry because they wanted a song with a distinctive sound. They recorded it between stops, nailed the ditty on the first take, and it became a number one hit in both the United Kingdom and the United States while also performing well in other countries. The producer described the historic one-shot recording session as a matter of 15 minutes when everything was in exactly the right place.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named "House of the Rising Sun" to its list of "The 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll." In addition, RIAA included it on their listing of "Songs of the Century," and Rolling Stone magazine listed the song as one of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time."
Even More Hit Songs Recorded in One Take
21. Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwoʻole
22. Crimson and Clover
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
23. Teenage Lament '74
24. Get Down and Get with It
25. My Heart Will Go On
26. I Feel Love
27. Soldier Boy
28. Bits and Pieces
The Dave Clark Five
29. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
30. You Keep Me Hangin' On
31. Walking in the Rain
32. Rapper's Delight
The Sugarhill Gang
34. Mama Tried
35. Walk on By
36. The Show Must Go On
37. Nothing Compares 2 U
1Kielty, Martin. "How Quiet Riot Tried to Sabotage 'Cum On Feel the Noize? Cover." Ultimate Classic Rock, 25 May 2017, ultimateclassicrock.com/quiet-cum-on-feel-the-noize-sabotage/.
2Hiatt, Brian. "How Bruce Springsteen Wrote and Recorded ‘Born In The U.S.A.’." Rolling Stone, 24 Mar. 2019, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/bruce-springsteen-wrote-born-in-usa-exclusive-book-excerpt-811634/.
3Weingarten, Christopher R., et al. "Eminem: 50 Greatest Songs." Rolling Stone, 21 Nov. 2017, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/eminem-50-greatest-songs-197850/lose-yourself-2002-197951/.
4Renoff, Greg. "What It Was Like to Work With Sinatra in the Studio." L.A. Weekly, 6 Dec. 2016, www.laweekly.com/music/what-it-was-like-to-work-with-sinatra-in-the-studio-7026500.
5Crawford, Anwen. "Is This the Dirtiest Song of the Sixties?" The New Yorker, 6 May 2015, www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/jack-ely-louie-louie-the-dirtiest-song-of-the-sixties.
6Serafino, Jay. "Church Accidentally Prints the Lyrics to Tupac's 'Hail Mary' Instead of the Prayer." Mental Floss, 26 Dec. 2016, mentalfloss.com/article/90395/church-accidentally-prints-lyrics-tupacs-hail-mary-instead-prayer.
7Browne, David E. "The 50 Greatest Aretha Franklin Songs." Rolling Stone, 16 Aug. 2018, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/the-50-greatest-aretha-franklin-songs-110647/i-say-a-little-prayer-1968-200740/.
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