Hundreds of bands have produced one monster hit: a catchy, memorable concoction of lyrics, music and vocals that sold millions of copies. But many were somehow unable to follow it with another successful tune.
DJs call them one-hit wonders, but musicians hate that moniker. “It is a pejorative term,” says Don Baskin of the Syndicate of Sound, who scored big with “Little Girl.”
“How about no-hit wonder? How about 99.9% of the bands out there playing that never get anywhere near that?”
We wondered why a successful follow-up hit is so elusive. So we asked artists from eight bands who had the formula for a hit single why they couldn’t duplicate its success.
Note: For purposes of this piece, artists attained “one-hit wonder” status if the follow-up single didn’t break the Top 30.
“Dirty Water” by the Standells
The Standells were the template for the punk bands that followed in the 1970s. Dick Dodd’s snarling vocals and Tony Valentino’s raw guitar riffs made Dirty Water a No. 11 hit in 1966. Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White was their hastily produced follow-up that failed to reach the Top 40. Valentino says that internal feuds over the band’s direction ensured they would never repeat the success of Dirty Water.
Tony Valentino, vocals/guitar: After “Dirty Water” was a hit, everybody was a big star, everybody’s attitude changed. The lead singer, it goes to his head. “Oh God, I’m the lead singer, and I sing on that, and I can be a big star.” The drummer, “Oh, I have a song that I want to record.” And the other guy, the keyboard player, “Oh yeah, I have a song but I want to sing it.”
We recorded “Dirty Water” in LA. Then we got a job in Seattle. So we went to Seattle and all of a sudden we get a phone call from our manager that “Dirty Water” started becoming a hit, started breaking in Florida, here and there and everywhere.
So we needed to do an album and we were not prepared. So we had to scramble to come up with some songs. The club owner wouldn’t let us leave because he had a contract. So we had to finish the six weeks in Seattle, bummed out because here we had a hit record and we were stuck in a stupid club in Seattle [laughs] with the fog and the rain.
Our producer Ed Cobb flew to Seattle. As a matter of fact, we recorded “Good Guys Don’t Wear White” in Seattle. Everybody’s scrambling and trying to get another follow-up. Everything goes to ruins because everybody becomes big stars and everybody wants to put their own songs in there. Instead of concentrating, “Hey guys, we got a hit record Dirty Water, let’s follow up with something pretty close with that.”
Then Dick Dodd wanted to start singing soul music. We recorded three or four songs with a couple of soul brothers. He brought them in the studio, a couple of black dudes and we recorded “Ninety Nine and a Half” and I was so mad. I was furious. Because why don’t we stick with – we had that sound already – with “Dirty Water.”
This one guy who promoted “Dirty Water,” I don’t even want to say his name, he had me record some songs in Italian! What am I doing?
“Smoke From a Distant Fire” by the Sanford-Townsend Band
Produced by music legend Jerry Wexler, “Smoke from a Distant Fire” was a Top 10 hit in 1976 for the Sanford-Townsend Band. But without Wexler’s input on its follow-up, “Paradise,” keyboardists Ed Sanford and John Townsend were unable to duplicate the success of “Smoke.” After eight years of touring, the band broke up. Townsend later formed the Toler/Townsend Band with the late Dan Toler. Sanford wrote 1982’s mega-hit I Keep Forgettin’ for Michael McDonald.
John Townsend, vocals/keyboards: After the Smoke From a Distant Fire album, we went out immediately on the road. We played in front of millions of people. And we were well-received, too. We weren’t making a lot of money because they weren’t paying opening acts barely enough to pay for their hotel rooms.
Warner Bros. came to us and said, “OK, it’s time for another album.” So we went back to Wexler and Wexler had just started a record with a friend of ours named Mike Finnigan. Right on the heels of Mike Finnigan’s record, he was going in the studio with Dire Straits. So it would have been another six to eight months probably after everything was wrapped up, mixed, and done with those other two records before we were even able to get into the studio with him and we needed something out in that time frame.
The second album had some beautiful stuff on it, it got a lot of FM airplay but it never had the boost that it had because Jerry Wexler was one of the most powerful men in the record business. Jerry Wexler was not involved to be the tentpole for the whole thing and move it forward.
The climate changed. Within weeks or months of when we released our second album for Warner Bros., they had just signed six punk and new wave acts. They signed the B-52s, the Sex Pistols and basically opened up a new wing at Warner Bros. Music just to accommodate those acts.
Ed and I, every time we had the opportunity to make music, we were always successful with it but every time the climate changed, the new wave thing, the disco thing, we were square pegs in a round hole and just didn’t get the opportunities.
Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love) by the Swingin’ Medallions
The Swingin’ Medallions, a party band out of South Carolina, had a surprise Top 20 hit in 1966 with “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love),” originally released by Dick Holler & the Holidays. The band’s follow-up, “She Drives Me Out of My Mind,” only reached No. 71.
Drummer Joe Morris says the band wasn’t allowed to showcase the “live party band” sound of their big hit.
Joe Morris, vocals/drums: We really did not get the chance to do what we wanted to do. We had a contract with the studio and they were pretty rigid about what they wanted us to do. The producers and manager were trying to push us in one direction. The truth of the matter is, they didn’t really understand the band and the type of music we played. We were constantly in a battle. The studio that we had a contract with wanted us to record their songs, of course, for the writer’s royalties.
And the manager wanted us to record stuff – our manager was Lenny Stogel, out of New York. He managed groups like the Cowsills, Tommy James and the Shondells and a few of those folks. He wanted us to record – do you remember a song called “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie”? It was a good song. But it wasn’t us.
The song that we missed was “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy.” I had produced that song with another band, the Epics, in the studio. We were recording a song called “You Were on My Mind.” And while they were recording that song, a few of the studio musicians went out in the hallway and wrote “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy.” So we could have something to put on the back side.
So they came back in and taught the guys the song and at that moment I said, “Oh hell. We want this song. I want this song.” So I figured we’d bury it on the back, which we did, and then we would just jump right in and re-record it. The only problem was, the engineer on the thing was also the producer of the Tams. And he beat us to it. They had a big hit on it. That would have been our big hit.
We played what the people responded to and it’s just hard to find good material. But the bottom line is the manager had one idea of direction, the studio had their ideas – they said, “Hey, we know this business, you’re just a bunch of guys out there playin’, you don’t know diddly.” But as it turned out, we’re the ones who knew and they’re the ones that didn’t.
“Little Girl” by the Syndicate of Sound
“Little Girl” was a Top 10 hit in 1966 for the Syndicate of Sound. Acclaimed as pioneers of garage rock, the band was beset by dishonest and incompetent management. Their follow-up, “Rumors,” was a good song that never rose past No. 55. “Mary” and “Brown Paper Bag” did even worse. Lead vocalist Don Baskin says that the band needed professional songwriters in order to quickly capitalize on the success of “Little Girl.”
Don Baskin, vocals/guitar: There’s two different ways to do this thing. You either write your own songs and you go into a studio and do them or you become like a lot of other bands, as I call them, “corporate” bands. They got songwriters.
Most of us were one-hit wonders. If you don’t have something ready in the can to put out right then, somebody had better write one for you. People don’t know or care where the songwriting comes from. What they care about is the song. And we were ridin’ along, thinking it’s not honorable if you don’t write your own shit. We had no guidance.
Another reason why we probably stutter-stepped there: You’re great friends and you’re playing and you get on the road shoved in with each other for 30 days doing one-nighters, you start finding out whether you actually like this person or not. You’re rooming with them, you’re playing with them and all of a sudden you’re not just seeing them whenever you play, you’re seeing them 24 hours a fucking day.
And everyone in the band was being stalked by the Army. They got our drummer. They got him three months into the first tour. You lose him and then you lose other people in the band and it starts to fall apart.
I wrote a tune called “Mary.” By the time I had written the song and it came out, it was too late. That particular type of tune had gone past. It was no longer the style, with the 12-string and the other stuff. I don’t want to say none of it was my fault because I should have known something about what I was doing there.
Our last single was 1970’s “Brown Paper Bag,” which Bell Records thought was a smash. We were told ‘OK, it’s breakin’ out here, it’s breakin’ out there.’ But there was another tune out at the very same time. It was called “Little Green Bag” by the George Baker Selection. And we would go around radio stations: “Oh, we’re already playing the tune, Little Green Bag.” I said, “No, no, it’s “Brown Paper Bag.” They were thinking, “We’re playin’ it. We’re on it.” “No, that’s not it!”
What a great business [laughs]. But you’ve gotta know how to play it. We were babes in arms and we were just standin’ there with our wallets hangin’ out of our pants.
“Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n’ the Tears
Britain’s Sniff ‘n’ the Tears were built around the music of singer-songwriter Paul Roberts. Sniff recorded its debut LP Fickle Heart in 1978 but it sat unreleased for more than a year. By the time “Driver’s Seat” became a Top 15 single in 1979, band members began to depart. Their 1980 follow-up, “Poison Pen Mail,” was unsuccessful and subsequent albums with an array of sidemen yielded no further hits. The band dissolved in 1983. Roberts, who has recorded two solo albums, says that when “Driver’s Seat” hit, Sniff didn’t have the experience of a band that had worked together for years.
Paul Roberts, vocals/guitar: “Driver’s Seat” took off. And then suddenly we were put into this fame situation of having to go out and promote a fairly instant hit record without really having done much with a band. And it was sort of too much too soon in that respect.
What we lacked was one, management, and two, it was all based around me and my songs, which was already an existing thing. To pull it all together and to go out as if you’ve been on the road for a few years and you know each other really well was not that easy.
Two or three people left. They didn’t want to give up what they were already doing. There wasn’t that degree of commitment in the first place. To give you an example, the drummer and I gave everybody in the band the option of either taking a cut, being involved in the band as an ongoing thing or taking a session fee for just doing the album. And they all took the session fee. So that kind of tells you.
Suddenly out of the woodwork you’ve got all these interested parties, not just the people in the band but everybody else. You’re everybody’s best friend and they all have a formula for you, which is gonna set you on the road to long-term success.
The reality is that most people at that point are just speculating and speculators tend to think they know what they’re doing otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. We ended up with a manager – we had two or three managers, all from the States in fact, wanting to manage us. One was Bill Graham and the other was Peter Leeds, who did Blondie and so on. And the other one was Bud Prager, who was the manager of Foreigner.
So we went with Bud Prager because he actually came over but he was the wrong guy for us. Because essentially his thing, as he said, he was into Foreigner, he was into that sort of thing and he didn’t see us as being different which essentially we were. So it was a bit of a mismatch.
To this day I don’t think anybody can really define what it is about “Driver’s Seat,” it doesn’t belong to any particular kind of genre. It’s not identifiable in that way, I think. It was the sort of song that didn’t really have an obvious structure. It wasn’t verse-chord-bridge, it was quite meandering [laughs].
So I think it was a kind of one-off. There have certainly been other tracks that have a similar kind of thing but you can’t rewrite these things.
We were tied in with a small label. In the end we had to give them four albums. That’s another reason why it was difficult to follow up. Because you need to promote these things and market things and you need to have a good approach. I think the main problem was because it was so unidentifiable, they didn’t really know what to make of us. So it was always sort of “well, if you were to wear spandex and cartwheel on the stage in an Afro we might be able to do something.”
(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet by the Blues Magoos
The Blues Magoos were pioneers of psychedelic rock. Their only hit, “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet,” reached No. 5 in 1967. The band made its bones in New York’s Greenwich Village, playing clubs like the Café Wha? and the Night Owl Café with Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens and the Lovin’ Spoonful. Guitarist Peppy Castro says the band’s follow-up, “Pipe Dream,” underestimated the country’s growing disillusionment with the drug culture – and drug songs.
Peppy Castro, guitar/vocals: It’s not just about talent, it’s not just about a formula. It’s more than that. It’s the age-old adage of luck, timing and talent. The Magoos were in the right place at the right time to the scene that was going on in New York. We had the talent, we were saying something new, and the timing was right.
Unfortunately for the Magoos, luck, timing and talent went as fast as it came because the situation in the United States was so toxic between the hippie movement and the war, and drugs and flower power and all that kind of stuff. Our process for picking the next single was we wanted to keep pushing the envelope.
The follow up was “Pipe Dream.” It would be “oh, this is great, this is edgy” for what’s going on. But what happened was the reference to psychedelic bands and all that kind of stuff was starting to become very fearful. Legitimate society was going, enough of this hippie free love and drugs, what the hell’s going on in our America? Even though “Pipe Dream” was an anti-drug song, it was like, “OK, listen, if you’re gonna do this stuff, you gotta come back to reality. You’re having a pipe dream but come back to reality” was really the message of the song, don’t get hung up on drugs.
ABC was really the powerhouse for AM. If you didn’t get ABC on a record, then you lost their whole network, syndicated radio stations all across the United States. So when we put “Pipe Dream” out, it went to about 40 and the practice is, ABC doesn’t play anything until you earn it, until they see this is climbing the charts. And then when they saw, OK, we can break this record, it’s earned its way up to the point to where we’ll take a look and see if we’re gonna play this, ABC was scared shit of that record and they just said, “We can’t play this. It’s about drugs.” And so they went off it. We lost that all-important second follow-up single.
So the label panicked, they went “oh, they’re not gonna play it, son of a bitch.” And then they flipped it to the B-side, to a song called “There’s a Chance We Can Make It.” Both were good songs. It’s like throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.
You’re as good as your last hit. That’s it. What’d they do last time? Oh, that didn’t happen. OK, they’re done. It’s like crib death. That’s where the Magoos became one-hit wonders.
Lies by the Knickerbockers
The Knickerbockers burst on the scene in 1965 during the British Invasion. Fans sometimes thought their high-energy Top 20 hit “Lies” was actually a Beatles tune. But Buddy Randell (saxophone and vocals), brothers Beau Charles (guitar and vocals) and John Charles (bass and vocals) and Jimmy Walker (drums and vocals) formed the band in New Jersey and honed their stage show in New York City-area clubs. Despite the promise of “Lies,” “One Track Mind” was their disappointing follow-up. Walker says their label never understood the band’s strength: hard core rock ‘n’ roll.
Jimmy Walker, vocals/drums: The honest truth is the record company, Challenge, was kind of old-fashioned. Joe Johnson was the president. And he thought about “Lies,” ‘oh, that song is too negative. Because it says “lies.”‘ And we just looked at him like he had three heads. And then the rest of the people that listened to it said “no, we like that song.”
Then they wanted us to do “One Track Mind,” which was written by another writer of theirs, Keith Colley. These guys were always trying to get us to record their songs, the songs that they wrote and it was always a fight. We recorded it and they chose that one as the single to follow up “Lies.”
We had a song called “Just One Girl,” which we thought would have been a good follow-up instead of “One Track Mind.” We thought that had a better feel to it. I said, “You guys didn’t get it right the first time, why don’t you start listening to us? We want ‘Just One Girl.’ Beau wrote that song and we think it’s a better follow-up to our song.” It had more of our style of singing and everything else but you couldn’t argue with them, they were just stupid.
And with “One Track Mind” we did pretty good, it was a good song but we thought “Just One Girl” was better. They won out and it did OK but it didn’t really take off.
They were small-time, trying to make it fast, they wanted to sell the band as “Wow, look at this band, these guys can play all kinds of other stuff, we want to show that off.” They made us put “Harlem Nocturne” on the first album. And “Harlem Nocturne,” it’s a great song, and we did that as a nightclub song at times so they made us record that. And then they put it on the album. And we said, “What are you doing that for?” These guys were all country guys. They were just Tennessee boys. And they didn’t know from the New York City rock ‘n’ roll feeling that we came from.
I kept telling them, this is a rock ‘n’ roll band. This is what we want. Later on we can play that stuff, when we get old [laughs]. And they just didn’t get it. So what are you gonna do?
“Wildflower” by Skylark
Skylark was a Canadian band whose core was guitarist Doug Edwards and keyboardist David Foster. Edwards composed the music for their biggest hit, “Wildflower,” from a poem written by Foster’s friend, Dave Richardson. The soulful lead vocals of Donny Gerrard helped make “Wildflower” the band’s first and only U.S. success, a Top 10 hit in 1972. B.J. Cook, another of Skylark’s talented vocalists, explains that their manager somehow decided the follow-up would feature a different lead singer.
B.J. Cook, vocals: This is where the mistake came. The next single was me singing that big ballad from the first album, “I’ll Have to Go Away (Saying Goodbye’s Not Easy).” It was ridiculous!
We had a manager who should not have been our manager. His name was Ferdinand J. Smith. He was a lovely guy. We had to trust him. “They should know how versatile Skylark is. And how many great singers are in Skylark.” So we said OK, that sounds like a good idea. What did we know, right?
So instead of keeping the momentum happening with Skylark and following it up with another original song from Doug Edwards, we just listened to other people’s advice. We loved Ferdie and he’s a great guy and he was a great promoter – but he was a shitty manager! I am just not sure why the record company allowed it.
Who does that? [Laughs] It’s craziness. I mean, let’s face it. Who the hell puts a record out with somebody like Steve Perry singing the lead and then the next song they put out it’s a woman singing. I mean, who does that, right? I don’t know what they were thinking or why they were thinking it or what the hell happened. Now when you think about it, it’s ludicrous. It’s not even funny, it’s so stupid.
Now granted, I sing the shit out of it. It’s great. But who the hell cares? What does that have to do with Skylark? Maybe eight records down the road. You have four or five hits in a row and all of a sudden the girl gets a chance to sing. That’s the way I was looking at it.