Great Second Helpings From “One-Hit Wonders”


Okay, technically it passed on Sept. 25, but, really, every day is “National One-Hit Wonder Day” in Ross On Radio. Also, “National Local Hit Day.” Also, “National ‘Oh-Wow Oldie’ Day.” And “National Songs That Sound Vaguely Like Each Other Day,” too. And now I’m declaring October 12 to be “Worthy Songs That Should Have Given an Artist Their Second Hit Day.”

Many “One-Hit Wonders” have their second hit already, of course. Go through any list of “one-hit wonders,” and you’ll see Eddy Grant, A Flock of Seagulls, Quarterflash, John Parr, Animotion and any number of others whose follow-up, or follow-ups, did well enough to disqualify them, even if one song endures more than the others now. (My own chart cut-off point is usually somewhere in the low 20s, but even then, not all No. 28 hits are created equal.)

There are One-Hit Wonders in America who were no such thing in the rest of the world, from Madness to Midnight Oil to Right Said Fred. In the U.K., “Heart and Soul” isn’t even T’Pau’s biggest hit. There are One-Hit Wonders who were so consistently successful on the R&B chart (Dazz Band, Patrice Rushen) that you would never think of them as having only one big moment. Working with Canadian radio, you have to remind yourself that Tom Cochrane or Bruce Cockburn had only one American pop hit.

Whenever an act is referred to as a One-Hit Wonder publicly, my wife now knows enough to head me off by asking, “Were they really a one-hit wonder?” But, yes, some were. Which doesn’t mean they have only one song I like.

Toni Basil, “Breakaway” (1966) – I was obsessed with “Mickey” from the first time I heard it on the BBC Chart Show in 1982, six months before it gained traction here. Eighteen months later, when “Mickey” had made Basil’s pre-stardom single impossible to find, I happened upon it in a San Diego thrift store for less than a dollar, seconds ahead of a friend who wanted it too, and would have gloated way more than I did if the situation had been reversed.

“Breakaway” is the mid-‘60s Northern Soul cult record penned by ex-Four Preps member Ed Cobb that didn’t go on to become “Tainted Love,” (now one of the top five covers of all time by most measures). That it garnered so little attention at the time just shows you how many great swinging ‘60s female pop records were waiting in line during that era. And while “Mickey” (and the video concept album and TV special that supported it) made Basil an acknowledged pioneer in music video, she had actually started much earlier than 1982 as this R-rated clip shows.

Barbara Acklin, “Just Ain’t No Love” (1968) For some readers, Acklin may be better explained as the co-author of the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her.” Or the artist whose minor R&B hit “Am I the Same Girl” was a bigger hit as Young-Holt Unlimited’s instrumental “Soulful Strut” and a Smooth Jazz standard decades later for Swing Out Sister. Acklin’s biggest hit, the effervescent Love Makes a Woman, came out squarely amidst the tumult of summer 1968, but perhaps it was written earlier. “Just Ain’t No Love” almost certainly was not. It gives every appearance of being a soundalike follow-up until you get to the jaw-dropping opening line. And would that it were only a relic of its times.

Walter Egan, “Only the Lucky” (1977) – One of the first Fleetwood Mac-related side projects to surface in the wake of their superstardom, “Only the Lucky” landed in June 1977, just a week before “Dreams” went to No. 1. Propulsive country rock, with the already recognizable Buckingham/Nicks sound, “Only the Lucky” didn’t make much of a dent. So the duo gave Egan another assist, and finally a hit, on “Magnet and Steel.” Unlike some of the acts here, Egan’s follow-up, “Hot Summer Nights,” wasn’t quite a career killer. Nine months after mid-charting, it resurfaced as a hit for the band Night. “Only the Lucky” is still my favorite Egan single. And once you hear the opening riff, you will never hear the common iPhone ringtone called “Strum” the same way again.  Because it’s also “National Songs That Sound Vaguely Like Ringtones Day.”

Wild Cherry, “Hot to Trot” (1977)  – Years ago, I interviewed Wild Cherry leader Robert Parissi for a Rhino Records funk compilation. His intended follow-up to “Play That Funky Music” was the band’s cover of the Commodores’ R&B hit “I Feel Sanctified.” Or the first album’s ballad, “Hold On.” Instead, he said, his label insisted on a soundalike, Baby Don’t You Know.  By this next single, the momentum was pretty much gone. I like this one, despite its goofiness. You might prefer “Hold On,” which finally became a single on the next album under the title Hold On (With Strings).” (There was no intended pun in the new title; it was apparently one of those “Badge”-type engineers’ notes on the tape box that became a song title.)

Carl Douglas, “Run Back” (1978) – In the U.K., his career was more than “Kung-Fu Fighting.” There was also this British chart hit that was on the radio around the same time as the Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever” hits; in other words, right about when they would have started writing their next album. But even if it didn’t presage “Tragedy,” (and here, the resemblance is more than vague), there’s a similar feel to Billy Ocean’s mid-‘70s British R&B hits that makes this appealing. 

Steve Forbert, Say Goodbye to Little Jo (1980) – Forbert’s hit, “Romeo’s Tune,” was one of those folky outliers that can only become a pop hit in periods of transition such as early 1980. He was hardly expected to have a second hit, and it didn’t help that the follow-up included the line “she’s taken shit for so long,” which I remember being either badly bleeped or maybe not edited at all on the single. It’s too bad. This is a powerful, still relevant song, and the line in question (in no way gratuitous in the context of the song) would be more easily dealt with now. Mary Chapin Carpenter would later cover this live.

Soft Cell, “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” (1982) – “Tainted Love” kicked around here for six months, landing in different markets at different times, and being reserviced as a medley with “Where Did Our Love Go” before finally becoming a hit. By that time, “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” was already a British hit as well, showcasing their dark sense of humor and establishing them as not just a one-hit wonder there, but briefly phenomenal (in the way that Melody Maker and Smash Hits could make anybody briefly phenomenal). When “Tainted Love” finally ran its course in America, Sire Records went with another Northern Soul cover, “What?” which quickly disappeared. Even on KROQ Los Angeles, the Soft Cell song you heard was the more provocative “It’s a Mug’s Game.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUim3eAIOMA Either song as a single would have given them more of a chance to show their own personality.

Mike Oldfield, “Moonlight Shadow” (1983) – In America, he landed as a contemporary classical artist whose “Tubular Bells” became a left-field hit because of “The Exorcist.” Elsewhere around the world, Oldfield’s career evolved to ethereal pop, often with guest vocalists, making him the predecessor of today’s EDM/pop producers. “Moonlight Shadow” has one of the oddest ghost-story lyrics of any hit song. And one of the greatest guitar solos. Every year, I think of spiking it for Halloween, but you’ll still hear it on AC and Classic Hits stations outside North America.

Katrina & the Waves, “The Game of Love” (1985) – They are technically spared one-hit-wonder status by “Do You Want Crying” (No. 37 on the momentum of “Walking on Sunshine”) and “That’s the Way” (a dubious No. 16 in the last days of reported airplay charts), but, really, their entire breakthrough American album should have yielded one smash after another, especially in 1985-86 when the quality of mainstream pop was getting sort of shaky. You can really choose anything on the album, including “Do You Want Crying” as a shoulda-been hit, but this album closer had the same good-time vibe as “Walking on Sunshine.”

Nu Shooz, “Point of No Return” (1986) – I’m definitely breaking my own rule by including a No. 28 hit here, especially having experienced this song on Los Angeles radio, where you would have had no idea it wasn’t every bit as big as “I Can’t Wait.” But I seize any excuse to talk about “Point of No Return.” The line between ‘60s girl group records and ‘80s female-led dance music is well-established now, but I always heard this in particular as the most Spectoresque of mid-‘80s dance hits, driven by a wall-of-sound-effects and the highest harmonies ever.

Sir Mix-a-Lot, “Square Dance Rap” (1987) – This pre-“Baby Got Back” indie label oddity played only in a few places. Seattle’s AM Urban K-Fox was one of them. So was Hip-Hop’s radio cradle KDAY Los Angeles. Like Prince and Minneapolis, this particular song had to come from a market that didn’t have a strong R&B influence. The jibes at Country aren’t a particularly inside job — Glen Campbell wasn’t having a lot of hits in 1987 — but it still provokes a smile. And Macklemore’s pre-“Thrift Shop” repertoire includes a song written from a fake redneck POV that was clearly influenced by his fellow Seattle rapper.

Sinead O’Connor, “Mandinka” (1987) – Of the available follow-ups to “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was probably the most linear. Certainly, if you listened to Alternative at the time, you heard it enough that it started to sound like a single. But for most Top 40 listeners, it did not, and it became a rare case of a No. 1 hit where the follow-up didn’t even chart. It’s too bad Chrysalis wouldn’t go back to “The Lion and the Cobra,” O’Connor’s debut album, which would have had several candidates. Maybe it was the line about the seven veils, but I always thought this sounded like a song Stevie Nicks should have released in the late ‘80s. And for some reason, I occasionally hear this pop up in a nearby restaurant that plays Pandora’s Classic Rock channel, in between the Bad Company and .38 Special records.

Cardigans, “My Favorite Game” (1998) – There aren’t a lot of ‘90s or ‘00s one-hit wonders on the list — maybe I’m just more attached to the music of my childhood, but it’s hard for me to find the great shoulda-been second hit from Crazy Town or Chumbawamba. But the Cardigans transcended the great-but-almost-novelty “Lovefool” with this song that somehow simultaneously both shows that they could rock and sounds a lot like Roxette. It was played by Alternative radio here, and it was a hit everywhere else in the world.

Natalie Imbruglia, “Glorious” (2007) – The U.K. follow-up to Imbruglia’s “Torn” was the Alanis-ish Big Mistake, which became a hit of a similar magnitude there. In America, there were discussions about whether to try to steer her to pop or Alternative, but the answer turned out to be none of the above. “Glorious” filled out a U.K. greatest hits album at a time when America had long stopped paying attention. But it’s the best of her subsequent singles for its deliberate lack of angst.

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

24 Comments


  1. You forgot one, Little Black Egg by the Turtles, circa 1968 was a chart topper but the band failed to go past that one song


  2. Mandinka was a fav of mine…


  3. Nu Shooz “point of no return” got quite a bit of play in NYC too. z100 was using it as a recurrent well into 1989! If you grew up in NYC, LA, Miami, or even Phoenix in the 1980s many of the songs you grew up with, staples of your youth, are gems that the rest of the nation never got to experience. In the summer of 1988 KZZP was spinning the banana boat song as a current and it sounded great! KZZP was known for playing all the should have been hits. Georgio “lovers lane”, the Nails “88 lines about 44 women”, Chico DeBarge “Talk to me”, Ice T “colors”, and the best song of all from Sir Mix-a-lot “Posse on Broadway”. I didn’t mean to hijack your thread here, but it sparked some nostalgia!


  4. I grew up in Northern Indiana, or Michiana a combining of Michigan and Indiana. They had U93 (WNDU) for us younger people, and I don’t remember what 101.5 used to be called, although it is Sunny, WNSN now. It was the AC. We heard none of these songs, unless they made American Top 40. I did hear a few while using a long antenna to bring in B96 from Chicago.

    My favorite of these is the Nu Shooz song. I liked them enough to buy their second album way before I realized it was their third. But I owned the 12″ of Point of No Return. I loved that song.


  5. My add today is Chris Rea…several top 20s in the UK, but only Fool (If You Think It’s Over) broke #40 in the US. The followup to Fool, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini?, was a fun little single that hooked me with a single hearing on suburban Chicago’s WYEN. As usual I was in the minority as it peaked at #71.


  6. Chris Rea was another one of those artists whose UK and Canada career went for another 15 years after “Fool…” After all the jokes among my 15-year-old buddies about what would happen if he and Dire Straits were to merge, it amused me no end that a lot of those ’80s songs sound so much like Dire Straits. I also liked a UK hit of his called “Julia” from the end of his career.


    • Another Chris comes to mind – DeBurgh. “The Lady in Red” is the song of his everyone remembers but he’d already hit with “Don’t Pay the Ferryman” a few years earlier and had a mid-chart AC hit afterward with “Fatal Hesitation.” I still hear “Ferryman” on WLEN Adrian, MI’s “Friday Flashbacks” (which features a huge library of music from the mid-’50s to the mid-’80s, much of it seldom heard elsewhere) and “Carry Me” was in rotation at CFCO Chatham, ON before they dropped their Classic Gold format for Country.


  7. Thanks for this. Considering how few low-ranking top 40 hits get remembered at all, I think it’s just fine to stretch the definition of “one-hit wonder,” it being an artificial distinction anyway.

    I once hosted music trivia in a pub, and my favorite category to put together was “Second Hits by One-Hit Wonders.” I would play a flop or forgotten second single and give enough hints that a team might conceivably guess who the artist was. I did play “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in that set — also “Don’t Talk Just Kiss” by Right Said Fred; “Tricky, Tricky” by Lou Bega; and “Amnesia” by Chumbawamba.

    I stretched the one-hit wonder definition like crazy by playing “Carrie” by Europe, which actually charted higher than “The Final Countdown.” But what radio listener actually remembers “Carrie” anymore?


  8. I still love Mandinka from Sinnead O’Connor, whatta great song!


  9. Those who know me will be in no way surprised that I like two songs by Europe and they are “Superstitious” and “Rock The Night.”


  10. So, Paxman, this may be a few years before your frame of reference, but do you remember U93 and WRBR playing the Faith Band version of “Dancing Shoes”? (As opposed to the national hit by Nigel Olsson.) The follow-up, “You’re My Weakness”?


    • I had to look up, “Dancin’ Shoes”. I would have been 7 or 8 at the time, so I don’t remember it. My earliest recollection of music listening from U93 would be around ’80, ’81 with me signing along to a Diana Ross song (and my father wishing I could learn my homework that quick), and playing basketball with my brother while listening to Hey Nineteen.

      WAOR was also a good local station, although it was all the way up in Niles, Michigan, so it didn’t come in all that well.


  11. Another from the ’90s: Jann Arden. She had only “Insensitive” break the Hot 100 although “Could I Be Your Girl” made the AC chart for a few weeks, but had already been a major star in Canada at the time of her hit and would continue to be for years afterward. She had other singles/CDs released Stateside (I even bought her 1998 release “Happy?”) but none made a dent. Growing up in metro Detroit, though, there were plenty of opportunities to hear the rest of her catalog on Canadian AC stations plus AAA 93.9 The River.


  12. “My Favorite Game” had an awesome music video to go with it too. I also remember hearing “Erase and Rewind” on British radio.

    The Nu Shooz song got a lot of run here in Kansas City.

    “Is That It” would be my second helping for Katrina and the Waves.


    • “My Favorite Game” was also in the soundtrack of the game Grand Turismo 2. I love a good driving game, but the soundtrack really made it for me.


  13. Nu Shooz from Portland, OR. I grew up listening to them, Quarterflash, Dan Reed Network, Nero’s Rome and of course Everclear


  14. That Natalie Imbruglia’s “Wrong Impression” wasn’t a hit is criminal. Such a great record.


  15. I always though “Shiver” should have been the track to revive Natalie Imbruglia’s stateside career but I don’t even think the label bothered releasing it here. It was a huge UK hit but she was facing a seven year gap between the hits at Top 40 by that point stateside.

    Don’t forget “Breakaway” was the follow up to Tracey Ullman’s sublime US one hit wonder, “They Don’t Know,” that stiffed stateside but scored as a UK Top 10 about 16 months after Basil hit with “Mickey.”

    A more recent pairing not on the list I’d nominate is Semisonic’s “Chemistry” to join “Closing Time” to make them a two hit wonder. Sonically its very much an update of Lonely Boy by Andrew Gold but it was probably just a little too high brow for pop at the time.


  16. “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” got a YouTube boost earlier this year when it was used in an episode of the Netflix sitcom “Master of None.” Not enough for the show’s music supervisor to boast about getting a 35-year-old record back on the charts.


  17. Tracey Ullman’s song was actually a cover of a *different* ’60s R&B “Breakaway”–this one written by Jackie DeShannon and recorded by Irma Thomas. But that one would have been a great example, too. And anything on that album is also pretty terrific.


  18. I’ve had a playlist with my favorite one-hitter’s second hit for a while. Something you don’t often see is one album wonders. Bands who had a couple hits from an album, but then fade into obscurity. a-ha in the US would be an obvious choice. One of my favorites is C+C Music Factory. Their first single from their second album, Anything Goes is Do You Wanna Get Funky. It isn’t a bad song, but since we here in the US didn’t care about a C+C Music Factory without Freedom Williams, we passed. I didn’t hear the song until a couple years ago when I started looking at one album wonders in my iTunes. Here is the playlist of 16 songs I chose for this honor:


  19. Song – Artist – Album

    Blame It on the Radio – John Parr – Running the Endless Mile
    Heaven In My Hands – Level 42 – Staring at the Sun
    You lied to me – Cathy Dennis – Into The Skyline
    Stick Around – Julian Lennon – The Secret Value Of Daydreaming
    I’ve Been Losing You – a-ha – Scoundrel Days
    Do Whatcha Do – Jane Child – Here Not There
    Do You Wanna Get Funky – C+C Music Factory – Anything Goes
    Boom! There She Was – Scritti Politti – Provision


    • Are You Lookin’ For Somebody Nu – Nu Shooz – Told U So
      Let’s Face The Music And Dance – Taco – Let’s Face The Music and Dance
      Am I The Same Girl – Swing Out Sister – Get In Touch With Yourself
      Romancing the Stone – Eddy Grant – Going for Broke
      Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime – Nena – It’s All In The Game
      Back On Holiday – Robbie Nevil – A Place Like This
      Blow The House Down – Living In A Box – Gatecrashing
      It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way – The Blow Monkeys – She Was Only A Grocer’s Daughter


  20. I seem to recall “Am I The Same Girl” being used on the Martha Stewart Show after she had been released from prison.

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