Still the One
Senior editor Michael Hall on talking to musicians and using the phrase “one-hit wonder.”
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texasmonthly.com: How did you come up with this idea?
Michael Hall: I was at a South by Southwest show last year called the Ponderosa Stomp, where dozens of Louisiana and East Texas musicians from the past fifty years (some kind of famous, some I’d never heard of) got up in front of a backing band and did one, two, three, or four songs—again, some of which I knew and some of which I’d never heard. But three Texas artists who got up I knew quite well—Barbara Lynn, Archie Bell, and Roy Head. All three had huge hits in their youth—“You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” “Tighten Up,” and “Treat Her Right” respectively. They did those songs plus a few others, and I thought, “Look at them, each in his or her sixties, still out there, still playing after all these years mainly because of that one hit.” At first I was thinking it might be fun to hang out with one person—Lynn is a grandmother living in Beaumont, Bell is a flashy showman who still does a lot of oldies shows, and Head has a new album coming out (his first in twenty years)—but then, after talking with Leslie Baldwin, our photography editor, I realized we should do a bunch of them and do it as a photo piece.
texasmonthly.com: What criteria went into making this list? How did you choose these one-hit wonders?
MH: We had to draw certain boundaries—especially, what’s a hit? And what makes an artist a one-hit wonder?—and we came up with these: The hit had to be in the Top 40, and (because all of the people we looked at had long careers and had several other songs in the Top 40) in order to be a one-hit wonder, you couldn’t have more than one hit in the Top 5. Then it was a process of winnowing down the long list of Texans who have had hits to those who had one hit.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anyone who didn’t make the list who should have?
MH: Jeannie C. Riley, who had a huge hit with “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” should have been in here, but according to a person who helps run her Web site, she suffers from bipolar disorder, and we could never get in touch with her. Bubble Puppy (“Hot Smoke and Sasafrass”) should have been here too, but we had some scheduling problems with them.
texasmonthly.com: How long have you been working on this story?
MH: I did the interviews back in September and October, and we shot the photographs in January.
texasmonthly.com: Between Archie Bell’s unique song opening and the link between Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby” and John Lennon, you came across some pretty interesting stories. Which one did you like best?
MH: I really liked Bell’s story. The touching part of it, of course, is that he came up with that opening because of hearing a deejay say after Kennedy was assassinated that nothing good has come out of Texas. The funny part is that Bell is from Houston and made a point of saying so, so in a way, he’s mocking Dallas too. I also loved the story of how Ray Hildebrand and Jill Jackson chanced into recording with Major Bill Smith at his Fort Worth studio. Both that and the one about Lennon chancing into the harmonica lesson from Delbert McClinton, who chanced to be in the (same Fort Worth) studio when Bruce Channel walked in—thus leading to the first notes of the first hit by the biggest band ever. It’s amazing how much of the greatest pop music has come to us essentially by chance.
texasmonthly.com: How did you get in touch with these people?
MH: We contacted some of them through their Web sites, and Ira Padnos, the guy who runs the Ponderosa Stomp, got me in touch with Lynn, Head, and Bell.
texasmonthly.com: You’ve covered current artists before (Erykah Badu and Beyonce to name a few). What was it like to report on singers from decades ago?
MH: They don’t care as much about how they look anymore—they know they’ve had their day, and now they just do what they do, without nervous management teams or PR firms hovering over them. So they’re more relaxed and, probably, honest.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything else you want to say about the piece?
MH: One of the funniest things was that, in preparing to call all these musicians, I was hesitant to use the phrase “one-hit wonder,” because I didn’t want to offend them. In fact, I had a whole speech prepared, and when I called up Roy Head, I said something like, “We’re doing a photo feature on artists such as yourself, people whose long careers have been defined, for the most part, by a certain song . . .” and he started laughing. “That’s okay,” he said, “you can say it. I’m a one-hit wonder.” They were all extremely grateful for the attention, as they are for the continuing fame and fortune. As Hildebrand said, “You should look at my royalty checks.”
texasmonthly.com: Off the top of your head, what’s the best thing in the music world to come out of Texas?
MH: I’ll betray my blues-folk roots here, but I would have to say the rural blues, gospel, and folk music that came out of East Texas from guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Henry Alexander, Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Mance Lipscomb, and many others. Those guys created some of the finest American music over the first half or so of the twentieth century, and you can draw direct lines between it and a lot of the much more famous music made in the second half of the century on up to today.