The Songs Remain the Same

One generation passes and another generation comes, but the Top 40 abides. For these eight Texas acts, a few hours in a recording studio was all it took to secure an everlasting place in history as that most singular of creatures: the one-hit wonder.

March 2007By Comments

ONE-HIT WONDERS ARE held in the public’s esteem somewhere above child stars, game-show hosts, and losers from American Idol. They’re not real stars, not as talented as those who have really made it, who have had more than one hit, like, say, Britney Spears. They were in the right place at the right time. They were lucky. Indeed, one-hit wonders are the poster boys and girls of the axiom “It’s better to be lucky than good.” Take the story of how Ray Hildebrand and Jill Jackson, better known as Paul and Paula, chanced into recording their tune “Hey Paula”: A friend knew Fort Worth record label owner Major Bill Smith, so the two drove to his studio unannounced. Blues pianist Amos Milburn Jr. hadn’t shown up for the scheduled session that day, so Smith put them in front of the mikes. The result was one of the signature hits of the sixties.

But it wasn’t all chance. Anyone who’s watched Barbara Lynn play guitar, seen Roy Head twist and shout, or heard Sunny Ozuna croon knows that the folks pictured here weren’t just lucky. They were good, sometimes great. In truth, most of them had more than one hit, though none so big as the song they are most known for, the sound of which can be heard on some radio in some place on the planet every day of the year. Everywhere they go, they hear requests for that song. Its melody clings to them like their own skin; its title will be in the first sentence of their obituaries. It has made them immortal.

A note on methodology before we begin. For our purposes, to be a hit a song had to have appeared in the top forty of Billboard’s pop charts. To be a one-hit wonder, an artist had to have had at least one song in the top forty but could not have had more than one in the top five, which, much to our chagrin, disqualified both Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (two number two hits) and Vanilla Ice (a number one and a number four). Further, we gave the benefit of the doubt to artists (Edie Brickell, the Geto Boys, Fastball) who fit our criteria but who might still, God bless them, score again.

ARCHIE BELL AND THE DRELLS, “Tighten Up,” NO. 1, 1968

The song had everything: a great beat, cool guitar and horn riffs, and a peculiar introduction, with Archie Bell (above, at the Continental Club in Houston) lazily saying, “Hi, everybody. I’m Archie Bell and the Drells, of Houston, Texas.” The group had formed in junior high school. By the time the song was a hit, Bell had been drafted. He and the band recorded more songs when he could get away on leave, and eventually they put out an album. The Drells lasted until the late seventies. Bell put out a solo album in 1981, but he never got anywhere near as high on the charts. He still lives in Houston.

Bell: “Tighten up” was slang, like “word up.” Billy Butler, one of the guys in the group, was dancing in the house one day, and I asked him what he was doing and he said he was doing the tighten up. I said, “I’m gonna write a song for that.” I did the introduction like I did because after President Kennedy was assassinated, I heard a deejay say that nothing good had come out of Texas. I wanted people to know we were from Texas. The best thing about having a huge hit like that: People know you from all over the world, even though they never met you. The worst thing: There’s twelve honest people in showbiz, and I never met one. When you become a star, they gonna come at you in every direction you could dream of. But I still love to perform. People ask me when I’m gonna retire. I say, “You don’t retire in this business. You retire when you close your eyes to this world.”

ROY HEAD AND THE TRAITS, “Treat Her Right,” NO. 2, 1965

Roy Head (above, at the Continental Club in Houston) was known as the white James Brown not only for his raw, sexy sound but also because of the way he performed: dancing, doing the splits, throwing the microphone around—a trick he learned from the late Joe Tex. “Treat Her Right” was a hit first on the R&B charts; it was beat out for the top pop spot by the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” The song would be covered by everyone from Otis Redding to George Thorogood. Head, a Three Rivers native, made country records in the seventies and eighties. He recently recorded his first album in twenty years.

Head: I wrote that song in high school with Gene Kurtz, the bass player in my group the Traits, though originally I was talking about a cow. I was just a country boy. After we started to get successful, Gene suggested we make it about a girl. Soon we were touring all over the state. I became the only white artist on Peacock Records, out of Houston. In 1965 I played a convention for black deejays in Houston, and the next week that song was on every black radio station in the country. It got to number two R&B, then crossed over to the pop charts, where it also hit number two. The Beatles beat me, and I’ve hated them ever since. Just kidding. I’ve worked with everyone in this business—the Four Tops, the Temptations. I’ve known Willie [Nelson] for thirty years; I played Farm Aid in 2006. I’m proud I’m still doing things I love doing. I wouldn’t know how to do anything else.

SUNNY AND THE SUNGLOWS, “Talk to Me,” NO. 11, 1963

“Talk to Me” was a Little Willie John tune when San Antonio high school student Ildefonso Fraga “Sunny” Ozuna (above, at his home in San Antonio) and his band recorded it. The sweet love song became a hit, and Sunny and the Sunglows went on American Bandstand on November 9, 1963, the first time that the program had featured a Mexican American band. (Soon afterward, they changed their name to Sunny and the Sunliners.) Ozuna later went solo and has since recorded many albums, including one with the Legends that won the Grammy for best tejano album in 2000.

Ozuna: “Talk to Me” opened the door for tejano music. When we started, in the late fifties, there was plenty of conjunto and norteño in the local beer joints. But after “Talk to Me” became a huge hit, we started using the same chord changes in rock and roll but adding Spanish lyrics, and that eventually led to tejano music, which is the feelings and lifestyle and reality of the Latin American community. The whole experience of having a big hit—my life took off real fast, faster than I could keep up with. The experience of being a teenager, being on Bandstand—the world was watching. But it cost me two families to get here. I traveled so much, it took its toll. It’s like, I don’t think Evel Knievel could have done anything else; it’s in his blood. I think for some reason, for some of us, it’s the same way. I’m a lifer. I do what I do, and I’ll continue until I can’t anymore.

BARBARA LYNN, “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” NO. 8, 1962

Barbara Lynn (above, at her home in Beaumont) was a left-handed, guitar-playing twenty-year-old when she was discovered by Houston producer and hit maker Huey Meaux, who took her to New Orleans, where she recorded the defiant yet yearning “You’ll Lose a Good Thing.” It was a huge hit, and Lynn appeared on American Bandstand twice and toured all over the U.S., Europe, and eventually Suriname (twice). The Rolling Stones covered one of her follow-ups, “Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin’).” In the seventies she got married and had children, but by the eighties she was touring again, and by the nineties she was making more albums (her last one was Blues and Soul Situation for Dialtone in 2004).

Lynn: I wrote “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” because of this young guy named Sylvester. We had started courting, but one night I saw him talking to some woman. I said, “This is it,” and he said, “Wait. This is my friend” or “my sister” or something. I said, “Sylvester, if you lose me, you’ll lose a good thing.” I cried that night, but I woke up the next morning and wrote that song. I’d just had my tonsils removed when Huey Meaux came to my grandmother’s house. He said I had a hit and was going to be on American Bandstand. I couldn’t talk, but I started screaming. That song has brought me many places in my life. No way do I ever get tired of playing it. Because of it, I’m still working. People still remember.

PAUL AND PAULA, “Hey Paula,” NO. 1, 1963

In 1962 Jill Jackson and Ray Hildebrand (above, at his home in Overland Park, Kansas) were students at Howard Payne College, in Brownwood, singing as a duo called Jill and Ray. One Sunday afternoon, they played “Hey Paula,” a song Hildebrand had just written, on a local radio station. The station manager recorded the song and played it again … and again, because people kept calling and requesting it. He suggested they record it with professionals, so they drove 130 miles to Major Bill Smith’s Fort Worth studio, where Amos Milburn Jr.’s no-show became their lucky break. Jill and Ray became Paul and Paula, and “Hey Paula” became the biggest hit of early 1963 and, to some, a signpost for the innocence of an era that was about to end violently. Paul and Paula didn’t last long either. Today, Jackson is a grandmother living in Hidden Hills, just north of Los Angeles, and Hildebrand is a successful Christian recording artist. They still get together every year or so to sing the song at oldies shows.

Hildebrand: It’s a cute little innocent song about love, commitment, and staying together. The melody is so simple it’s just ridiculous. Anybody could have done it; there’s been a lot better songs that didn’t make it. But people will say, “I bet you get sick and tired of it,” and I say, “You should look at my royalty checks.” That song has been played someplace in the world every day for the past 44 years. We’ll go to these oldies shows and do this one little song. Bowzer from Sha Na Na, who’s a promoter now, will get up there and introduce us and say, “If you had to pick one song, just one song from the sixties, it would be this one. Here they are, the Sweethearts of the Sixties—Paul and Paula!”

BLOODROCK, “D.O.A.,” NO. 36, 1971

“D.O.A.” is one of the strangest radio hits of all time—eight and a half minutes of wailing guitars, soaring organ, funereal choruses, and hammy lyrics about a horrific plane crash (“The sheets are red and moist where I’m lying / God in Heaven, teach me how to die!”). The Fort Worth band (above, from left, Eddie Grundy, Jim Rutledge, Nick Taylor, and Stevie Hill; not pictured are Rick Cobb and Lee Pickens) had been discovered by Grand Funk Railroad’s manager Terry Knight. “Bloodrock sounded like Deep Purple if Deep Purple grew up in Texas” was one description of their sound. They called it quits in 1974, though members staged a benefit reunion show in 2005 for keyboard player Hill, who has leukemia. They plan to release a DVD and CD from that event.

Hill: We all wrote the song. We started jamming on the siren sound from the organ and guitar. Jim Rutledge, the singer, started getting ideas for lyrics, and the drummer, Rick Cobb, helped him. The lead guitarist, Lee Pickens, had a friend who had died in a private-plane crash. After the album came out, deejays just started playing the song—everybody thought it was so shocking and controversial. The label wanted us to do a follow-up single, and we looked around at each other like, What do we do? It’s not like trying to write a follow-up to “Wild Thing.” Unfortunately, we got typecast, and if you get typecast you can either love it and go with it or you can choose not to love it and be miserable. I’m proud of the song. We didn’t want to be known as the gory band, but we were thankful for the hit—at least we’re known for something. If you say, “‘D.O.A.’ is like _____”—what can you compare it to? There’s not another song like it. We came up with something original.

TOBY BEAU, “My Angel Baby,” NO. 13, 1978

Formed by a group of teenagers from the Rio Grande Valley, Toby Beau—named for a shrimp boat in Port Isabel—moved to San Antonio in the mid- seventies. The group was a country-rock band in the mold of the Eagles, but it was signed to RCA mostly because of the easy fifties sound of “My Angel Baby,” written by guitarist Danny McKenna and singer Balde Silva (above, at Half Price Books in San Antonio). The song became a national hit, but RCA wasn’t happy with the follow-up, leading McKenna to quit. Silva kept going, taking the stage name Toby Beau, under which he did two more albums. He now lives on South Padre Island, where he and his wife, Rennetta, have a regular Toby Beau gig at Louie’s Backyard. McKenna committed suicide last April.

Silva: Danny was my mentor. We grew up in South Texas and were heavily influenced by groups like Sunny and the Sunliners that played Spanish-influenced fifties R&B songs. We were in a hotel room in New York and he was playing the hook of the chorus over and over, and I grabbed a pencil and paper and four minutes later had the lyrics. They just popped out. We got spoiled after that became a hit. We went to Florida to record the follow-up in the studio where the Eagles recorded and stayed in a huge mansion on Biscayne Bay; we had a cook, limos—we were playing rock stars, and we lapsed into mediocrity. RCA told us, “This stuff stinks.” So Danny quit. RCA said they wouldn’t sue us for breach of contract if I finished the album with studio musicians and a different direction. I said yes. In the early eighties my wife, Rennetta, started playing with me at hotels on South Padre Island. We’ve done fourteen or fifteen summers in a row now. We also do cruises. I love that song. Because of it, I never had to pick up a broom or a shovel or a hammer.

BRUCE CHANNEL, “Hey! Baby,” NO. 1, 1962

Bruce Channel (above, in a Nashville hotel room) was eighteen, living in Grapevine, and singing with the Light Crust Doughboys when he began writing songs with veteran songwriter Margaret Cobb; “Hey! Baby” was one of their first. He recorded it in a Fort Worth studio, backed by the Straitjackets, who featured Delbert McClinton on harmonica. Channel’s smooth voice and McClinton’s bluesy harmonica riff carried the song to number one and the two young men to England, where an unknown group called the Beatles opened for them. Backstage one night, John Lennon buttonholed McClinton and asked him to play the harmonica. A few months later, the lads released their first single, “Love Me Do,” the opening notes of which—Lennon’s memorable harmonica part—draw a direct line from a little Fort Worth studio to the dawning of a new age.

Channel: It’s like tossing pebbles in the water and watching the ripples, seeing what you get back. John already played harmonica, but it was a push-button kind. Who’s to say what makes something like that happen? I’m a professional songwriter in Nashville now. I’ve written songs and gone in the studio a zillion times since 1962 and not had a hit like “Hey! Baby.” I still don’t know why it’s so special. It’s been covered two hundred times and been a hit every decade since. DJ Ötzi, from Austria, took it to number one in Europe in 2001. I still perform at songwriting shows, and I play “Hey! Baby” every time—never get tired of playing it. Well, I did for a time; for the first ten years I thought it was a burden, because everyone expected it. But then I decided I was lucky. To have any of your music remembered for so long—and sung back to you—that’s a real treat.

Portfolio by LeAnn Mueller

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