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