17 Greatest One Hit Wonders in Classic Rock
Hit today, miss tomorrow.
These songs may have been gracing your classic rock FM radio station a number of times in a week but you just can’t seem to name the artist who made it popular, and any idea of who they might be doesn’t even reach the the tip of your tongue. Or it can be the band that you remember, but you can’t name any other song they did other than that one hit you just can’t get out of your head after you hear it.
Oh yes, such is the curse of one-hit wonders: songs or artists known solely for having just one momentary commercial success. Technically, the term is referred to music performers with one and only one top-40 hit single. After breaking through the mainstream, these artists fall into obscurity but their one-time big hits live on!
Let’s take a look at 17 of the greatest classic rock one-hit wonders.
1. Mississippi Queen – Mountain
Although Mountain solidified themselves as a proto-metal rock band with a memorable set at the Woodstock ’69, their success was short-lived. “Mississippi Queen” is their biggest and only hit to date. Peaking at No. 21 in the Billboard Hot 100 record chart in 1970, the song came to be a rock n’ roll classic. Sadly, they couldn’t follow up with their other songs reaching the same level of success “Mississippi Queen” had. Tragically, a few years after the song hit big, band member Felix Pappalardi was shot and killed by his wife who co-wrote some of the band’s song lyrics.
Fun fact: It’s Homer Simpson’s favorite song. In one episode of The Simpsons, Homer head-bangs to the Mountain classic in the car while taking his kids to school, to the utter embarrassment of Bart.
2. Brother Louie – Stories
Not to be confused with “Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen, Stories’ single reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top 40 Hits Chart in 1973. But that was about it for the band’s success. “Brother Louie” had an underlying controversial theme about interracial relationships at the time, focusing on the story about a black girl and her white lover. Originally sung by the band Hot Chocolate (“You Sexy Thing”), it was Stories who covered, reworked, and popularized the song. They recorded another album following the success of “Brother Louie” but failed to find an audience. The group disbanded shortly after that.
3. We’re Not Gonna Take It – Twisted Sister
Twisted Sister was once a threat to the parents of young teen rock fans, afraid of losing their children’s innocence to the corruptible influence of popular metal rock bands. With their hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It” reaching No. 21 on the Billboard Top 40 Chart in 1984, it seemed like Twisted Sister was out to twist up a storm in pop culture. Well, that didn’t happen. Two years after hitting it big, the band didn’t have any other songs to follow the success “We Not Gonna Take It” had, and they became a parody of some sort, with their over-the-top flamboyant style that didn’t hold the trend for far too long. Twisted Sister certainly did not take “it” beyond being a one-hit wonder.
4. Love Hurts – Nazareth
One of the tracks that still gets a lot of airplay on local classic rock FM radio is Nazareth’s “Love Hurts”. Originally written and recorded by The Everly Brothers, the song peaked at No. 8 on he Billboard Top 40 in 1976 when the Scottish hard rock band covered it. The hit single even went platinum in the US but it remains to be their one and only hit. It has since become a heart-wrenching anthem to the weeping broken-hearted perfectly paired with a glass (or a bottle) of wine in the middle of night. Though widely covered by even more popular artists such as Guns N Roses, The Who, Rod Stewart, and Cher, it was Nazareth who carried this song to the top, however fast the band fell down from it.
5. Rock and Roll, Hootchie Koo – Rick Derringer
Rick Derringer has collaborated with some of the biggest names in rock n’ roll including Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Todd Rundgren. However, it’s not his rubbing elbows with rock household names that he’s somewhat known for – it’s his 1973 one-hit wonder “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo”. The single from his debut album “All American Boy” peaked at No. 23 on the US Singles chart in 1973, and it’s the only single from his career that charted. The song was used in many iconic Hollywood films such as Rush (1991), The Spirit of ’76 (1990), Dazed and Confused (1993), and What A Girl Wants (2003). It’s also been covered by Van Halen.
6. Spirit In The Sky – Norman Greenbaum
The psychedelic – gospel rock fusion single “Spirit in the Sky” written and recorded by Norman Greenbaum has soared to the charts in 1970, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, and the No. 22 song of the year. It has sold over two million copies from its release in 1969 up until 1970. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked the single No. 333 on the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. Greenbaum unfortunately failed to maintain the success his single achieved and eventually faded from the music industry. He ended up being a cook in a hamburger joint and worked his way up to being a sous chef and a kitchen manager. Though the royalties from his one-hit wonder keep his life comfortable. “Spirit In The Sky” has been included in the soundtrack of over 30 major Hollywood films including big blockbusters such as “Oceans 11”, “Apollo 13”, and most recently “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Suicide Squad”. The song has also been featured in the video game “Rock Band 2“. Greenbaum said of the song,
“I’ve gotten letters from funeral directors telling me that it’s their second-most-requested song to play at memorial services.”
7. Tainted Love – Soft Cell
After their first single “Memorabilia” did not chart, the English vocal-and-synth post-punk rock duo Soft Cell’s label put out an ultimatum that if their next single wouldn’t sell, they would be dropped. Fortunately for the duo, their waved-up cover of “Tainted Love” was a massive hit. Unfortunately for the duo, it was their only hit. It was the best-selling single in the UK in 1981 and reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Originally recorded by Gloria James in 1965, Soft Cell picked up the song and reworked it to fit their unique new wave sound. The band eventually split in 1984 but reunited in 2001. It was popularly covered by Marilyn Manson for the soundtrack of the spoof film “Not Another Teen Movie” the same year Soft Cell reunited.
8. Come On Eileen – Dexy’s Midnight Runners
English band Dexy’s Midnight Runners released their single “Come On Eileen” in 1982 and was an instant chart topper. The song was such a hit that it was the one song that prevented Michael Jackson‘s claim to have back-to-back number one hits. “Come On Eileen” beat “Beat It” (no pun intended) to the number one spot on the Billboard charts in 1983. Well, at least Michael Jackson scored more number one hits in the following decades when Dexy’s Midright Runners did not. Not even one more. Which makes “Come On Eileen” a classic 80s one-hit-wonder. Three years after their smash hit, the band eventually broke up, and has faded away into music obscurity.
9. Easy Livin’ – Uriah Heep
Top British rock band Uriah Heep, while known to their many of their fans as one of the pioneers of progressive heavy metal rock, only had one US hit “Easy Livin'” which reached No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972. It was the second single from their album “Demons and Wizards”. Although it reached success in the US and other European charts, it ironically didn’t even chart in their homeland the UK. “Easy Livin” was featured in the 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon”. Now considered as a cult band, they actually had relatively good success with a number of albums making it to the Billboard 200.
10. Layla – Derek And The Dominos
“Layla” is very often associated as an Eric Clapton hit and Clapton definitely ain’t a one-hit wonder man, so why would it be part of a one-hit wonder list? That’s because it wasn’t just Clapton as a solo artist who popularized this classic. “Layla” became a smash hit when it was released by Clapton’s and Jim Gordon‘s blues rock band Derek and the Dominoes. And it was the only single of the band that was included in the Top 40 Charts in 1972. Surprisingly, when “Layla” was first released, it actually didn’t do so well. That fact is buried in the past though as it moved on to reach No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 when it was released again in 1972. Clapton’s acoustic version of the song won the 1993 Grammy Award for Best Rock Song. It’s also ranked No. 27 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. One-time hit for the band Derek and the Dominoes but forever a golden treasure in the history of music.
11. Evil Woman Don’t Play Your Games With Me – Crow
Minneapolis-based blues-rock band Crow first released their single “Evil Woman (Don’t Play Your Games with Me)” in 1969, two years after the band was formed. The song hit big and made it the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Charts 1969 peaking at No. 19. The unique inclusion of brass instruments to the arrangement made the song memorable but interestingly, the band initially did not like the brass section of the song which actually made it stand out more. Their succeeding singles and later albums didn’t fair as well as “Evil Woman”, which is about a woman claiming that the narrator is the father of her child – very similar to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. The band eventually collapsed for good in 1972. Black Sabbath famously covered this one-hit wonder as their first ever single in 1970.
12. Dancing In The Moonlight – King Harvest
King Harvest first released “Dancing in the Moonlight” as a single in 1970 but unfortunately failed to find an audience which led to the band breaking up. Then, in 1972 a second chance for both the band and the single came when they reunited and re-released the single. Second chances prove to be faithful as the song finally found success, peaking at No. 13 on the US Billboard Charts in 1972. Throughout the decades, the band fluctuated in its line up and members, not able to repeat the chart success of “Dancing In The Moonlight”. In 2000, alternative rock band Toploader covered the song and reached platinum status and peaked at No. 7 on the UK Charts. Their cover was also featured in the film “A Walk To Remember”. Other notable artists who also covered the classic rock one-hit wonder are Liza Minneli, Baha Men, and My Morning Jacket.
13. Blinded By The Light – Manfred Mann
“Blinded by the Light” was actually originally written and recorded by rock n roll super star Bruce Springsteen. The song first appeared on his 1973 album “Greetings” but failed to find commercial success. It wasn’t until British group Manfred Mann’s Earth Band covered the song and changed up the lyrics a bit that the song became a massive hit. In 1977, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s cover reached the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The British rock band certainly peaked too early as they didn’t get to follow up the success of their hit single.
14. Rock On – David Essex
The slow, mysterious arrangement of the David Essex‘s hit “Rock On” is reminiscent of the 1950s rock genre, paying homage to early rock n’ roll. Heavy on a killer bass line, with an electric echo effect of Essex’s vocals, “Rock On” became a massive hit in 1974 peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Top 40 chart. Now a staple track on most classic rock radio stations, it is the only hit David Essex ever had. Essex had acting credits to his name as well, having a starring role in the 1973 film “That’ll Be the Day” in which his one-hit wonder was also part of the film’s sound track.
15. Seasons in the Sun – Terry Jacks
This mega hit song by Terry Jacks is about saying goodbye to loved ones, a farewell song of a dying person. Originally written as a poem by poet Rod McKuen titled “Le Moribond” (The Dying Man), it was Belgian singer Jacques Brel who turned the poem to a song in 1961. Canadian singer Terry Jacks took the French song, translated it to English and turned it into the hit “Seasons In The Sun”. Jacks’ single ranked No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974. Unlike most one-hit wonder artists, Jacks faded away into obscurity by choice. Shortly after achieving success with his hit single, he quit music and became an environmental activist. He said of his fallout, “I got to be known as an environmentalist, which was the only thing that ever got rid of my label, I was ‘Seasons in the Sun’ before that.”
16. The Boys are Back in Town – Thin Lizzie
Perhaps one of the most influential bands to many big(ger) rock bands is Irish heavy metal rock group Thin Lizzy. Their song “The Boys Are Back In Town” is another classic rock one-hit wonder favorite. In the summer of 1976, the song reached No.12 on the Billboard Top 40 Chart, and it still remains to be popular after all these years. It barely made Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, garnering the 499th spot. Although they only really ever had one hit, they were big influences of Def Leppard (who actually started as a Thin Lizzy cover band), and Metallica. The song has been used in major Hollywood films Detroit Rock City (1999) and A Knight’s Tale (2001). It’s also become an anthem to most Republic of Ireland football games.
17. Black Betty – Ram Jam
“Black Betty” is another hit with some controversial issues surrounding it, supposedly being “racist” with regards to the song being about a black woman named “Betty”. Still, the single has become a classic rock one-hit wonder. Ram Jam‘s only single that made it to the charts. In 1977, “Black Betty” reached No.18 on the Billboard singles charts. Ram Jam’s first album wherein “Black Betty” was featured also hit it big, making it to the Top 40 Chart. After their first album’s success, Ram Jam attempted to follow with a sophomore album but didn’t fare as well as the first one. The band eventually broke up after their second album. “Black Betty” is still frequently aired on classic rock radio stations but not many can actually name Ram Jam as the group behind the one-time hit.