Bo Diddley, “Say Man” (#20, 1959)
I’m a bit of a Billboard chart geek (gosh, can you tell?), but every now and then, I can be surprised by chart positions, which songs were or were not hits and famous artists that fall into the criteria for a one hit wonder.
Before I started to research this list for instance, I had no idea that the legendary Bo Diddley only had a solitary top 40 hit, “Say Man.” Of course he had several R&B hits, but it’s quite jarring to find out that legendary cuts like “Bo Diddley”, “I’m a Man” and “Who Do You Love?” not only failed to reach the top 40, but also the Hot 100.
Diddly isn’t the only Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee to score only a single top 40 hit in the United States. I’m not devoting this article to these cases, since many of them have been written upon extensively.
However, i’ve provided a list of them below because I imagine there’s still people out there who would be surprised to learn that the Jimi Hendrix Experience only made the top 40 once, and with “All Along the Watchtower”:
- Carl Perkins, “Blue Suede Shoes” (#2, 1956, pre-Hot 100 era)
- Johnny Otis, “Willie and the Hand Jive” (#9, 1958; although he’s in as a non-performer)
- Freddie King, “Hideaway” (#29, 1961; in as an early influence)
- Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth” (#7, 1967)
- The Small Faces, “Itchycoo Park” (#17, 1967; although they had two more hits as Faces)
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “All Along the Watchtower” (#20, 1968)
- Janis Joplin, “Me and Bobby McGee” (#1, 1971)
- Lou Reed, “Walk on the Wild Side” (#16, 1973)
- Dr. John, “Right Place Wrong Time” (#9, 1973)
- Randy Newman, “Short People” (#2, 1978)
- Patti Smith, “Because the Night” (#13, 1978)
- Funkadelic, “One Nation Under a Groove” (#28, 1978)
- Frank Zappa, “Valley Girl” (#32, 1982)
- Rush, “New World Man” (#21, 1982)
- Grateful Dead, “Touch of Grey” (#9, 1987)
- Public Enemy, “Give It Up” (#33, 1994; more on this later)
Kyu Sakamoto, “Sukiyaki” (#1, 1963)
In the history of the Billboard Hot 100, there have been relatively few songs to reach the top 40 that were recorded in a language other than English. Of those songs, only six reached number one. One of the most interesting of these is “Sukiyaki,” a number one hit in 1963 for Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto.
The song became a hit largely because of its catchy, upbeat melody, which contrasted the song’s lyrics about the end of a romantic relationship. Of course, few American music buyers knew what those lyrics were about. The song’s title was even changed for its American release, from “Ue Muite a Aruko” (translated: “I Look Up as I Walk”) to “Sukiyaki,” after the food (the official explanation? It sounded “recognizably Japanese”).
American pop duo A Taste of Honey had a Top 5 hit with an English translation of the song in 1980, and R&B group 4 PM had their own only hit with an a capella cover of the song in 1994.
If you want to learn more about “Sukiyaki” and how strange it was for a foreign language song to reach #1, WYNC’s Soundcheck featured its story in an installment of their wonderful “That Was a Hit?!?” segment last year.
The Wonder Who?, “Don’t Think Twice” (#12, 1965)
One of the cheapest ways to ensure a hit single is to keep the artist’s name a secret, to keep music buyers guessing as to who is actually behind the song (is it someone famous recording under a pseudonym? Or just some studio singer?). This is how Tony Orlando & Dawn’s career was launched (Orlando, who had a few hits in the early 60’s, kept his name and image off the single release of “Candida”), and Donny Osmond achieved a late period hit with “Soldier of Love” when his label intentionally kept his name off the copies of the song distributed to radio stations. Recently, Who is Fancy had a minor pop radio hit with a song called “Goodbye” and kept DJs guessing at the singer’s identity which was only recently revealed.
Here, the act covering Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” under the nom de plume “The Wonder Who?” is actually seasoned hitmakers Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Frankie Valli sings in a “softer” falsetto than he usually does, apparently as a joke.
The cover itself is pretty unremarkable and despite the major success of The Four Seasons, one of the few American acts that retained their popularity at the height of the British invasion, it’s doubtful this cover would have made it all the way to number 12 without the mystery gimmick attached.
Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen, “Gallant Men” (#29, 1967)
Did you know a sitting United States senator once had a Top 40 hit?
Dirksen, a Republican senator from Illinois and the Senate Minority Leader at the time of his hit, also released four albums of spoken word and won a Grammy for the LP this thing was taken from. When this song made #29 on the Hot 100, Dirksen became the oldest recording artist to ever have a Top 40 hit. The “Gallant Men” speech is one of Dirksen’s many pro-military speeches that he made at the height of the Vietnam war.
Spoken word hits were quite common throughout the 60s, but there have been relatively few since. Australian film director Baz Luhrman barely missed the top 40 in 1999, when he was credited as the artist for “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” (which he neither wrote or narrated, but is based on a remix of “Everybody’s Free” from his film Romeo + Juliet)