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How One-hit Wonders Work

Musical One-hit Wonders
Not many people consider Janis Joplin a one-hit wonder even though she only had one hit.
Not many people consider Janis Joplin a one-hit wonder even though she only had one hit.
GAB Archive/Getty Images

Although the term "one-hit wonder" has been used in many circles, from drug culture to boxing, when most people hear it, they think of bands or singers with only one hit. What does it take to be categorized as a one-hit wonder in the music biz?

Technically, a "hit" is a song that makes the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. For one-hit wonder status, this is usually narrowed down to the top 40. However, some legendary artists with huge followings have technically only had one Billboard hit. It's doubtful that many people think of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or Rush as one-hit wonders, even though they each charted only once. Other popular musicians with only one hit include Beck, Garth Brooks, The Grateful Dead, The White Stripes and Devo. And then there are the artists who never had a top 40 hit, but their song was somehow firmly lodged in the zeitgeist of whatever decade it was released. Neither Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio" nor Modern English's "I Melt with You" charted higher than 58, but they're both generally noted as classic 1980s one-hit wonders.

The examples above show that being a one-hit wonder is more about striking a chord with a generation of music fans with a lone song than it is about the chart position of that song. The 1980s were rife with one-hit wonders, but each decade can lay claim to its own batch of classics. The 1950s started with one-hit wonders like "Earth Angel" by The Penguins and "Sh-Boom" by The Chords, and wrapped up with "Rockin Robin" from Bobby Day. The heyday of classic rock, the late 1960s, had its share of one-hit wonders as well with songs like "Summertime Blues" from Blue Cheer and "Green Tambourine" by the Lemon Pipers. Nineteen-seventies disco was riddled with one-hit wonders, but before disco even hit, the following songs topped the charts:

  • "Spirit in the Sky" -- Norman Greenbaum
  • "Are You Ready" -- Pacific Gas & Electric
  • "Mr. Big Stuff" -- Jean Knight
  • "Hold Your Head Up" -- Argent
  • "One Toke Over the Line" -- Brewer & Shipley
  • "Seasons in the Sun" -- Terry Jacks

These are just a handful of the hundreds of one-hit-wonder examples from the music world. Entire Web sites and Internet radio stations are dedicated to keeping this music alive, ensuring that each one-hit wonder will remain a hit.