10 Obscure Facts about One-Hit Wonders from Before the 1980s

It’s tough to break through in the music business. There are a million acts clamoring for everybody’s attention all the time. And with the modern music industry as it is, even though streaming services like Spotify have upended the traditional music delivery path, that has also meant a million more acts and groups and singers of all stripes are vying for your attention.

Music has always been a brutal business, though, and music fans have long been fickle customers, even long before the internet was a thing. In fact, that’s the topic of today’s list. In this ten-piece set, we’ll uncover and examine a group of very obscure one-hit wonders who broke through in a flash and then disappeared just as quickly.

The catch? They were all one-hit tricks before the 1980s. So, you’re going to have to be pretty old and wise to recall these singles and where you were when you first heard them back in the day. Or perhaps you’ll just have to be young and eager to hear new (old) things to really appreciate them!

Related: Top 10 Performances In Rock Music History

10 “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians (1966)

Yes, that’s a “question mark” leading that group name. The garage rock band ? and the Mysterians dropped their single “96 Tears” in October 1966. It launched itself up to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, as well as the RPM 100 in Canada. By early November, their single was certified as gold. And then… nobody ever heard from them again.

The Mysterians were led by Rudy Martinez, who went by Question Mark, and they hailed out of Bay City, Michigan. It took Rudy just a few minutes to write “96 Tears” in his manager’s living room back in 1962, and over the next four years, they pushed to get the song recorded and played on air. They finally broke through with the small Pa-Go-Go label in 1966.

After recording the song and showing that it had a local following for a while, they took it to a radio director at a popular station in Flint, Michigan. He played it, and the song quickly became the station’s most requested. From there, it spread north of the border into Canada. Up there, Cameo Records picked up the record for distribution, and it became a big hit.

In the end, ? and the Mysterians never again had any real charting success after “96 Tears” faded. A second single did make some noise, but nowhere close to the first, and then the group faded away. But the originality of the song and of its creation were notable.

For one, it’s often recognized as the first-ever garage band hit to reach major radio airplay and #1 on the charts. And some music historians even regard it as the song that started the entire punk rock movement! Not a bad debut for Rudy Martinez’s mysterious band, even if they couldn’t parlay it into worldwide fame.[1]

9 “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly (1968)

Iron Butterfly put out one album in the mid-1960s; pretty much nobody paid attention to it, and then they tried again one more time. The result came in 1968’s “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” with the eponymous title track propelling them to lasting rock fame. Well, maybe not “lasting,” since they couldn’t replicate their one-hit success ever again, but they sure blew up with the unique (and 17-minute long!) single.

It all started when vocalist Doug Ingle wrote the song one evening while drinking heavily. He was nearly a gallon into wine for the night, and when he performed the song for Bushy, he was slurring his words very badly. Thus, “In The Garden Of Eden” accidentally became “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

Bushy thought it was hilarious and also cool and wanted to run with it. And not only that but Ingle’s song was originally meant to be about 90 seconds. Well, the group thought it would be cool if they turned that quick 90-second tune into a 17-minute jam band song… and that’s exactly what they did.

Amazingly, the track caught on with the public, and it shot up the charts. Iron Butterfly wasn’t ever able to replicate that success in future tracks, sadly. But the legacy of the song has been incredible. Not only is it practically a meme with how recognizable it is, but many music historians today see it as having a direct and pioneering influence on heavy metal as one of the first songs to really explore that genre.[2]

8 “Build Me Up Buttercup” by The Foundations (1968)

Everybody knows the song “Build Me Up Buttercup,” and surely most of you have sung along to it at some point in your lives. Or perhaps you’ve heard it sampled and played proudly in movies or television shows. It is a staple of American pop culture, even though the song is well over 50 years old now. And even though it was recorded by a British band! Yes, despite its Motown-like sound, “Build Me Up Buttercup” was recorded by the UK-based band The Foundations in 1968.

The Foundations were really one of the only British bands to ever perfect the Motown sound from across the pond. They mimicked Detroit, and they mimicked it well. And they had quite a turnover in band members during their run in the public eye in the late 1960s.

But one day in 1968, songwriters Mike d’Abo and Tony Macaulay came to them with the aforementioned track. Colin Young had just replaced another Foundations member on lead vocals for the group, and he liked the sound of the song. So he sang it with the rest of The Foundations backing him, and, well, it built ’em up!

Very early in 1969, “Build Me Up Buttercup” hit the top spot on the Cash Box Top 100, then reached as high as #3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts and stayed there for a while. It also jumped up to #2 in the UK’s chart, landing at that spot several times in non-consecutive weeks. Eventually, it was certified gold by the RIAA after selling more than a million copies in the United States.

But fate wasn’t kind to The Foundations! They split up in 1970, and in addition to a second, much more minor hit, “Build Me Up Buttercup” was the only legacy they left on the world. Still, the song remains jammed into everybody’s brain today, so what a legacy it was![3]

7 “Time of the Season” by The Zombies (1968)

The Zombies put together an album called Odyssey and Oracle throughout much of 1967, then released it with high hopes in 1968. Sadly, it flopped. The British-based band had recorded the album at Abbey Road Studios and was hoping for a big push into the world of psychedelic music, but they didn’t get the reception they were banking on. And even though they thought their favorite track from the album called “Time of the Season” had been very well-produced, British listeners mostly panned the group. So, out of money and out of ideas, they split up and moved on to do other things. But then, a year later, something strange happened.

Months after The Zombies released their mostly ignored album, American listeners found the single “Time of the Season” and latched onto it. Music fans in the U.S. were desperate for anything that related to psychedelic rock at the time, and The Zombies had that in spades.

Suddenly, and without any push from the now-broken-up band, the track took off in the United States. Word of mouth turned into record sales, record sales turned into demands for more radio airplay, and before anybody knew it, the song became a surprise hit in the United States. It rose as high as #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts more than a year after it was released.

It spurred the band to get back together, too. Hoping they could replicate their success once more with future psychedelia, The Zombies gave it another go. They never did find that chart success again in America and were pretty much totally ignored once again after that. But they stuck it out, and they’ve been playing shows and recording music in the United Kingdom ever since! So, “Time of the Season” turned their past musical failure into a longstanding career move in the end![4]

6 “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” by Steam (1969)

The song that ended up becoming “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” by a group known as Steam was originally written nearly a decade before it was released publicly and intended for an entirely different doo-wop group—and to be performed in an entirely different genre of music. But for one reason or another, the Connecticut-based songwriters didn’t get their way in the early 1960s, and “Na Na Hey Hey” was shelved.

Then, in 1969, it came back up to the forefront. The guys behind the group that would soon become Steam went into a recording studio for a session. Looking for something to do, they picked “Na Na Hey Hey” as the song to put to tape. And amazingly, they did the entire track in that one recording session.

The song originally had even more “Na Na Na Na” bumps to it, too. At the time, the group had been putting “na” sounds in place of whatever lyrics they were later going to add in… and they just never added any lyrics. To mix it up, then, they added a couple “hey hey” vocalizations while recording. And the rest is history!

The song hit number one on the charts in the United States in two consecutive weeks, on both December 6 and December 13, 1969. It also reached the top 20 on the U.S. Soul charts and even hit as high as number six in Canada. Steam never had another hit, and the group and its members quickly faded back into obscurity. But “Na Na Hey Hey” has remained a staple of both popular music and sports arena anthems ever since![5]

5 “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum (1969)

Norman Greenbaum may be Jewish, but he found acclaim and fame with one of the most famous one-hit wonders of all time by pretending to be a proselytizing Christian and putting that idea to music! In late 1969, Greenbaum released an album called Spirit in the Sky. The title track was of the same name, and it very quickly proved to be a hit.

Throughout the end of 1969 and the first half of 1970, Greenbaum’s song reached as high as #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—and then stayed there for a whopping 15 weeks. It also reached #1 in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada at various times over the next twelve months. By the end of that year, it was one of the best-known and most-loved songs of 1970. And it all came about as a joke!

Greenbaum was inspired to write the song after watching Porter Wagoner sing a gospel song on television. Norman had no connection to Christianity, and being Jewish, he thought the gospel worship tracks he’d heard were all a little bit goofy. But he also thought they were structured simply and easily, and so he took his turn at it.

“I thought, ‘yeah, I could do that,’ knowing nothing about gospel music,” Greenbaum told the New York Times in 2006 as he reflected on his one-hit wonder status. “So, I sat down and wrote my own gospel song. It came easy. I wrote the words in 15 minutes.” And today, it remains one of the best-known and best-selling one-hit wonders to ever reach the public.[6]

4 “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass (1972)

In February 1972, a new single was sweeping the regional area around Washington, D.C. It had just been put out by a band that was calling themselves Looking Glass, and it had a catchy hook with the title of “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” Unexpectedly, D.C. locals loved the nautical theme of the song and found themselves rooting for Brandy during the rousing vocals.

When one D.C. radio station started playing it, the song caught fire. Soon, presses of the unknown band’s single were at every single D.C. and Baltimore-area radio station. And not only that, but people were calling in left and right, all day long, to request that stations play the song. Some radio disc jockeys later claimed they’d never seen anything quite like it from any single before in their radio careers.

Epic Records soon caught wind of “Brandy” and the existence of Looking Glass, and they jumped into the game. They signed the band to a deal and put out a rush-released single of the same song. When the single hit stores around D.C., it was already the number-one track in the region—and it hadn’t even sold a copy yet.

It did very soon, though, and the single inevitably then spread across the country and all over the English-speaking world. It ended up being a million-copy seller, pushing Looking Glass to go platinum with the unlikely success story. Unfortunately for them, they never found that success again after “Brandy.” They had a minor hit that briefly rose north of #40 on the Billboard charts, but that was as close as they got. Just as soon as they surged onto the music scene, they were gone again—forever.[7]

3 “Float On” by The Floaters (1977)

The Floaters were pretty much destined to be a one-hit wonder from the very start. They released a single that was seen as somewhat gimmicky in June 1977 called “Float On,” in an allusion to the name of the group itself. Then, the topic of the single brought attention but also fated it to be a fad of the times: the song was about astrological signs and phone dating. Those two things were very big trends at the time, but they were fated to fade out of style some in the years to come, and the Floaters would fade along with them.

Still, life before the fade was pretty good. “Float On” made the Floaters’ self-titled debut album a hit, and it quickly became one of the biggest singles of the year. It spent a whopping six weeks at #1 on the U.S. Hot Soul Singles chart. And it crossed over, too, peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. As if that wasn’t good enough, “Float On” also took the top spot in the UK and found itself sitting in the top five for weeks in Ireland.

And then it was over. The Floaters’ record label was gobbled up in some recording company backroom business the following year, and the group was never able to replicate their early success with future producers and executives. In turn, the public took no more notice of the singers, and their time in the sun faded. “Float On” has lived on, though.

In 1988, Stetsasonic covered the song on its album In Full Gear. And in 1996, the Dream Warriors sampled elements of the group’s song on their track of the same name. Heck, “Float On” was even licensed for use in a memorable Cadbury’s Creme Eggs advertisement in the early 1990s! So, while the group didn’t live on for very long and never charted again, its single remains at least on the outskirts of the public consciousness.[8]

2 “The Night Chicago Died” by Paper Lace (1974)

In 1974, British songwriters Peter Callander and Mitch Murray put together a song for the group Paper Lace that was going to be the perfect follow-up to their initial hit single. See, Paper Lace was a British band that was well-known in that country by early 1974 thanks to their #1 hit over there called “Billy Don’t Be a Hero.” But that song hadn’t made it to the United States, and nobody in America had ever heard of Paper Lace.

However, that all changed when “The Night Chicago Died” came out. The connection to Chicago must have been enough to tip the scales because Americans started listening to the track in droves. Canadians, too. The song—about a fictional shoot-out between the Chicago Police Department and members of Al Capone’s infamous gang—went to #1 in the American charts, #2 in Canada, and #3 in the UK.

Unfortunately for Paper Lace, the song is pretty factually incorrect. It is said to be set in “East Chicago,” but as anybody who has been to Chicago knows, there is no East Chicago. There’s the North Side, the South Side, the West Side, and… Lake Michigan. No matter because Paper Lace ran with it and enjoyed their ride at the top spot of the charts for a very brief time. Their success stateside could have lasted even longer, perhaps, but there was another issue.

When it came time to tour to help promote “The Night Chicago Died” and perhaps get some American interest in their first single, “Billy Don’t Be A Hero,” contractual issues prevented the group from going to the U.S. to promote and perform. With that off the table, Paper Lace became an American one-hit wonder. Interestingly, they are still performing and recording to this day in the UK. But they have never again had American success![9]

1 “Come and Get It” by Badfinger (1970)

Would you believe us if we told you that Beatles legend Paul McCartney is part of a one-hit wonder? Well, he is! Sort of. Way back in 1969, a film named The Magic Christian was being filmed and produced. They needed a soundtrack for the film, and producers reached out to McCartney to supply three songs for it. He liked the terms of the contract well enough, so he agreed to do it.

However, one of the songs was going to be far more important than the other two in the film. Called “Come and Get It,” that song was going to play during a key point in the film and then again, with another slightly different arrangement, while the credits rolled. McCartney looked around for a group who might be able to perform the song like he wanted, and he landed on The Iveys.

The Iveys had been recording music for a few years at that point already but without a ton of commercial or critical success. Undaunted, they pushed forward with McCartney’s project. They even renamed themselves as Badfinger for the flick and its accompanying single.

In late 1969, The Magic Christian hit theaters while “Come and Get It” hit radio airplay. It was first released in the UK at the very end of 1969, then transitioned to an American release at the very start of 1970. Even as the film more or less flopped, the track found somewhat lasting success, and it charted in the top ten in both countries.

Sadly, the boys behind Badfinger didn’t fare quite as well. They tried to sustain the momentum and tour with the song, but their success was short-lived. Without McCartney producing and arranging for them in the studio, there was little to be had by way of lasting success. They broke up, then got back together a few years later and re-recorded the song under another record label. That version failed to chart, though, sending Badfinger once and for all into the annals of the one-hit wonder. To think that a music mega-star like McCartney is tied to a one-hit wonder like that is funny to consider, but he is, and always will be![10]

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