Friday, May 29, 2009

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Mickey," by Toni Basil

Everybody loved Sweet, the British boys who turned the corner from glam to power pop with "Ballroom Blitz" and "Little Willy." The masterminds behind Sweet were the writing/producing team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. When Sweet decided they wanted a harder-edged sound, they turned away from Chinn and Chapman, who went on to write "Stumblin' In" for Suzi "Leather Tuscadero" Quatro and "Kiss You All Over" for Exile.

The duo also wrote a song for a British pop combo named Racey, called "Kitty," released on the 1979 album Smash and Grab. Racey had a few hits in England, but nothing over here in the U.S.

But let's leave Racey for the moment and take the story back to 1961 and over to Las Vegas, where Louis Basil has recently moved his family from Chicago in order to become the bandleader for the house orchestra at the Sahara Hotel, and his daughter Toni (born Antonia Basilotta) is about to graduate from Las Vegas High School, where she has been head cheerleader. "There's nothing better than being head cheerleader, let me tell you," she said last year, and I don't doubt her for a second. Toni's mom was in Wells & the Four Fays, an acrobatic comedy act that appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show the same night as the Beatles.

After leaving high school, Toni headed to Los Angeles, and by 1964, she had landed a job as an assistant choreographer on a new pop-music show called Shindig. (One of her dancers, who became a good friend, was Teri Garr.) Toni appeared as a go-go dancer in the 1964 film The T.A.M.I. Show, which led to appearances in such movies as Head, Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. In 1966, she cut a single, the title song to the experimental film Breakaway, in which she also danced. (It's not the same song as the later Art Garfunkel classic.) Breakaway has been removed from all the customary Internet outlets, so I haven't seen it, but I have it on good authority that Toni appears very naked in it.

In the early 1970s, Basil worked with David Bowie on his Diamond Dogs tour, but left that behind for a while to found and dance with a street troupe called the Lockers, who generally consisted of five or six black dudes (including the late Fred "Rerun" Berry) and Toni Basil. The Lockers got a slot dancing on one of the first episodes of Saturday Night Live, then, for reasons that remain obscure to me, Toni was asked back later in the first season to sing a song called "Wham Re-Bop Boom Bam." She didn't have an album out, or a single, and as far as I can tell, she hadn't sung professionally since 1966. Go figure.

Later on, she conceived and choreographed a short film, directed by Gary Weis, for SNL that featured members of the Lockers dancing Swan Lake with some ballerinas. Toni wanted to do, for her next video, something with cheerleaders dancing and chanting, coincidentally right about the same time that a British label exec named Simon Lait met her in Los Angeles and thought he could turn her into a pop star. Lait went to his friend Nicky Chinn to see if he could get a song for his fledgling star, and Chinn suggested "Kitty."

Basil liked the song and thought it would work even better with the cheerleaders' chant appended on to it. (The cheerleaders were from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, class of '81.) She changed the title to "Mickey," both because it rhymed with "Kitty" and because she had developed a crush on Micky Dolenz while making Head. None of the other lyrics were changed, so "Any way you wanna do it, I'll take it like a man" had a different, less racy meaning in the Racey version. Basil recorded the song in 1980 and directed the video, in which she appeared in the same cheerleaders' outfit she wore back at Las Vegas High School. (She is very proud to say that she still, to this day, at the age of 65, fits into that uniform.)

When the BBC saw the video, it asked Basil to make her own TV special around it. That helped push "Mickey" to Number Two in the U.K.; the single was released here on October 5, 1982, around the same time as her album Word of Mouth (I have had a very hard time tracking down the release date for the album), which featured a couple of Devo covers and several members of Devo playing on it. (Toni was involved with Devo bassist and designer Jerry Casale at the time.) "Mickey" immediately leapt into the Top Forty the first week it was released, and on December 11, 1982, it replaced Lionel Richie's "Truly" as the Number One song in America.

Toni released a second album, Toni Basil, in 1983, with three more Devo covers, but none of them made any kind of a splash, although "Over My Head" won an MTV Video Award. Basil went back to her day job, choreographing David Byrne's herky-jerky dance for the "Once in a Lifetime" video and those great Gap commercials with all that bossa nova style dancing in them. (She has estimated that, since 1982, "Mickey" has earned her the grand sum of $3,000 in royalties.) She's now choreographing Bette Midler's Las Vegas revue.

I can't find the original cheerleading version of "Mickey" online, although Toni will have you know it's in the Musuem of Modern Art. But this is a mini-documentary synced up to that video, and it'll do:

Thursday, May 28, 2009

One-Hit Wonder Week: "The Worst That Could Happen," by the Brooklyn Bridge

The Crests were one of the few interracial doo-wop groups of the 1950s, consisting of two black men, a black woman, a Puerto Rican man and an Italian man. The black woman was Patricia Vandross, Luther's big sister; the Italian dude was Johnny Maestro. "Johnny Maestro" is the fakest-sounding name I have ever come across; I'd sooner believe someone was born "Tre Cool" than "Johnny Maestro." Sure enough, he was born Johnny Mastrangelo.

Maestro was from Brooklyn, although the Crests were formed on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was just 18 when the Crests got together in 1957, and they had a local hit almost out of the box with "My Juanita." In 1958 they recorded the immortal "Sixteen Candles," which was a monster, going to Number Two on the pop charts early in 1959. (Appropriately enough, it was on the Coed label.) The Crests followed that up with four more Top Thirty hits by the summer of 1960, at which time Johnny Maestro, still only 21, decided to go solo.

Billed as "Johnny Maestro, The Voice of the Crests," Johnny had two quick Top Forty hits in 1961, "Model Girl" and "What a Surprise," neither of which is remembered much today. His solo career apparently fell on hard times at that point; he had no more chart action. By 1967, a vocal group called the Del-Satins - whose claim to fame was backing up Dion after he cashiered the Belmonts, although they had no hits of their own - ran into Johnny Maestro at a gym in New York City and asked him to become their lead singer. Johnny agreed.

This didn't turn around the Del-Satins' fortunes, however, and in 1968, they found themselves playing in a Battle of the Bands in New York City. Another group in the competition was a seven-man brass outfit called the Rhythm Method. They decided to join forces, this four-man vocal group with a big horn band, and call themselves the Brooklyn Bridge.

At this point, our story shifts to the West Coast, where the 5th Dimension, in the summer of 1967, are recording their album The Magic Garden. After having their first big hit earlier that year with "Up, Up and Away," written by the brilliant Oklahoman Jimmy Webb, they turned the entirety of their next album over to Webb, still just 21, with the exception of a cover of "Ticket to Ride." It didn't really work; the LP spawned two minor hits, "Paper Cup" (which went to Number 34) and "Carpet Man" (Number 29).

It also included a song called "The Worst That Could Happen," another in the series of songs Webb wrote about his doomed love affair with a woman named Susan; other entries included "MacArthur Park" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." In fact, Mariyln McCoo called The Magic Garden "Susan's record." "The Worst" followed Susan to her wedding to another man, one who makes her "more safe, more sane and more secure." Given all of Webb's obsessing over his breakup with Susan, I believe the "sane" part.

Back in New York, the Brooklyn Bridge had been given two songs by Buddah Records to cut as singles, but no one was very happy with them. Johnny Maestro happened to listen to the new 5th Dimension album, and thought "Worst That Could Happen" might work for them. They recorded it, and it ended up being the leadoff single for their debut album, Brooklyn Bridge, released late in 1968.

"The Worst That Could Happen" entered the Top Forty in the first week of 1969. It eventually soared as high as Number Three. The Brooklyn Bridge released its second album, The Second Brooklyn Bridge, later that year, but singles like "Your Husband, My Wife" failed to recapture that "Worst That Could Happen" magic. Near as I can figure, they never covered another Jimmy Webb song, to their detriment. Let this be a listen to you, all you musicians out there: Cover Jimmy Webb songs.

This is already a really long item, so since hardly any of you are likely to have made it this far, I wanted to editorialize a bit and say that this entry turned out to be a great story, didn't it? I chose this song because I didn't have another single from the Sixties, I knew this had turned into an oldies-radio staple, and Johnny Maestro is always a cool name to write. But I had no idea that "Sixteen Candles" and Jimmy Webb and Luther Vandross' sister were involved. Every single one of these one-hit wonders I research ends up having a compelling story behind it, rich in detail, except maybe Pilot's "Magic," and at least with that one I found out that those guys were in an early version of the Bay City Rollers. I'd love to do a whole book of them.

The Brooklyn Bridge lasted for a total of four albums on Buddah, although on the last one they changed their name to the Bridge. They reconvened in 1989 to put out a Christmas EP (!), and they've been a standard on PBS oldies shows pretty much ever since. Somewhere along the line they slimmed down to a five-man group, all of whom sang and played instruments, and changed the name to Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge. Despite the fact that he had hits in the Fifties, Johnny Maestro just turned 70 a couple of weeks ago. Shoot, Jimmy Webb is only 62. He wrote "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" (originally done by our old friend Johnny Rivers) when he was 19.

It appears that there used to be a contemporaneous video for this song on YouTube that has been removed for copyright reasons. And hey, you guys have heard "The Worst That Could Happen" a billion times already anyway. So here's an old video for the Bridge's follow-up, "Blessed Is the Rain," complete with a wrong title on the chromakey:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Love Is Strange," by Mickey and Sylvia

It all goes back, as so many things do, to Bo Diddley. Bo wrote and recorded "Love Is Strange," although the guitar lick had been composed by Jody Williams, who played with Bo, for an instrumental called "Billy's Blues." Bo took that lick, put it together with his own parts, and had himself a tune. In the ways of pop songs in the 1950s, though, Diddley couldn't take the songwriting credit because of a legal dispute, and there was no way he was giving it to Williams, so "Love Is Strange" went down on record as being written by Ethel Smith, Bo's wife.

I'm not sure when Bo cut his version of "Love Is Strange," whether it was a single, or B-side, or what, but that track did end up on I'm a Man: The Chess Masters 1955-1958, his 2007 box set. I do know that Bo and Jody Williams were playing it on tour in 1956, and one of the other acts on that tour was Mickey and Sylvia.

Raised in an orphanage in Kentucky, MacHouston "Mickey" Baker ran away to New York City at the age of 16. There he worked as a pool shark for a while before picking up a guitar at a pawnshop. He taught himself to play jazz on it but soon realized the bluesmen were the ones making the real money. By the mid-1950s, Baker was the lead session guitarist for Atlantic Records as well as on the Savoy and King labels.

He also taught guitar, and one of his students was a singer named Sylvia Vanderpool. Sylvia supposedly cut her first record at the age of 14, in 1950, and was signed to the Cat label as "Little Sylvia" when she met Mickey. Mickey, cognizant of the success of Les Paul and Mary Ford, asked her to form a musical duo with him. (Rumor has it that Mickey wanted them be a combo in more ways than one, but Sylvia rebuffed him.)

Their first single (I think we're in 1954 at this point) was on that Cat label, "Fine Love" b/w "Speedy Life"; they were billed as by "Little" Sylvia Vanderpool and Mickey Baker and His Band. Then they moved on to the Rainbow label and released three singles as Mickey and Sylvia in 1955. That apparently landed them the slot on the Diddley tour.

According to Dave Marsh, Bo didn't want to record "Love Is Strange" at all because of a war with his publishers, so when Mickey and Sylvia expressed interest in the song, he went ahead and gave it to them. On October 17, 1956, Mickey and Sylvia went into a studio and laid down the song with the drummer Bernard Purdie, making his recording debut. Producer Bob Rolontz overdubbed and overdubbed the guitars, and by the end of the day, Mickey and Sylvia had another single.

By the time Mickey and Sylvia got done with the song, it didn't sound much like Bo Diddley. The blues guitar contrasted nicely with M&S' harmonies, but it was the spoken-word passage - which had been a gruff call and response in Bo's version - that really made it special. "Love Is Strange" hit the Top Forty on January 12, 1957, and went as high as Number Eleven on the pop charts. It spent two weeks at Number One on the R&B chart.

Mickey apparently hated touring and the high life associated with being a pop star. M&S had a few more R&B hits, but in 1959, Mickey decided to break up the group. After a few more years of session work and a single billed to "Mickey and Kitty," Baker split for France in 1962 and went back to playing mostly jazz. Sylvia married a gentleman named Joe Robinson in 1964, and the two of them started a strong of indie labels in New Jersey: All Platinum, Stang, Turbo and Vibration.

In 1973, Sylvia offered a song called "Pillow Talk," which she had co-written, to Al Green, but the Reverend Al turned it down as too risque. So Sylvia recorded it herself, for her own Vibration label, and it turned out to be a huge smash, going to Number Three on the pop charts and spending two weeks at Number One on the R&B charts, just like "Love Is Strange" had 16 years earlier. Then, Sylvia pulled off a third act in 1979 when she herded a group of rappers into the studio and christened them the Sugarhill Gang.

Like Sylvia, "Love Is Strange" resurrected itself as well when it appeared in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing, as lip-synced by Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. They were supposedly just goofing around in rehearsal, miming the famous spolen-word bridge, but director Emile Ardolino had the cameras rolling, and liked it so much he kept it in the final cut. By 1987, that eerie guitar still sounded futuristic.

Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Paul McCartney & Wings and Peaches and Herb all covered "Love Is Strange," as did, of course, Bo Diddley, at some point. None of them sounded as good as Mickey and Sylvia. There's no video from them; I can't find anything on YouTube showing M&S performing at all. But you can at least listen to it:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Lovin' You," by Minnie Riperton

The youngest of eight children, Minnie Riperton was recognized early on as a vocal prodigy, and she received serious operatic training while growing up in her hometown of Chicago. But the pop world called as well, and at age 15, Minnie joined a singing group called the Gems. While they didn't have any hit records, the Gems became well-known in Chicago, and before long they were a sought-after troupe of studio singers. Minnie reportedly cut high school to go do recording sessions for ten bucks a pop. After high school, she went to work as a receptionist at Chess Records, and she supposedly backed up people like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Etta James at Chess sessions, but I don't know for sure that that's true.

Riperton eventually met a songwriter/producer named Billy Davis (not the one who married Marilyn McCoo), who had written "Rescue Me" for Fontella Bass. (The Gems did the backing vocals on that one.) Calling herself Andrea Davis, Minnie cut a single, "Lonely Girl," which was a local hit, then became the singer for a kind of psychedelic prog group called Rotary Connection, which had been put together by Marshall Chess, Leonard Chess' son. Still just 19 when she joined up, Riperton stayed with Rotary Connection for three years and five albums.

One songwriter that Rotary Connection worked with was a young man named Richard Rudolph, and when Minnie went to record her first solo album, Come to My Garden, in 1971, she brought along Rudolph to write most of the lyrics. They also got married. Future Earth, Wind and Fire-meister Maurice White played drums on the album, but it didn't go anywhere.

With her solo career not exactly gaining traction, Riperton kept on working as a backup singer, which led her to Stevie Wonder. She joined Wonderlove, Stevie's troupe of background singers, in 1973, and sang on his album Fulfillingness' First Finale. In turn, Stevie coproduced (with Richard Rudolph, under the nom de guerre Scorbu Productions) Minnie's second solo album, Perfect Angel, and wrote the title track and another song, "Take a Little Trip." (The other seven songs were all written by Riperton and Rudolph.) Stevie played piano, too, under the name El Toro Negro.

Epic released three singles from the album, including "Take a Little Trip," but none of them charted. The label was about to give up when Rudolph persuaded them to try one more single, "Lovin' You," which had initially been sung as a lullaby to Minnie's daughter, Maya. Maya, a year and a half old at the time, was there in the studio when her mother cut the track, and is name-checked on the outro.

"Lovin' You" was released in January 1975, and crashed the Top Forty on February 15. It reached the top of the chart on April 5, staying at Number One for a single week.

Minnie's follow-up album, Adventures in Paradise, spawned a Top Five R&B hit in "Inside My Love," but contained no pop hits. It was apparently around this time that Riperton discovered she had cancer. In 1976, she went on The Tonight Show and told guest host Flip Wilson - who had no prior knowledge of the situation - that she was suffering from breast cancer and had undergone a mastectomy. My guess is that he flipped.

Riperton continued to make records while also becoming a spokeswoman for cancer awareness. President Carter gave her the American Cancer Society's Courage Award; she was named that organization's national education chair. Though the spreading cancer had immobilized her right arm, she continued to sing on TV; there's a clip of her with Mike Douglas in which she hardly moves, but seems in good spirits. Her final album, Minnie, came out early in 1979 and went to Number 29 on the pop album charts. In what would be her final TV appearance, she appeared on The Merv Griffin Show on July 6th of that year. Six days later, in her husband's arms and with a song Stevie Wonder had written for her playing in the background, Minnie Riperton died at the age of 31. Maya Rudolph turned seven a couple of weeks later.

Those ridiculously high notes Minnie hits are known as the whistle register, and while a fair number of singers can hit them, Minnie was one of the few who could sing in those tones. She had a five-and-a-half-octave range. “I’ve met only three people who had a truly wonderful voice and spirit to match," Stevie Wonder said many years after Riperton's death. "My first wife Syreeta, Minnie Riperton and Mariah.” Here's the second of those two on The Midnight Special:

Monday, May 25, 2009

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Come On Eileen," by Dexys Midnight Runners

Kevin Rowland was a hairdresser in late 1970s London, trying to break into the music biz, when he formed his first band, Lucy and the Lovers, supposedly influenced by Roxy Music. They released a single, which didn't go anywhere, so Rowland broke up that band and started a punk group called the Killjoys, which cut a few singles and even appeared on the BBC's legendary Peel Sessions.

Rowland used his hairdressing skills to give the other dudes punk dos, but they still hated him. Band members kept dropping in and out - at one point, a guitarist named Kevin Archer joined up, but Rowland insisted he be called "Al Archer" so there would only be one Kevin in the band. The Killjoys got offered a contract but Rowland rejected it, because it was only for a series of singles, not an album, which pissed off the other members. After 18 months, before they ever put an LP together, the Killjoys broke up.

Rowland then decided that Irish soul was the next big thing, so he and Archer assembled a band complete with a horn section called Dexys [sic] Midnight Runners, named after Dexedrine. Their first single, "Dance Stance," flopped, but the second one, "Geno," a tribute to a soul singer named Geno Washington, went all the way to Number One in the U.K. in May 1980. By the end of the year, they had put out a debut album with the preposterous title Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, but still, everyone quit the band in short order, with the exception of the trombonist.

Rowland soldiered on, assembling an almost entirely new group under the Dexy brand. He also began a practice of rigorous exercise, expecting all the band members to go running together and to do group calisthenics before shows. He also changed their look from what he called "straight out of De Niro's Mean Streets" to hoodies and boxing boots. This incarnation put out a couple of singles in 1981, but before 1982 dawned, Rowland changed direction again.

The new Dexys added a trio of Irish fiddlers and began dressing like down-at-the-heels farmers from somewhere outside Wexford. They released an album called Too-Rye-Ay, and although the first single flopped, the second was "Come On Eileen." Released in the U.S very early in 1983, it became an MTV staple, in large part due to the enormous appeal of "Eileen" (portrayed by the sister of one of the girls in Bananarama), who appeared clad in overalls with nothing underneath. This vision was only partially negated by repeated shots of Rowland's armpits. Legend has it that the drummer, very visible in the daylight parts of the shoot, had been fired by the time they finished the video that night. I believe it.

"Come On Eileen" entered the Top Forty on February 26, 1983, and hit Number One on April 23rd. It stayed there for only a single week, sandwiched between Michael Jackson's twin colossi "Billie Jean" and "Beat It." The followup single was a cover of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said," which was a Top Ten hit in the U.K. but did nothing here. Not only did Dexys never return to the Top Forty here, but apparently they never even made it back to the Hot 100.

Dexys' followup to Too-Rye-Ay, Don't Stand Me Down, didn't come out till 1985, with the band (now down to four members) featured on the album cover in slicked-down hair and business suits. Ever the artiste, Rowland refused to release a single from the album - until it became apparent that the album, which was critically panned, wasn't going to sell anything.

Following that disaster, Rowland went solo. In 1993, he released an album of cover versions, My Beauty ("The Long and Winding Road," "Daydream Believer," etc.; he wanted to include a version of "Thunder Road" reworked with his own lyrics, but Springsteen didn't approve of the rewrite). The cover showed him in a dress, and not just in a dress but a dress pulled down to reveal his scrawny chest and hiked up to reveal a pair of black panties. It allegedly sold fewer than 500 copies. I believe it.

Dexys reunited (with which incarnation of the band, I couldn't tell you) for a tour and a greatest-hits album in 2003. Rowland recently announced he wants to go back in the studio and is looking for a record deal. Aren't we all.

But hey, "Come On Eileen" was really good. Watch out for that disappearing drummer:

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Everything Is Going Wrong, but We're So Happy

It makes perfect sense to me that the Wombats' "Let Dance to Joy Division" should sound, aside from a bit of Stephen Morris-type drumming, nothing like Joy Division but an awful lot like the Cure. After all, who is it that would be going out to dance to Joy Division? Not Joy Division!

The Cure were contemporaries of Joy Division - each band released its first full-length album in 1979 - but I can certainly believe that they would be fans. Hey, look, it's a video:

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Celebrity Sweepstakes

Three weeks ago, I had never heard of Jon and Kate, so when I saw them appear on the cover of Us Weekly, I had no idea who they were, although they certainly smacked of reality TV stars. I thought maybe one of them had appeared on Dancing With the Stars or something. Literally the first thing I knew about them was that Jon was accused of having a tryst at a motel. It must be a little demoralizing to have something like that be the first thing people learn about you.

Since then, I have figured out that Jon and Kate have eight kids, and that they're the stars of an unscripted show called Jon and Kate Plus Eight. Jon's adultery seems to have been confirmed - with a 23-year-old schoolteacher! - and now Kate's fidelity has been called into question, with a chauffeur. In fact, their whole marriage seems to have descended upon us from Marin County circa 1977.

That may be moot, because now Jon and Kate seem to be on the brink of divorce. The amazing thing about all of this is that this entire story has unfolded on the covers of gossip magazines that I've seen at the supermarket checkout stand. I don't know a single thing about Jon and Kate other than what's been on those covers; I've literally never touched one of those magazines, and I've never heard a word about them from anywhere else. Fortunately, since they've been on the covers of all of them lately, I've gotten a well-rounded, 3-D view of their situation.

There is so much I don't know about Jon and Kate. I don't know where they live; I don't know what network their show is on. (I did recently find out that their last name is "Gosselin.") And I'll probably never find that out; their gossip-worthiness must surely be reaching a merciful end by now. And there's no way I'm actually going to open up a copy of OK to find out.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

One-Hit Wonders, Part Three

Yesterday we left off with Lipps, Inc.'s 1980 hit "Funkytown." There were no pure one-hit wonders in 1981, not even Stars on 45, so our story resumes in the spring of 1982:

Vangelis, "Chariots of Fire," went to Number One in May 1982 Vangelis worked with Yes for several weeks in 1974 after Rick Wakeman left, but eventually decided not to join the band.

Toni Basil, "Mickey," December 1982 Basil, who started out as a choreographer on 'Shindig,' was pushing 40 when this song came out.

Dexy's Midnight Runners, "Come On Eileen," April 1983 Wikipedia lists 21 people who are former members of this band.

USA for Africa, "We Are the World," April 1985 Several members of this group did indeed have other Top Forty hits.

Jan Hammer, "Miami Vice Theme," November 1985 More recently, Hammer did the score for the TV movie 'The Babysitter's Seduction.'

Gregory Abbott, "Shake You Down," January 1987 This to me is the most surprising entry on the list, maybe because there were eight other mid-80s R&B crooners who sounded exactly like Gregory Abbott. He was once married to Freda "Band of Gold" Payne, who is 11 years older than him.

Bobby McFerrin, "Don't Worry Be Happy," September 1988 This ascended to the top spot on the day I got married.

Sheriff, "When I'm With You," February 1989 It was recorded in 1982, and the band broke up in 1985, but for some reason a DJ started playing it in 1988.

R*S*F (Right Said Fred), "I'm Too Sexy," February 1992 Whitburn calls them R*S*F, but heaven only knows why.

Sir Mix-a-Lot, "Baby Got Back," July 1992 Sir Mix-A-Lot went on to work with the Presidents of the United States of America, but they never released any of the material they recorded.

The Heights, "How Do You Talk to an Angel," November 1992 I bet the suits at MTV figured if they could only give this wimped-out Monkees a big hit song, the show would be a long-lived sensation.

Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle, "A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)," March 1993 I wasn't sure how to score this one, since Peabo had other hits, but Regina never did.

Ini Kamoze, "Here Comes the Hotstepper," December 1994 How this found its way into a Robert Altman movie, I'll never understand.

And that's it, through the end of 2000. I end the list at 2000 for both practical reasons and because it's still too early to know if any acts from this decade will be shut out from future hits. Nobody really wants James Blunt to have another hit, but hey, it could happen; even Daniel Powter managed to slither his way back into the Top Forty.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

One-Hit Wonders, Part Two

We left off yesterday with all the pure one-hit wonders - acts with a Number One hit on the Billboard chart, but no other songs that reached the Top Forty - through 1970. Now we pick up the action in the spring of '73 - the charts went more than three full years without a one-hit chart-topper. Even Billy Paul, of "Me and Mrs. Jones" fame, eked his way up to Number 37 in 1974 with a song called "Thanks for Saving My Life."

Vicki Lawrence, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," went to Number One in April 1973 Written by her then-husband, Bobby Russell, who also inflicted upon the world Bobby Goldsboro's much-maligned "Honey."

Stories, "Brother Louie," August 1973 This was a cover of a song by Hot Chocolate, who later hit big with "You Sexy Thing."

Terry Jacks, "Seasons in the Sun," March 1974 Earlier done by Jacques Brel and the Kingston Trio, this became the biggest-selling single ever by a Canadian artist.

MFSB featuring the Three Degrees, "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)," April 1974 You might not want to count this one, since they were the house band for Philadelphia International.

Paper Lace, "The Night Chicago Died," August 1974 Chuck Eddy has credited this song with inventing rap.

Billy Swan, "I Can Help," November 1974 Despite being a one-hit wonder, Swan has a huge reputation in the music world, and has been a longtime sideman for Kris Kristofferson.

Carl Douglas, "Kung Fu Fighting," December 1974 The first Jamaican-born artist to have a Number One hit in the U.S., Douglas released a follow-up single called "Dance the Kung Fu."

Minnie Riperton, "Lovin' You," April 1975 Minnie was dead of cancer four years later, though not before she gave birth to future SNL star Maya Rudolph. Also, I believe, the last person with a chart hit who was named "Minnie."

Van McCoy, "The Hustle," July 1975 Also tragically died early, of a heart attack in 1979 at the age of 39.

Starland Vocal Band, "Afternoon Delight," July 1976 Happy Bicentennial! They managed to parlay this into a network-TV variety show.

Wild Cherry, "Play That Funky Music," September 1976 The B-side was a cover of "I Feel Sanctified" by the Commodores.

Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band, "A Fifth of Beethoven," October 1976 Walter Murphy played nearly everything on the record, but the label felt it would sell better if it was credited to a group.

Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots, "Disco Duck," October 1976 The non-hit follow-up was "Disco-rilla."

David Soul, "Don't Give Up on Us," April 1977 At least that's one more hit than Starsky ever had.

Bill Conti, "Gonna Fly Now," July 1977 He did write another big hit, Sheena Easton's title track from his score for 'For Your Eyes Only.'

Alan O'Day, "Undercover Angel," July 1977 It's been done.

Nick Gilder, "Hot Child in the City," October 1978 He later co-wrote the Scandal hit "The Warrior."

Amii Stewart, "Knock on Wood," April 1979 Let's hope this put a few bucks in Steve Cropper's pocket. Stewart has been a pretty big star in Italy, where she has lived since 1982.

Anita Ward, "Ring My Bell," June 1979 She was a schoolteacher before this song hit; it's always nice to have something to fall back on.

M, "Pop Muzik," November 1979 It peaked at Number Two in M's native U.K., unable to dislodge Art Garfunkel's "Bright Eyes" out of the top spot.

Lipps, Inc., "Funkytown," May 1980 The genius behind Lipps, Inc. was, swear to God, a guy named Steven Greenberg.

Monday, May 18, 2009

One-Hit Wonders, Part One

One thing I wanted to do was put together a canonical list of all the true one-hit wonders: the artists who had a song go to Number One, then never again reached the Top Forty. I figured this was the kind of thing that happens maybe once a year - it seems like any old schlub who has a Number One hit would then carry enough clout to put at least one more song on the charts. Even Bobby "Boris" Pickett had another hit song, "Monsters' Holiday," which is apparently some sort of Christmas version of the "Monster Mash" and went to Number 30 right after Christmas 1962.

But there sure are a bunch of these. As a result, I'm going to break the list up into segments, starting tonight from the inception of the Hot 100 on October 13, 1958, and carrying through to 1970:

The Teddy Bears, "To Know Him Is to Love Him," went to Number One in December 1958 This one almost doesn't count, since one of the Teddy Bears was future murderer Phil Spector.

Mark Dinning, "Teen Angel," February 1960 The song that stepped off the teen-death craze.

The Hollywood Argyles, "Alley-Oop," July 1960 The chief Argyle, Gary Paxton, was also the leader of Bobby "Boris" Pickett's Crypt-Kicker Six.

Larry Verne, "Mr. Custer," October 1960 His only other chart action, "Mr. Livingston," about the explorer, I presume, stalled out at Number 75.

Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, "Stay," November 1960 At 1:39, the shortest Number One ever. The Four Seasons took it to Number Sixteen in 1964.

Ernie K-Doe, "Mother-in-Law," May 1961 Warren Zevon later covered his "A Certain Girl," on 'Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School.'

Bruce Channel, "Hey! Baby," March 1962 Delbert McClinton blows harp on this, and it was when Channel was touring with the Beatles that McClinton famously taught John Lennon to play the harmonica.

Mr. Acker Bilk, "Stranger on the Shore," May 1962 A clarinet instrumental that is certainly one of the least-remembered Number Ones of all time.

David Rose, "The Stripper," July 1962 It sure seems like a lot of instrumentalists end up as one-hit wonders.

The Tornados, "Telstar," December 1962 Our third and final one-hit instrumental of 1962, and by far the best.

Kyu Sakamoto, "Sukiyaki," June 1963 The Japanese title was Ue o muite arukĊ, or "I look up when I walk."

The Singing Nun, "Dominique," December 1963 Debbie Reynolds played her in the movie version.

Lorne Greene, "Ringo," December 1964 The last-ever spoken-word Number One. Maybe the only one.

The New Vaudeville Band, "Winchester Cathedral," December 1966 Their leader also wrote "There's a Kind of Hush" and "The Crying Game."

John Fred and His Playboy Band, "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)," January 1968 While the Beatles were off in India, three straight one-hit wonders sneaked onto the top of the charts.

The Lemon Pipers, "Green Tambourine," February 1968 Written by the same guy who wrote "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye [see below]." There was actually an album that came out in 2001 called 'Green Tambourine: The Best of the Lemon Pipers.'

Paul Mauriat, "Love Is Blue," February 1968 Mauriat contributed to another Number One, as the co-composer of "I Will Follow Him," by Little Peggy March.

Hugh Masekela, "Grazing in the Grass," July 1968 Masekela plays trumpet on the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star."

Jeannie C. Riley, "Harper Valley P.T.A.," September 1968 Written by Tom T. Hall.

Zager & Evans, "In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)," July 1969 Also went to Number One in the U.K., making Z&E the only act to be pure one-hit wonders both here and in Great Britain.

Steam, "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," December 1969 This was of course a studio-only group, but when the song hit, mastermind Paul Leka put together a band called Steam to tour behind it. Amazingly, that band broke up before they ever went on the tour, so Leka had to then put together another touring group.

The Shocking Blue, "Venus," February 1970 Nirvana's first-ever single, and the first record in Sub Pop's Single of the Month Club, was a cover of the Shocking Blue's "Love Buzz."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Green Revival

Green Day's new album, 21st Century Breakdown, was released on Friday, and as usual, OPC is a bit late with its commentary, but what the heck. What do you guys think of Green Day as the modern equivalent of CCR?

Both bands are from the Bay Area, but from the working-class parts, so they come by their populism and their liberal political outrage honestly. Each has a singer-songwriter-guitarist backed by a rubber-band-tight rhythm section, most of whom had been playing together since high school. They're both really good.

The biggest difference is that Creedence worked hard and died young, while Green Day - the punk band - has now stretched its career over more than two decades. Despite this, 21st Century Breakdown is the album that finally makes the Green Day discography heftier than CCR's; it's their eighth studio album, and Creedence managed to put out seven from 1968 to 1972.

I suppose I'd have to grant that Creedence Clearwater Revival was the better band, on both peak and career value. "Fortunate Son" is nigh-impossible to surpass. On the other hand, no one in CCR ever had a name as great as "Tre Cool."

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Clash on Broadway

I mentioned the other day that the Clash made their American television debut on ABC's Fridays in April 1980. This was the start of kind of a whirlwind tour of late-night TV for the boys. They did the requisite stop on Saturday Night Live in October 1982, on a show hosted by Ron Howard, but more interestingly, they also appeared on the Tomorrow show just after Sandinista! came out in 1981.

Those of you who know Tom Snyder only from his parodies on SNL might want to check this out: He is respectful of and curious about the band, and Topper Headon repays his interest by sticking a Clash button in his lapel. The boys are relaxed and jovial, even though they're all four crammed on some kind of plastic bench.

The Clash did "The Magnificent Seven" on that show, in all probability introducing rap to the Tomorrow show, as well as "This Is Radio Clash," whose herky-jerky rhythms were apparently hard to reproduce live. For musical performances, the real keeper remains that first one: They played "London Calling" and "Train in Vain" back to back, and in keeping with Fridays' pre-Seinfeld theme, Mick Jones looked like a very young Jerry in a big grape-colored suit:

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ho Ho Ho pt. 2

How many Weezer songs have wordless choruses? There's "Dope Nose," "Perfect Situation," and I feel like I'm missing a couple of others.

The irony is, of course, Rivers is hilarious. If he wanted to put some great lines in the chorus of "Dope Nose," I'm sure he could have. But he chose not to.

Now Taking Requests

We'll be doing our annual One-Hit Wonder week at the beginning of the summer this year. The one song I known I am going to cover is "Come On Eileen," by Dexy's Midnight Runners, but the other four slots are still up in the air.

In case you're late to the party, here are the songs we've previously given a full run-through in One-Hit Wonder Week:

"O-o-h Child," by the Five Stairsteps

"Tubthumping," by Chumbawamba

"Undercover Angel," by Alan O'Day

"You Were on My Mind," by We Five

"Fade Into You," by Mazzy Star

"Telstar," by the Tornados

"Steal My Sunshine," by Len

"Magic," by Pilot

"Cars," by Gary Numan

"I've Never Been to Me," by Charlene

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Off the Wagon

This morning on the radio I heard "Keep On Loving You," from REO Speedwagon, the finest rock & roll band ever to come out of Belleville, Illinois. Right after Kevin Cronin, in his finest downstate drawl, sings, "Instead you lay still in the grass, all coiled up and hissing," I thought I heard a faint sound effect like a rattlesnake rattling.

I've never noticed that before, but that doesn't mean a whole lot; it took me a long time to even understand what Cronin was saying in that line, so it's not like I ever went listening for a snake. It may be that the rattler had been swallowed up by the AM radio all these years - and if ever a song deserved to be heard on a staticky handheld transistor, it's "Keep On Loving You."

Most of all, if there is a little sound effect in there, it ranks by far as the most subtle thing REO Speedwagon ever did.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Friday on My Mind

Back on 1980, the big brains at the ABC television network came up with the idea for a show called Fridays. The idea was it would be exactly like NBC's Saturday Night Live, except it would air one night earlier. I couldn't tell you if it was funny or not; although I vaguely remember watching a bit of it, I don't recall any specifics, and it's not been rerun since the 1980s, nor released on video.

The putative breakout star of Fridays was a guy named Mark Blankfield, who parlayed that notoriety into the starring role in the 1982 film Jekyll and Hyde... Together Again. Since then, he's been doing things like guest-starring on Charles in Charge and starring in the TV movie The Jerk, Too. By far the biggest talents on Fridays were Michael Richards and Larry David. It's not surprising that David failed to break out, though, since he's a brilliant writer but such a poor comic actor.

The one way in which Fridays tried to differentiate itself from SNL was through edgier comedy, such as a cannibalistic skit set in a zombie diner, which supposedly resulted in six ABC affiliates to stop carrying the show. This attitude also lent itself to the musical acts, which is why I mention this series at all. I recently saw the Pretenders lighting up a song called "Louie, Louie," their third number in their Fridays appearance on September 18, 1981. Live performances by the original Pretenders quartet are hard to come by, but all the ones I've seen have been scorching.

Fridays also featured acts like the Jam, Split Enz, the Tubes, Jim Carroll, Rockpile, and the Clash in their first time on AmericanTV in April 1980, shortly after London Calling came out. A DVD of Fridays musical performances would be totally hot. Supposedly, Michael Richards has the right to sign off on any DVD release of the show, which doesn't make any sense to me, since he wasn't a big deal back when it was airing.

Fortunately, a bunch of this stuff is on YouTube. Come on, Kramer, pull the trigger; here's what we're missing:

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Talk Talk

Our pal Jim Bartlett over at The Hits Just Keep On Comin' recently posted a video of a David Bowie song called "Stay," off of Station to Station. The most noteworthy thing about this is its source: It was on Dinah Shore's daytime talk show from 1975. Imagine that: A bunch of housewives turned on the TV thinking they were going to see Hope Lange or George Gobel, and they got the Thin White Friggin' Duke.

These talk shows used to be a lot hipper than they are now. Everyone's heard about that infamous week in 1972 when John and Yoko cohosted on the Mike Douglas show: The guest list was tailored to John and Yoko's style, with people like Ralph Nader and Bobby Seale and George Carlin. Chuck Berry came on, too, and performed with John; it was supposedly horrible. Then there was time Lennon and McCartney went on the Tonight Show to announce the formation of Apple. Unfortunately, Johnny was off that night, and in his stead was Joe Garagiola, who didn't know the Beatles from Earl Battey.

But we were talking about Bowie and Dinah Shore. If you watch her interviewing him, like here and here, you can tell she's really interested in his work and has paid attention to his artistry. Dinah points out that Bowie's wardrobe and dance moves seem steeped in the 1930s and gets him to talk about influences like Puerto Rican clothes and Bryan Ferry; this is miles ahead of anything Jay Leno asks his guests. Plus, Nancy Walker and Henry Winkler were also guests on the show, and you get to hear Bowie say, "I'm a great fan of Fonzie."

Anyway, here's the song:

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Funeral for a Friend

Is there any song that sounds more like New York City than "People Who Died" by the Jim Carroll Band? You've got all those locations like Rikers and the Tombs and the East Two-Nine, kids growing up too fast, and prodigious drug use. You've got noisy, not particularly well-played punk music. You've got all that death. It's like an episode of Barney Miller telescoped into a single four-minute punk song.

In that song, Jim Carroll lists, by my count, thirteen people who died. They were all his friends, and they died. It seems like more because he repeats half the song at the end, but I don't think even a degenerate like Jim Carroll could convince people that he had 24 friends who died.

If you asked me to count, I don't think I would be able to scrape up even 24 friends who lived. (Somehow, I have managed to amass 92 friends on Facebook; don't ask me how that happened.) On the other hand, hardly any of my friends have died. If you're wondering whether to befriend Jim Carroll or me, the choice ought to be obvious.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Great Pretender

When I first heard "Brass in Pocket," I thought Chrissie Hynde had a really unique way of saying things, or, at the very least, she was more interested in how words could sound than in what they mean. She sings phrases like "Got whiskey, so reet," and something that sounds like "Detroit leaning," which made me think I must have misunderstood her completely.

Then, when "Talk of the Town" came out, and Chrissie clearly sings that she "made a weesh," I figured she was just saying things funny. But I was wrong! She was pronouncing the words right; they just weren't the words I thought they were.

"I ... quote Robert Crumb's character Flaky Foont: '"It's so reet" - it's so discreet,'" Chrissie said a while back. "'I got new skank' was referring to reggae dancing. 'Detroit leaning' comes from a kind of Motor City slouch behind the wheel, driving with attitude.... This song was like the rummage drawer where I threw all my favorite oddball words and phrases."

Then again, she also says of the phrase "brass in pocket": "It was a turn of phrase that never appeared in the song, but describes someone who is doing alright." Um, Chrissie, maybe you haven't sung it lately, but "brass in pocket" is the FIRST LINE OF THE SONG.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Adult Education

Do you know what the biggest Adult Contemporary hit of all time was? No, you probably don't: It's Phil Collins' "You'll Be in My Heart," from his soundtrack for the Disney animated movie Tarzan. It's not the kind of song you would think of as the biggest AC hit ever for a couple of reasons: For one, it's not very good, and for another, it went only to Number Twenty-Seven on the pop charts in the summer of '99. But it was at Number One on the Adult Contemporary chart for a whopping 19 weeks, or almost four months.

That's a very poor performance on the Hot 100 for a song that did so well on the AC charts. Seven other songs spent 13 or more weeks at the top of the AC chart, and they all reached at least Number Five on the pop chart. Four of them went to Number One.

What's the biggest AC hit that never hit the real Top Forty? I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think it might be a song called "You Gotta Love Someone," by Elton John, which was at the top of the AC charts for five weeks in 1990, but never sniffed the real charts. I'm pretty sure I've never heard it.

OPC Shopping Tip of the Week

There is a technical definition of "organic" that can help you differentiate between a product so labeled in the grocery store and its conventional equivalent. Next time you're shopping, just keep this distinction in mind: The organic version of a product, compared to the regular version, must always be more expensive.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Further Mysteries of Canada

April Wine's biggest hit, "Just Between You and Me," as I mentioned the other day, was the first song to be played twice on MTV. And whoever wrote their Wikipedia page seems very proud of the fact that April Wine was the first Canadian act to appear on MTV.

They always seemed like the simplest kind of band, as would befit an act out of the far corners of Canada (they hail from a suburb of Halifax). "Just Between You and Me" was awfully straightforward, even for a pop-metal ballad; the chorus was simply:

Just between you and me
Baby I know our love will be
Just between you and me
Always I know our love will be
Just between you, just between you and me

But then when they got to the final chorus, the singer slipped in something that sounded like "Some in at the one and one." What in the world was that all about? I never had the slightest idea what he was saying.

But now, thanks to the handy-dandy World Wide Web, I can find out. It turns out the line is actually "Seulement entre toi et moi." Get it? They're Canadian, and it's French! The line means "Only between you and me"; the full passage is "Seulement entre toi et moi/Means that our love will always be," which of course it doesn't.

The remarkable thing about all this is that I wasn't prompted to look this up because of that MTV deal, but because I heard "Just Between You and Me" on the radio the other day. Someone is still playing April Wine!