I’ve always been fascinated by true one-hit wonders: the artists who had a song go to No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts, then never again reached the Top 40. I figured this was the kind of thing that happens pretty rarely—it seems like any schlub who has a No. 1 hit would then carry enough clout to put at least one more song on the charts.
But I didn’t really know how often it happened, because near as I can tell, this list hasn’t been compiled anywhere else. So I had to do it myself.
Let’s start from the inception of the Billboard Hot 100 on October 13, 1958, and carry through to 2009, five years ago. (This list includes only the primary credited artist, not any featured artists who failed to chart again.) It doesn’t seem fair to treat Meghan Trainor as a one-hit wonder just because she hasn’t followed up “All About That Bass” with another hit yet. The biggest recent omission would be Gotye, whose “Somebody That I Used to Know” went to No. 1 in 2012. You and I and even Gotye himself all know he’s not going to have another hit, but we’ll pretend otherwise for the time being.
The Teddy Bears • “To Know Him Is to Love Him” • December 1958
This one almost doesn’t count, since one of the Teddy Bears was future convicted (second-degree) murderer Phil Spector.
Mark Dinning • “Teen Angel” • February 1960
The song that started off the teen-death craze of the early 1960s. It was written by Dinning’s sister and her husband; Dinning’s nephew later played bass in Toad the Wet Sprocket.
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
Verne’s 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 No. 1 ever. The Four Seasons later took it to No. 16 in 1964.
Ernie K-Doe • “Mother-in-Law” • May 1961
K-Doe was a stalwart of New Orleans music in the 1950s. 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. Bilk was the first British artist to have a No. 1 hit in the Hot 100 era.
David Rose • “The Stripper” • July 1962
Bandleader Rose proposed to Judy Garland on her 18th birthday, even though he was already married to Martha Raye. They would be married for three years and at least one abortion.
The Tornados • “Telstar” • December 1962
Our third and final one-hit wonder instrumental of 1962. It’s the first American No. 1 hit for any British band, although many more would follow.
Kyu Sakamoto • “Sukiyaki” • June 1963
The Japanese title was Ue o muite arukō, or “I look up when I walk.” A Taste of Honey took it to No. 3 in 1981.
The Singing Nun • “Dominique” • December 1963
Debbie Reynolds played her in the 1965 movie version; the former Jeanne Deckers left the convent the following year.
Lorne Greene • “Ringo” • December 1964
The last-ever spoken-word No. 1. Greene was riding high as the patriarch on Bonanza at the time.
The New Vaudeville Band • “Winchester Cathedral” • December 1966
The leader of the New Vaudeville Band, Geoff Stephens, 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. This was the first one.
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 No. 1, as the co-composer of “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March.
Hugh Masekela • “Grazing in the Grass” • July 1968
Masekela lost the best pop instrumental Grammy to Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” which would be on this list if not for the fact that it peaked at No. 2.
Jeannie C. Riley • “Harper Valley P.T.A.” • September 1968
Written by Tom T. Hall, it later became the basis for a hit film and TV series.
Zager & Evans • “In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)” • July 1969
Also went to No. 1 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 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.”
Vicki Lawrence • “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” • April 1973
The Carol Burnett Show star hit the top with a song 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 the British funk band 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, and thus a big part of many hit Philly Soul records.
Paper Lace • “The Night Chicago Died” • August 1974
Paper Lace also did the original “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” which went to No. 1 in the U.K. But Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods had the hit with that song here in the U.S. of A.
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 and a member of Ringo’s All-Starr Band.
Carl Douglas • “Kung Fu Fighting” • December 1974
The first Jamaican-born artist to have a No. 1 hit in the U.S., Douglas released a follow-up single called “Dance the Kung Fu.”
Minnie Riperton • “Lovin’ You” • April 1975
She was dead of cancer four years later, though not before she gave birth to future SNL star Maya Rudolph, who is name-checked on the outro. 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 song into a network-TV variety show.
Wild Cherry • “Play That Funky Music” • September 1976
Supposedly based on a real incident in a Pittsburgh nightclub, when a black clubgoer asked the band, “Are you white boys gonna play some funky music?”
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
Warner Bros. created a special label, Pacific, for records by their staff composers who also performed. O’Day, who had written Helen Reddy’s hit “Angie Baby,” made the best of it.
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 composer 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 No. 2 in M’s native U.K., unable to dislodge Art Garfunkel’s “Bright Eyes” from the top spot.
Lipps, Inc. • “Funkytown” • May 1980
The genius behind Lipps, Inc. was, swear to God, a guy named Steven Greenberg.
Vangelis • “Chariots of Fire” • May 1982
Vangelis worked with Yes for several weeks in 1974 after Rick Wakeman left the group, 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. But she could still fit into her old cheerleader’s outfit from Las Vegas High.
Dexy’s Midnight Runners • “Come On Eileen” • April 1983
Combustible mastermind Kevin Rowland fired the band’s drummer in the middle of the video shoot; he’s only visible in the first half of the clip.
Jan Hammer • “Miami Vice Theme” • November 1985
As near as I can tell, that was the last instrumental No. 1 on the Billboard charts, although I’d be happy to be corrected on that matter.
Gregory Abbott • “Shake You Down” • January 1987
Abbott was once married to Freda “Band of Gold” Payne, who is 11 years older than him. He has also taught English at Berkeley.
Bobby McFerrin • “Don’t Worry Be Happy” • September 1988
McFerrin dropped this song from his concert repertoire when George Bush began using it in his 1988 presidential campaign.
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.
Right Said Fred • “I’m Too Sexy” • February 1992
Includes a sample from “Third Stone From the Sun” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Sir Mix-a-Lot • “Baby Got Back” • July 1992
Sir Mix-A-Lot went on to collaborate 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
From the Fox TV series that tried to create a co-ed Monkees for the 1990s. Fox canceled the show less than a week after the song dropped out of the No. 1 slot.
Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle • “A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme)” • March 1993
Peabo had other hits, although Regina never did, so you may choose to score this one differently.
Ini Kamoze • “Here Comes the Hotstepper” • December 1994
This somehow found its way into a Robert Altman movie, Pret-a-Porter.
Crazy Town • “Butterfly” • March 2001
This was the third single off Crazy Town’s album The Gift of Game; it’s a wonder the label let them get that far, since the first two did nothing at all.
Terror Squad • “Lean Back” • August 2004
Another iffy choice for this category, since longtime hitmaker Fat Joe was more than half of Terror Squad.
D4L • “Laffy Taffy” • January 2006
As a group, they released only one more single before leader Shawty Lo went on to a solo career.
Daniel Powter • “Bad Day” • April 2006
Had three more Top 40 hits in his native Canada, but couldn’t even dent the Hot 100 again here in the U.S.
Taylor Hicks • “Do I Make You Proud” • July 2006
The “American Idol” winner’s debut single reached No. 1 its first week out—and lasted only one week there. It’s been all downhill from there.
So that’s a grand total of 60 one-hit wonders in the roughly 50 or so years under review, or a little more than one per year. It’s funny how tightly bunched they can be—there were only two between 1994 and 2006, then three in 2006 alone. But the one-hit wonder is the kind of thing that can only be seen in retrospect; at the time, I was sure that “Just a Girl” was a one-hit wonder for a little band called No Doubt. Maybe there’s hope for Gotye yet.