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The Riff

Cool Stories Behind Seven One-Hit Wonders

It’s funny how a great tune can pull you right out of the dumps

One-hit wonders abounded in the era of vinyl 45-RPM singles (image: Trivia Genius).

One of my childhood buddies, Marty Kuhlman, deejays a weekly classic-rock radio show called Psychotic Reaction on KWTS FM, broadcasting out of our hometown of Canyon, TX. It’s affiliated with West Texas A&M University, where Marty teaches history. I’m a devoted fan on Friday nights and I often ping Marty (from my town of NYC) with “text-quests” during the show (while streaming it live).

Recently I joined a dance party at the home of friends in East Hampton, NY, and we requested “Dancing in the Moonlight.” When that wondrous keyboard intro descended, we ran into the back yard (Bluetooth speaker in tow) under the full moon and stars and lived out those lyrics.

It was a great escape from a world of senseless war, pandemic purgatory, menacing climate change … even the recent death of my friends’ beloved dog.

The next day I Googled the tune and learned that it was a one-hit wonder by King Harvest — and it’s a classic case of joy coming from trauma, pleasure born of pain. (More on that below.) It reminded me of other one-hit wonders — I’ve collected seven favorites here, along with the cool stories behind them.

King Harvest formed at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and later moved to Paris (image: Pinterest).

Dancing in the Moonlight, by King Harvest

Talk about pleasure born of pain: Musician Sherman Kelly and his girlfriend were viciously attacked by a gang on the US Virgin Island of St. Croix, and he wrote this buoyant song while recovering.

It’s a complex and disturbing tale — detailed on the blog Vinyl Dialogues — about sleeping on the beach and waking up in a hospital. But the experience set Kelly onto thoughts of a better time on that beach … or elsewhere.

“I envisioned an alternate reality, the dream of a peaceful and joyous celebration of life,” Kelly recalled. “It was just me imagining a better world than the one I had experienced in St. Croix.”

Kelly first sang and recorded “Dancing in the Moonlight” with his group Boffalongo, but it scored a hit for spinoff band King Harvest in 1972, reaching #13 in the US. It enjoyed a global revival in a 2000 cover by Toploader.

The King Harvest version was sung by Dave “Doc” Robinson, even after Kelly joined the band for a tour. “Doc had a pretty good voice, better than mine,” Kelly said. “I remember one critic said about me, ‘As a singer, Sherman Kelly is not too bad of a songwriter.’”

Sleeve for the Ride Captain Ride single (image: © Atco/Atlantic).

Ride Captain Ride, by Blues Image

This tune’s wondrous keyboard intro caught my nine-year-old brain on the radio in 1970 and sucked me into a nautical journey up from the San Francisco Bay. The lyrics invite the ship’s crew to a mythical island where they will feel free — but after arriving, they’re never heard from again.

The same might be said for Blues Image, the Florida-based band that rode “Ride Captain Ride” to #4 on the US charts before breaking up later in 1970.

Decades on, songwriter and guitarist Mike Pinera recalled how the band had been goaded by their label (Atco/Atlantic) to produce a hit. “I went out and sat at the piano, a Rhodes Model 73, which has 73 keys,” Pinera told the St. Petersburg Times. “And what came into my head was 73. I liked the rhythm, and I went, ’73 men sailed up, from the San Francisco Bay’ … The song sort of just wrote itself from there.”

Blues Image dispersed into the rock-o-sphere. Pinera went on to play with Iron Butterfly and Alice Cooper — while the hit’s co-writer, keyboardist Skip Konte, joined Three Dog Night. Other members hooked up with bands including Steppenwolf and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “Ride Captain Ride” was covered by bands from Blood Sweat & Tears to Phish.

The song also sparked a call to Pinera from the Pentagon. “They wanted to know how I knew about a secret spy ship called the USS Pueblo,” he noted in 2014. “There were 73 men. They sailed out of [California]. They got captured by a Korean destroyer out in international waters and were taken to Korea, where they were accused of being a spy ship.”

Pinera claimed there’s no connection, that the incident happened after the song was written: “It’s just a coincidence.” But the timeline — the Pueblo was captured in 1968, then the song rush-released in 1970 — suggests his memory may be faulty about which voyage happened when.

Zager & Evans in 1969; the duo hit the big TIME that year (images: Pinterest, TIME magazine).

In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus), by Zager & Evans

Here’s the prototypical one-hit wonder: It reached #1 in the US, UK and elsewhere, yet was the artists’ only single to dent the charts.

It even landed pop-folk duo Zager & Evans on the cover of TIME. “No one expects something like that,” Denny Zager related to Forbes in 2020. “Who would have believed two farm boys from Nebraska would have the number-1 hit in the world and have TIME magazine saying the Beatles would be jealous! I couldn’t have dreamed it.”

Denny Zager and Rick Evans met at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, NE, and first recorded Evans’ song “In the Year 2525” in 1968 for the obscure label Truth Records at a studio in a cow pasture in Odessa, TX. After it was a regional hit, RCA picked it up for nationwide release the next year. In 1969 it struck a chord with its futuristic foreboding — coming out a week before the Apollo 11 moon landing in July.

Now it seems like a harbinger: The lyrics progress through 10,000 years of apocalyptic scenes (the Latin subtitle means Beginning and End) about war, overuse of technology, test-tube babies, climate change, and mankind’s self-destruction … before returning to a mysterious rebirth at the saga’s end.

After the duo split, Evans faded from public life and passed away in 2018; Zager runs a custom guitar shop in Lincoln, still collecting royalties from their hit. “Rick said he wrote the lyrics in 10 minutes in the back of a Volkswagen van after a night of partying and a lot of Mary Jane,” Zager recalled. “I rewrote the music so it blended better with the lyrics.”

Despite its global success, Zager opined: “To me it’s still just a little ballad Rick and I created that kind of gets stuck in your head.”

Looking Glass scored its only major hit with “Brandy” (image: SoundCloud).

Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl), by Looking Glass

My friends cite “Brandy” as a great karaoke song, with good reason: the catchy four-chord hook, call-and-response choruses, and story about a barmaid who pines for a sailor who loves the sea more than any woman.

The tune was written by guitarist and co-vocalist Elliot Lurie, at age 20, for his Jersey Shore band Looking Glass. After “Brandy” was released in 1972 as a B-side, it got heavy radio rotation in the Washington DC area — then it took off and eventually hit #1 in the US and points beyond.

“Brandy is a made-up individual. The name was derived from a high school girlfriend I had whose name was Randye with an ‘R,’” Lurie told the Nashville Tennessean. “The song was about a barmaid, so I changed it to Brandy.”

Later Barry Manilow wanted to cover a separate Scott English–penned song called “Brandy” … but to avoid confusion with the Looking Glass tune he renamed his song “Mandy” (which charted at #1).

Lurie’s “Brandy” lived on to play a pivotal role in the 2017 film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — which thrilled the songwriter, who’s become a music producer and advisor on Hollywood films.

Norman Greenbaum, sky-bound, in 1969 (image: GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images).

Spirit in the Sky, by Norman Greenbaum

This one-hit gift keeps on giving: Norman Greenbaum never had another top-40 entry — and he long ago sold the publishing rights to this one — but he’s managed to retire on his #3 hit, thanks to performing royalties, as it ended up in dozens of ads and soundtracks.

“It’s not like it’s made me rich,” Greenbaum told the New York Times in 2006. “But because of ‘Spirit in the Sky,’ I don’t have to work. So in that sense, it’s a comfortable living.”

Greenbaum’s spiritual rocker managed to hook both heads and holy rollers, thanks to its hypnotic reverb groove and fuzz guitars behind gospel lyrics: “Gotta have a friend in Jesus.”

In fact, Greenbaum is Jewish. He was inspired one night when he saw Porter Wagoner singing a gospel tune about redemption: “I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that.’ So I sat down and wrote my own gospel song. It came easy. I wrote the words in 15 minutes.”

Listeners called Greenbaum out on these lines: “Never been a sinner, I never sinned / I got a friend in Jesus / So you know that when I die / He’s gonna set me up with the Spirit in the Sky.” This prompted scores of letters to the writer. “A lot of them say, ‘We’re all sinners, we were born sinners, how dare you,’” he recounted. “OK, so what do I know? ‘Sanford and Son’ was written by Jews and what did they know about being black?”

In 2015, Greenbaum survived a brush with death when he was riding shotgun in a Subaru that collided with a motorcycle.

He lived on to enjoy more earthly years — and royalties from his tune that’s “timeless,” as he told Mojo: “It appeals to one’s inner self and the need for redemption, plus, heck, who wants to go to hell?”

Stealers Wheel’s eponymous debut album cover (image: Amazon).

Stuck in the Middle with You, by Stealers Wheel

This tune is a stylized parody of and homage to a famous artist — Bob Dylan — so similar that it’s often attributed to its inspirational source. (See: A Horse with No Name and Neil Young.)

While Stealers Wheel had just this one 1973 hit (#6 in the US), their vocalist Gerry Rafferty went on to snag a #2 hit in ’78 with Baker Street — which sounded like a whole different singer, albeit one who gives great sax (courtesy session dude Rafael Ravenscroft).

Like many people, I can’t hear Stuck in the Middle with You without visualizing the piercing scene in the film Reservoir Dogs where one of the gangsters ties up and corners a police officer to cut his ear off, while the jaunty song plays on.

Director Quintin Terrantino said he asked actors to play out that scene with various tunes. “The first time somebody actually did the torture scene to that song,” he told Rolling Stone, “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is gonna be awesome!’”

Timbuk 3: Pat & Barbara K. McDonald in the 1980s (image: High Street).

The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades), by Timbuk 3

In the mid-1980s, as a slacker in Austin, TX, bouncing between odd jobs, I bumped into Pat and Barbara K. McDonald — the duo comprising local band Timbuk 3 — at a now-defunct electronics chain store. They were trying out boomboxes, sampling the built-in rhythms and dancing in the store’s aisle. They were cute and seemed grateful when I did the geeky thing of telling them I liked their music.

In concert this duo became Timbuk 3 with a rhythm boombox (perhaps inspired by David Byrne’s tape-jam intro to the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense). In ’86 Timbuk 3 rode their two-people-one-machine sound to #14 with The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades).

The song was a joking put-down of nuclear engineering students — “I study nuclear science / I love my classes / I gotta crazy teacher / He wears dark glasses’’ — but its sunny optimism struck a chord and it became an anthem for lots of the same privileged characters it mocked. (See: Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 single Born in the U.S.A.)

After a few mildly successful albums, Timbuk 3 split in 1996; each partner carried on with solo careers.

For us listeners, the future’s brightness or darkness is a matter of viewpoint. But when you think about current things — like, say, how the ruins of Chernobyl and Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia have been seized by the Russkies — a pair of shades ain’t a bad idea.

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Jack Crager

Jack Crager

Jack Crager is a writer and editor based in New York City (jackcrager.com).

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