January 16 – Swayze Followed In Travolta’s Cut A Rug Footsteps

A “one hit wonder” whose star blazed for far more than just one hit single. Patrick Swayze hit the American top 40 this day in 1988 with his only real hit song, “She’s Like the Wind.” For Swayze, it was a case of “third time’s the charm.”

Swayze was by then 35 years old and a reasonably established actor. He’d come to the public’s attention in 1983 in the film Outsiders, and had success in Youngbloods as well as being in several lesser-known movies to that point. He was trained in dance too, which no doubt helped him get the male lead in the small-budget retro film Dirty Dancing. Little was expected of it when it came out in the summer of ’87, but it became one of the year’s breakout hits and established Swayze as a major star. And as a singer.

He came about that honestly, he played a little guitar and sang and had been on Broadway in Grease. He likely thought “hey, if John Travolta can do it, why can’t I?” Not to mention that the late-’80s seemed a perfect time for crossover actor-singers. In the previous couple of years before “She’s Like the Wind”, Miami Vice‘s Don Johnson and movie & TV star Bruce Willis had both put out records that had some success and they were trailing soap opera star Rick Springfield who’d had a string of pop hits through the decade. So it wasn’t a stretch for Swayze to do so too, especially when starring in a film about dancing. However, “She’s Like the Wind”, which he co-wrote went back far further.

While only beginning to make a name for himself he’d been in acting classes in L.A. and met Stacy Widelitz, a man who was more musician than actor. Widelitz, his girlfriend Wendy Fraser and Swayze became friends and would hang out “talk about music, dance, acting and we became good friends,” Stacy recalled. They came up with the song together circa 1983, with Swayze writing the lyrics and “two chords” which his friend built upon for the tune. Swayze pitched it to the producers of the film Grandview USA, which he was in. They passed. A couple of years later he tried to sell the makers of Youngbloods on it, they too declined. Finally in 1987, he pitched it to the makers of Dirty Dancing, they liked it. So they recorded it, with Widelitz on synthesizer, Fraser doing the female backing vocals and studio musicians including guitarist Laurence Juber – briefly a membr of Wings – filling in the rest.

It was added to the soundtrack which was a mix of existing oldies befitting the movie’s early-’60s setting, like “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes and Maurice William’s “Stay” and new songs recorded for it. Notable among those were the singles “Hungry Eyes” by Eric Carmen and “The Time of My Life”, played over the film’s exuberant finale, by Bill Medley (of the Righteous Brothers) and Jennifer Warnes.

With the movie’s runaway success, the soundtrack followed. It went to #1 and stayed there for 18 weeks in the States, and eventually sold better than 30 million copies worldwide. Swazye’s single, the third off the album, was a major adult contemporary hit and got to #3 on the singles chart, and #4 in Canada and Ireland.

However, that was about it for Patrick the singing sensation. He did record a few songs for movies like Roadhouse and Next of Kin, but they drew little attention. He might not have minded much though; he was by then a major film star and would have blockbuster success in Ghost soon after as well as be named “sexiest man alive” by People in 1991.

Sadly however, he died of cancer in 2009.


January 9 – Melanie Skated Into One Hit Wonder Land

The first number 1 song of 1972 was the last one of ’71. “Brand New Key” by the squeaky-voiced Melanie was in the midst of a three-week run on top of Billboard; it also topped charts in Canada and Australia.

Melanie was Melanie Anne Safka, or by that time Safka-Schekeryk, as she’d married her musical and life partner, Peter. The daughter of an Italian singer mother, she grew up in the New Jersey suburbs of New York and by the mid-’60s, when she was 17 or 18, she’d become popular playing cafes in the area. She signed to Columbia Records briefly, and kept busy with her spirtually-influenced folk music. She was a follower of Maher Bobo, the Indian spiritualist who also had Pete Townshend as a disciple. Melanie managed to put out eight albums in the 1969-’71 period, including two movie soundtracks. She also performed at Woodstock as well as the Isle of Wight Festival and had an American top 10 in ’70 with “Lay Down (Candles in the Wind)”, which topped the Canadian charts. Somehow in there she and Peter also found time to start and run their own record company, Neighborhood Records, which is the label this one showed up on.

The song ended up in the year-end top 10 and was Neighborhood Records biggest hit ever. Although she’s kept recording, usually with Peter producing, somewhat regularly since, she’s not had much commercial success. Unfortunately, putting together a hit single is easier to forget how to do than riding a bike!

The song, on the surface at least, is about a young teen or tween girl with a brand new pair of rollerskates, who likes a boy who has a brand new key. At the time, most roller skates were metal contraptions that clamped onto your regular shoes and locked in place with a key. She sings in her little girl voice that they should “get together and try them on to see”, because he’s “got something for me.” Needless to say, many saw a hidden sexual innuendo in there, but Melanie says it wasn’t her mindset. “I wrote it in about 15 minutes one night. There were no deep, serious expressions behind the song, but people read things into it.” She explained that the song basically came into her head when she was eating a McDonald’s burger just after ending a 27 day fast in which she only drank water. “I had been a vegetarian,” she says, “the aroma brought back memories of roller-skating and learning to ride a bike.”

December 27 – Those Shades May Not Have Been Ray-bans

Perhaps the song title didn’t seem sarcastic or ironic to married couple Pat and Barbara Macdonald at the time: “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” had peaked at #19 on the Billboard charts this day in 1986 and made Timbuk 3 a household name. It was a top 20 hit in Canada and Australia as well, and a staple on MTV. Unfortunately for the Austin-based duo, that was about as much fame and glory as they would go on to garner.

Their debut album on IRS Records, Greetings from Timbuk 3 squeaked into the U.S. top 50 and sold well but subsequent follow-ups failed to hit the charts despite good reviews. The band broke up in 1995 when the couple did as well.  Barbara is still a musician in Texas, as well as an advocate for indie artists, while Pat has moved to Europe and has a recording career there. As for their 1986 hit,( after Corey Hart’s, the second one about sunglasses in less than three years) it was a catchy little number, no matter how you looked at it; some took it at face value as an endorsement of Reaganomics and technology coupled with the optimism of youth, others saw it more like the writer, Pat, did as a bitter look at dim-witted kids and dangerous Cold War policies. What it wasn’t was an endorsement of military policies or specific sunglasses – the Austin Chronicle reported that they turned down significant sums from both the U.S. Army and Ray-ban glasses who both wanted to use the song in their ads.

December 26 – ’60s Alto Star Was A Bass

Remembering one of the great voices of the ’60s: Fontella Bass passed away this day in 2012. Bass is largely considered a “one hit wonder” for her great 1965 hit “Rescue Me”, but there’s more to her story than just one song.

Bass was born in 1940 St. Louis. She was something of a child prodigy on piano and was playing that and singing in church by six or seven. By nine she was singing professionally with her mother and grandmother, both of whom were gospel singers of some renown in the Midwest. By the early-’50s, she was making $10 a day singing (largely at funerals!), which wasn’t bad for the day. “I was sort of like, an income person in the home,” she said years later.

After signing to Ike Turner’s record label briefly in the latter part of the ’50s, to little notice, she was signed by the famous Chess label, at one time the home of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. At first she was just an in-house session player and backup singer but by 1964, she had the chance to record on her own (with among others drummer Maurice White – soon to found Earth, Wind & Fire – and backing vocalist Minnie Ripperton in the studio with her.)

After minor success on the R&B charts with one of the singles (“You’ll Miss Me”) scratching its way onto the mainstream charts, her career took flight with the song she was synonymous with. “Rescue Me” topped the R&B charts for weeks and made #4 on the singles chart. It was a hit in the UK and Canada as well. Journalist Dave Marsh calls it the “best non-Aretha, Aretha song ever.” And it came a year before Aretha began to be known and garner “Respect.”

Bass says it came about when entering the studio she heard blind pianist Ray Miner playing the basic melody and she came up with the lyrics together with him – and God. “He (God) is the only person I can give thanks to,” she’d say.

The single went gold in the U.S. and was the first massive hit for Chess Records in a decade. However, people looking at the 7” single saw the writing credits going to Miner and Carl Smith, who’d also co-written “You’re Love Keeps Taking Me Higher”. Due to that and an iffy contract with Chess, Bass got very little money. “Things were riding high for them, but when it came time to collect my royalty cheque, I looked at it, saw how little it was for and tore it up and threw it back across the table.”

She fought for what she figured was her due (and eventually would reach a settlement with them decades later) but that “side-stepped” her out of the business because she gained a “reputation of being a trouble maker.” That cloud probably never stopped hanging over her as in 1990 she famously – and successfully – sued American Express who’d been using her recording of “Rescue Me” in commercials without permission.

By the decade’s end, she’d moved to Paris, met a trumpeter she’d marry (Lester Bowie, no relation to David) and put out one unsuccessful album there before essentially retiring to become a homemaker and mother. She did a little movie soundtrack work in Europe briefly and had a short return to Gospel music in the ’90s before being sidtetracked again by poor health.

She fought cancer and a stroke in the 2000s but succumbed to a heart attack at age 72. St. Louis honored her with a star on their Walk of Fame. A great one hit wonder, but one wonders if she wouldn’t have been a great deal more if fates had aligned better for her with Chess Records.

December 23 – Holmes Served Up A Hit Musical Cocktail

The 1980s began much like the 1970s ended. Today we remember the final American #1 song of the ’70s…which in turn became the second American #1 song of the ’80s. In so doing, oddly enough it became the first song to be a #1 on Billboard in two decades. If Jimmy Buffett did better with a song about a drink than any other artist, Rupert Holmes placed a close second, with “Escape”, better known to many as “the Pina Colada song.” It hit the top of the charts this week in 1979.

Holmes is widely considered a one hit wonder, but actually has had quite a career. Born in England but growing up in New York, he attended the Manhattan School of Music, where his brother honed the skills that would make him a renowned opera singer. Rupert on the other hand gravitated towards playing horns and writing.

Soon after finishing there, he’d made a career for himself in the Big Apple, as a session musician and studio engineer. And he actually created two hits of the early-’70s : “Jenny Tompkins”, by the Street People and “Timothy” by the Buoys. He wrote both and was in both bands. “Timothy”, which hit #17 in the U.S. stands out in some people’s memories for being a fine tune about a young cannibal. It featured prominently in Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs.

He rolled out four solo albums in the ’70s which met with little notice, but still fashioned a fair career writing commercial jingles and songs which were covered by the likes of Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand…”Timothy” the cannibal wasn’t one of them from what we can tell. However, his star rose more with his fifth album, Partners in Crime, released in late ’79. It contained the one we mostly remember him by.

Holmes had been married for about ten years at that point. He grew fascinated by the personal ads in the papers and says the idea came about when “I thought ‘what would happen to me if I answered this ad?’ I’d go see if it was my own wife who was bored with me.” Thus was born “Escape”, the song in which a married couple both answer personal ads for a fling, only to find their partner was in fact the anonymous “other.” It didn’t start out as the “Pina Colada song”, however. Holmes said he started the song with “if you like Humphrey Bogart and getting caught in the rain” but decided there were too many songs about Bogart and old movies already. He figured “if this woman wants an escape, she wants to go on a vacation to the islands.” And that would entail drinking tropical cocktails, like pina coladas, which ironically he said he’d never even tasted.

Holmes did much of the record himself, writing, singing and playing all the keyboards. Among the session musicians he used was drummer Steve Jordan, currently the Rolling Stones drummer! Allmusic liked the album overall but figured “Escape” wasn’t its high point, labeling it “skilled (but) cutesy enough to make some people’s eyes roll.” Evidently, since it features prominently in Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs. The public however, felt differently. It quickly went to #1 in the States and Canada, and #3 down under in Australia. In Britain, they viewed it with perhaps a stiff uppper lip, and it only reached #23…but in time it was certified platinum there, better even than in the U.S.

Although Rupert only had one other moderately-successful hit after “Escape” – “Him” from the same album – he’s done alright for himself. He segued into writing stories and came up with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a Broadway show that won five Tonys including Best Musical.

As for that song about the tropical drinks, he views it as a bit of a mixed blessing. “If I saved an entire orphanage from a fire and carried the last child out on my shoulders…they’d say ‘Hey! Aren’t you the guy who wrote that pina colada song?’” At least he could respond “that’s right … that number one hit in two decades.”

December 20 – When Everyone Wanted To Go To Soul City

Christmas came early for the Partland Brothers this day in 1986. The One Hit Wonders biggie, “Soul City” hit #25 on the Canadian charts, as high as it would go although it sat at that position for four weeks. They were able to capitalize on that momentum and good reviews to win spots opening for the Moody Blues and Beach Boys in the States, and eventually “Soul City” crept into the American top 30 the following summer.

The Partland Brothers were actually a trio of real brothers from a small town in Ontario. There were G.P. and Chris, both of whom sang and played guitar, and sometimes overlooked drummer Rob. He didn’t even get in the photo for the 45’s record sleeve! They’d moved to their Soul City (Toronto) by the late-’70s and formed the band Oliver Heavyside, who were a staple on the bar circuit for a few years there and won a contest in 1982 run by the city’s hard rock station, Q107. That in turn got one of their songs, “Level Crossing” onto a compilation album the station issued, which eventually got Capitol Records interested enough to sign them.

Things moved slowly for them, but in 1986 they’d changed names and put out their first album, Electric Honey. Cashbox in the U.S. took note and found it “an appealing exercise in pop/rock” and several publications thought G.P. and Chris had that blue-eyed soul sound a tad reminiscent of the Righteous Brothers. “Soul City” was the upbeat, almost triumphant-sounding single proclaiming that’s where they were going “and we won’t be back until the money’s all gone.” Which might not have taken long on Yonge Street in the city (where parts of the video and the record cover sleeve were shot), which at the time was a long neon-lit strip of big record stores, dark bars, strip clubs and funky little clothing shops.

Adding in a few session musicians for the live sets, the Partlands kept busy for awhile and rode the success of the song. However, despite the U.S. success, Capitol didn’t seem terribly committed to them and took four years to get another record out for them, which didn’t do much although one single off it, “Honest Man” did make the Canadian top 30. After that they cut the group loose, and while they’ve theoretically kept on since, two indie records, one in ’93 and one in 2009 and a handful of Canadian concerts is all the brothers and their fans have to show for it.

Still, as we say here often, being a “one hit wonder” still gives you one more hit than most of us, and gives you a story to tell! And in the case of “Soul City” a pretty good song to be proud of.

December 20 – Anita, The Reluctant Disco Superstar

Happy birthday to the voice of one of the finest One Hit Wonders of the ’70s. Anita Ward turns 65 today…maybe 66 depending on which source you consult! Anita is the singer known for the great 1979 disco tune “Ring My Bell”... and not a whole lot else. However, there is more to Mrs. Ward than just one song that wants to get you moving.

She was born and raised in Memphis, loved the soul and blues sound of the city but didn’t take much of an active interest in performing it would seem, until she went to college. There she got a degree in psychology – and also joined the school choir, and took a lead role in the campus production of Godspell.

The college degree led to her becoming a Memphis teacher and drawing attention from Frederick Knight, another singer from that area who’d had a little success (more on the British side of the pond, strangely enough) and had started his own record company, Juana. He signed Anita, who probably had dreams of becoming Anita Baker before Anita Baker did! Ward liked soul/R&B love songs and ballads and wasn’t a big fan of disco.

So when time came to record her first album, Songs of Love, she compiled some slower love songs she loved to sing. Knight, who was producing it, insisted she needed something more contemporary and upbeat sounding to reel people in. He had “Ring My Bell” from a year or two earlier, when he’d written it for a teenager, with simpler lyrics suggesting it was about talking on the phone. He reworked the lyrics a little and made it a tad racier and more suggestive and the rest is history.

I remember saying – and now I’ve been made to look pretty foolish – that I didn’t like the song,” she told a Memphis paper recently. “Thank God everybody (else) loved that song. It didn’t matter what age or what gender, they really loved it.” that they did. It went gold in just two weeks and went to #1 not only on dance charts but the Billboard singles chart, where it knocked the Queen of Disco, Donna Summer off the top spot (before being knocked off by another Donna Summer song). In the U.S. it finished in the year-end top 10, and it also made the top of the charts in Britain, Canada and New Zealand. However, the disco smash was sort of a mixed blessing. “at the time, it was probably one of the last hit disco records before people started saying ‘disco is dead’… that didn’t help at all,” she recalls and her subsequent tries to get away from the tag fell flat. Her follow-up album, a few scant months later flopped and she left the business for years.

She returned to teaching but a serious car accident in 1981 made that difficult (and doubtless made the revenue from a smash record all the more important!). She then moved on to working “incognito” in retail from which she recently retired. Rare were the customers who’d recognize the lady behind the counter or associate her with the song that might’ve been playing in the shop’s Muzak.

Although she lives a quiet life with her husband in Memphis now she periodically performs, for instance being one of the headliners on a Disco Cruise out of Miami in 2019, sharing the stage with the likes of KC & the Sunshine Band and an Abb a tribute band. About being on top briefly, then nearly forgotten, she says she has no regrets. “Everybody’s life, when we come into this world, is already preordained,” she says. Let’s hope someone’s preordained to ring her bell and wish her a happy one today!

December 19 – One Last Thump Of The Tub

A last hurrah for anarchy? What allmusic calls the “unlikeliest success story in modern rock“ spent it’s final day at #1 on Billboard Modern Rock chart this day in 1997 “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba was indeed an improbable, yet smash hit. The song had topped that list for seven weeks and also hit #1 on Canadian and Australian singles charts.

Unlikely indeed, as the Leeds, England punk band (initially influenced by the likes of PIL and Adam Ant but leaning towards more eclectic and techno sounds in the ’90s) had been around since the early-’80s with no international attention, although a few of their albums had some success on UK Indie charts. Unlikely too since their first album was entitled Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records and basically was a direct criticism of Live Aid. They viewed that as a “cosmetic publicity stunt” to self-promote Bob Geldof . More unlikely since “Tubthumping” came out on EMI, a company the anarchist band had specifically criticized previously. They got the idea for the song while drinking (or “pissing the night away” to borrow from the lyrics) in a Leeds pub. Boff Whaley of the band says it’s about “the resilience of ordinary people” while a “tubthumper” is a politician. After Alice Nutter of the band commented that they like it when police were killed, one can imagine a lot of “tubthumping” going on to get them out of the public eye. And when she urged fans to steal the CD from big stores rather than buy it, EMI were likely happy to be rid of the band four years later! They eventually broke up in 2012.

The song which replaced it at #1 on the Modern Rock chart sounded like it might’ve been the very platform of a “tubthumper” the band despised – “Everything to Everyone” by Everclear!

December 7 – Forgotten Gems : The Nails

If you think it’s hard to remember all the lyrics to that old chestnut “The 12 Days of Christmas” after you’ve had a festive eggnog or two, try this month’s Forgotten Gem. It has 88 lines to it! It says so right in the title – “88 Lines About 44 Women” by the Nails which came approximately this time in 1984.

The Nails, not to be confused with the Nine Inch Nails, came out of Colorado around 1976. Then they were known as the Ravers, but when they moved to New York City to take part in the punk revolution, they found another band already using that name. Thus they became The Nails and soon shared the CBGB’s stage with the likes of the Ramones and Talking Heads.

Falling somewhere between punk and new wave, the Nails fit the times and scene well but didn’t attract a lot of attention. This song was written by singer Marc Campbell and keyboardist David Kaufman around 1981; Kaufman putting the tune together mostly on a portable Casio. The minimalist tune was put out as an indie EP or maxi-single called Hotel For Women. That didn’t attract much attention either, but eventually someone at RCA noticed it and signed them. They re-recorded “88 Lines About 44 Women” with a bit fuller sound and included it on their debut album, Mood Swing.

Allmusic would years later give the record a solid 4.5-stars, comparing them to Wall of Voodoo and Jim Carroll, a “remarkably consistent” entry with “powerful musicianship, dark and occasionally shocking lyrics leavened with a sense of humor.” They figured this “deadpan” song was a fun “portrait of the counter-culture of the late-’70s and early-’80s” but cautioned it was by “no means typical” of the band.

Typical or not, it was all most people ever heard by them…if they heard anything at all by the Nails. But it was a song that left an impression – Campbell scrolls through a list of 44 women he’s known in a droll near-monotone. “Some of the women are real, some of them made up,” he’s said coyly. So we’ll never know for sure if there was a real Pauline (“thought love was simple – turn it on, turn it off”) or Jean Marie (“complicated like some French filmmakers plot.”) Nor if he knew one who sang songs about whales and cops or one whose “strange obsession was for vegetables and certain types of fruit!” All in all though, one gets the idea the band had some fun as young guys in the ’80s even if they weren’t as famous as their CBGB colleagues!

88 Lines About 44 Women” charted, barely, on Billboard‘s dance chart early in ’85 and the album scraped briefly into the top 200 but it was a stretch to call it a “hit.” Yet, it’s fans were so ardent about it, it’s lived on, showing up in a number of ’80s music compilations and in a Mazda ad in the ’90s. Also in ads for the show Dexter, which wasn’t authorized and ended in the band winning a lawsuit. Campbell says the only money he’s made off the song is from lawsuits and use in commercials in fact.

An artist named Luke Ski parodied it in the ’90s with “88 Lines About 44 Simpsons”, a fun take on 44 of Springfield’s favorite residents.

So there you go. Memorize this one and you should be well capable of reciting that ditty about leaping lords and swans at the Christmas party.

December 6 – One Hit Wonder’s Single Was Briefly Skyhigh On Charts

Jigsaw were a puzzling band. A band of devotees of the Beatles, especially Paul McCartney, who early on in their career would use pyrotechnics and set drums on fire on stage. A band known for a soft rock hit that was used in action films and as a theme by Mexican wrestlers. Whatever they were, they had a big day 47 years ago. Their hit “Skyhigh” peaked at #3 in the U.S. on this day in 1975. It also hit that position in Canada and Australia, made it to #9 in their homeland, the UK, and was a surprise #1 hit in Japan.

Jigsaw were formed in 1966 largely from members of other bands in the Manchester area; their name was taken (depending on who you ask) from a nightclub there called The Jigsaw or because they pieced together a band out of odd little parts like a jigsaw puzzle. Whatever the origins, they worked steadily performing live and recording, usually as a six-man band, through the late-’60s and early-’70s to little notice. Their main duo was singer/songwriter Clive Scott (who also played keyboards) and drummer Des Dyer, who often co-wrote with Scott. In 1974 they’d written “Who Do You Think You Are?”, which became a hit for Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods; in ’75 they hit paydirt themselves with this song.

Skyhigh” was the title track of their fifth album. A likable little number that seemed upbeat and danceable while having lyrics dour enough to appeal to the broken-hearted, it somehow became used in a small-budget martial arts film, The Man from Hong Kong. The movie was hardly a hit, but it seemed to be seen enough to give the single that extra push up the charts and in time it became a worldwide hit. However, for Jigsaw, history didn’t repeat. They didn’t have follow-up success and eventually broke up by the early-’80s.