FEATURE: Music business pays homage to one-hit
By Sue Zeidler
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - They are the butt of a thousand show business jokes. They are the "one-hit wonders." And now, finally, their work is getting some respect.
While some artists such as Vincent Van Gogh die before gaining the recognition they deserve, the one-hit-wonders often live as ghosts, trying to follow up on a single recording success that briefly thrust them into the limelight.
But in a refreshing twist to an old theme, some of the record industry's biggest names will pay tribute to one-hit wonders on Nov. 4 in a star-studded charity gala to raise funds for the City of Hope cancer center near Los Angeles.
Pop stars including Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Don Henley, John Mellencamp, Stevie Nicks and James Taylor will perform songs such as 1960s classic "Louie, Louie" by the Kingsmen, who will forever be associated with that one tune, which has reached anthem-like proportions.
Many one-hit wonders become objects of ridicule or are regarded as downright wacky. But audiences and musicians alike love listening again and again to such gems -- listed in the "Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders" -- as the Penguins' "Earth Angel," Carl Perkins' "Blue-Suede Shoes," Tiny Tim's "Tip Toe Thru' the Tulips with Me," Pigmeat Markham's "Here Comes the Judge," Rolf Harris' "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport," Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life," Marc Cohn's "Walking In Memphis," Devo's "Whip It," and Soft Cell's "Tainted Love."
THE SONGS, NOT THE STARS
While the City of Hope dinner will pay tribute to the music industry's one-hit wonders, none of the original artists made the guest list.
"None of the songwriters will be there unless by some quirk of fate or coincidence. But we've contacted all the original publishers of these songs and they were pleased because it will raise the visibility of these songs," said Timothy White, publisher of music industry magazine Billboard, who conceived the idea for the dinner.
The term "one-hit wonder" was coined in the late 1950s by disc jockeys around the country, music experts say. "Nobody's ever claimed ownership of the phrase. The ... term is normally used in a derogatory sense," White said.
Billboard defines a one-hit wonder as an act that has won a spot on the magazine's Top 40 chart just once. Surprisingly, "Louie, Louie" was not in the book of one-hit wonders because the Kingsmen followed up with another, less enduring hit, White said. "'Louie, Louie' is so omnipresent, however, it's like the ultimate one-hit wonder. The artists (participating in the gala) really wanted to do it."
White said well-known pop stars were happy to forego their own songs at the dinner.
"All of the artists have been having a lot of fun with the one-hit-wonders concept, and each of the performers has picked songs to play that they've grown up on or consider guilty pleasures," he said. "To call their selections surprising would be an understatement, so we're keeping the set list a secret until the night of the program."
Ironically, the tribute to one-hit wonders comes just as the "single" record is dying a slow death in record stores. In fact, Billboard magazine next month is changing the way it ranks its chart of top 100 songs, a widely followed gauge of trends in the recording business, due in part to the erosion in the purchase of singles by music consumers.
HOT 100 CHART
Billboard's Hot 100 chart has been cited by newspapers, radio stations and magazines as a barometer of American listening tastes for more than 50 years. The magazine has been working on the new system for nearly three years and will launch it in its Dec. 5 issue.
The new chart will continue to determine songs' popularity by meshing sales and airplay data, but the ratio of airplay to sales is being adjusted to reflect the shrinking number of music consumers who buy singles, White said.
"It's gone down in a gradual way over the last 15 years. It's been a slow but steady downward spiral. I'd say about 10 to 15 years ago at least 50 percent of music consumers bought singles," he said. Now only 21 percent of music consumers buy singles and some record companies sell them only to radio stations for promotional purposes.
"A lot of companies don't even put out singles or are not putting them in retail stores because they think it will hurt album sales," said Jay Cooper, an L.A.-based entertainment lawyer whose clients include Sheryl Crow and Jerry Seinfeld.
Years ago, when there was a big singles market, a one-hit wonder might never even be followed up by an album.
"For a lot of these one-hit wonders these bands might not have even gotten to an album, or it wouldn't have been significant," White said. "It was just put out simply to cash in on the success of the singles. It was more commonplace to break acts by putting singles out. But this is not happening as much in 1998 because albums are the primary mode for sale."
Despite the demise of singles, bands and acts can still earn the distinction of becoming one-hit wonders by virtue of having that one and only winner on an album earning repeated airplay and recognition.
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