Rather than go all the way back to 1955, let's zero in on the more recent past. And let's raise the bar a little and focus on artists who had top five hits. Here are the 22 artists who cracked the top five on the Hot 100 from 1985 through 2010 and have yet to return to (or even "bubble under") the chart. Some of these artists clearly had talent. Even now, it's hard to figure out what was missing.
Oleta Adams' "Get Here," a hit 1991 cover version of a 1988 Brenda Russell song, is also a first-rate record. Yet Adams, too, has yet to return to the chart. It's a reminder that talent isn't always enough to have a long career in pop music. Luck and chance also play big roles.
In other cases, it's easier to understand why the acts didn't go on. Nicki French's 1995 hit "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" was a dance remake of an already familiar pop song, so she didn't earn much credit for her hit's success. A red-hot George Michael co-wrote and sang on Deon Estus' "Heaven Help Me," which made it look like Estus was piggy-backing on Michael's success. It didn't enhance Estus' credibility.
Here, then, are the 22 artists who cracked the top five on the Hot 100 from 1985 through 2010 and have yet to return to (or even "bubble under") the chart. They are ranked by how successful their sole hits were. I looked first at peak position, then weeks at that peak position, and then weeks on the Hot 100.Daniel Powter, "Bad Day." This bittersweet ballad logged five weeks at #1 in April and May 2006. Powter, who wrote the song, was 35 at the time. Powter was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. USA for Africa, "We Are The World." It's a little unfair to call this ensemble a one-hit wonder, since this was its one and only release, but the record is here in the interest of completeness. This smash logged four weeks at #1 in April and May 1985 and won Grammys for Record and Song of the Year. Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie co-wrote the song, which raised millions to alleviate starvation in Africa. Bobby McFerrin, "Don't Worry Be Happy." McFerrin was 38 when this philosophical pep talk spent two weeks at #1 in September and October 1988. The song, which he wrote, was featured in the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. The left-field hit won Grammys for Record and Song of the Year. Robin Williams appears in the video. Crazy Town, "Butterfly." This rock-rap hybrid spent two weeks at #1 in March 2001. Group members Seth Binzer and Bret Mazur co-wrote the song. The group's DJ, Adam Goldstein, died of a drug overdone in 2009. The record samples Red Hot Chili Peppers' 1989 album track "Pretty Little Ditty." (The Peppers have yet to land a #1 hit on the Hot 100, but they've had something even better: a long career.) The Heights, "How Do You Talk To An Angel." This mid-tempo ballad spent two weeks at #1 in November 1992. It echoes Bryan Adams' pop-rock sound. The band was comprised of cast members of the Fox TV show of the same name. Cast member Jamie Walters had a top 20 hit in 1995 with "Hold On," so he's not a one-hit wonder, though the Heights are. Jan Hammer, "Miami Vice Theme." This synthesizer-based instrumental theme from the cool cop show topped the chart for one week in November 1985. When you play it, you may feel an overwhelming urge to put on a pastel linen jacket, a contrasting T-shirt and shades. The Czech-born Hammer, who composed the tune, was 37 at the time. The Cardigans, "Lovefool." This lilting smash spent eight weeks at #2 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart in March and April 1997. The Cardigans hailed from Sweden. The song was co-written by lead vocalist Nina Persson (who just may have the bluest eyes in pop history) and guitarist Peter Svensson. Listening to this song is like spooning marshmallow cream right out of the jar. Shop Boyz, "Party Like A Rock Star." This hip-hop smash logged six weeks at #2 in June and July 2007. Shop Boyz, a male rap trio from Atlanta, co-wrote the song. Nicki French, "Total Eclipse Of The Heart." French's dance-floor treatment of this Jim Steinman song peaked at #2 (for one week) in June 1995, less than 12 years after Bonnie Tyler's original version reached #1. The English singer was 30 at the time. Jennifer Paige, "Crush." Paige was 25 when this lightly sexy pop song spent four weeks at #3 in September 1998. Like the Cardigans, she should have had a career in mainstream pop. Patrick Swayze, "She's Like The Wind." Swayze was 35 when this ballad spent three weeks at #3 in February and March 1988. The song, which he co-wrote, was from his blockbuster movie Dirty Dancing. Swayze died of cancer in 2009 at age 57. The record featured Wendy Fraser. Harold Faltermeyer, "Axel F." This sprightly synthesizer-based instrumental from the Eddie Murphy blockbuster Beverly Hills Cop spent three weeks at #3 in June 1985. (The title is a play on the name of Murphy's character Axel Foley). The German-born Faltermeyer, who composed the tune, was 32 at the time. The Proclaimers, "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)." This jaunty record peaked at #3 (for one week) in August 1993. The pop duo from Scotland consisted of identical twin brothers Craig and Charlie Reid, who were 31 at the time. They co-wrote this song, which was featured in the Johnny Depp movie Benny & Joon. OMC, "How Bizarre." This old-school summer jam logged six weeks at #4 in July and August 1997. OMC was the stage name of Pauly Fuemana, who was born in Otara, New Zealand. (OMC stands for Otara Millionaires Club). Fuemana, who was 28 at the time, co-wrote this song. He died in 2010 at age 40. LSG, "My Body." This was the only chart hit for LSG, though all three of its members (Gerald Levert, Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill) were chart veterans. The steamy R&B song spent four weeks at #4 in December 1997. Kevin Lyttle, "Turn Me On." Lyttle was 27 when this reggae-style song, which he co-wrote, hit #4 (for two weeks) in August 2004. Lyttle is a native of the West Indies. Joan Osborne, "One Of Us." Osborne was 33 when this song reached #4 (for two weeks) in February 1996. Eric Bazilian of the Hooters wrote the song, which climbed higher on the chart than any of that band's hits ("And We Danced," "Day By Day") had. D.R.S., "Gangsta Lean." This mournful R&B ballad, which reached #4 (for two weeks) in November 1993, pays respect to the departed. It proved that even homies have a soft side. D.R.S. stands for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. T'Pau, "Heart And Soul." This generic power ballad hit #4 (for one week) in August 1987. (You can date it pretty accurately from the frizzy '80s hair in the video.) The English pop/dance group was named after the Vulcan princess in an episode of Star Trek. T'Pau's lead singer Carol Decker co-wrote the song with the group's guitarist Ronnie Rogers. Eagle-Eye Cherry, "Save Tonight." Cherry, was 29 when this mid-tempo shuffle, which he wrote, peaked at #5 (for one week) in January 1999. Cherry, the son of jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, was born in Sweden. Oleta Adams, "Get Here." Adams was 28 when her soulful version of this elegant Brenda Russell song reached #5 (for one week) in March 1991. The ballad was a hit at the time of the Gulf War, which gave it added resonance. The song had been the title track of a 1988 Russell album. Adams had been a backing vocalist on Tears of Fears' 1989 album The Seeds Of Love. Deon Estus, "Heaven Help Me." Estus, who had been the bass player in Wham!, co-wrote this song with his former boss George Michael, who also sang backing vocals. Estus was 33 when this sleek, adult contemporary-style ballad hit #5 (for one week) in April 1989.
Hat Tip: As noted, I based this column on a list of one-hit wonders in Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955-2010. In a legend accompanying his list, Joel offers some fine print: "Artists must be the lead artist and not a featured artist (to qualify). Duos that share equal billing do not count if one member has other chart hits." Joel's book is endlessly useful. Here's a link to Joel's site.
- Joel Whitburn