Friday Top 5: Off By One
As I'll be out of town tomorrow, you get your Friday Top 5 on Thursday this week, so I'll make it worth your while with six mighty one-hit wonders--performers who found the right formula and turned maybe 12 weeks of concentrated fame into an enduring bit of history, but never repeated the feat. This week, I've been listening to lots of tunes from 1969, and I'm surprised at the number of really great one-shot records from that summer. The artists who made them may have returned to the obscurity from whence they came, but the records are still alive.
Israelites/Desmond Dekker and the Aces: Eric Clapton may have made it to Number One with a diluted reggae record (his version of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff"), but Desmond Dekker, one of the biggest stars in Jamaica throughout the 1960s, took the real thing into the Top 10. This record has one of the most riveting openings you'll hear: "Get up in the morning slaving for bread, sir/So that every mouth can be fed," acapella and at half time. In 1969, few Americans had heard anything remotely like it.
Color Him Father/The Winstons: You may debate whether they're truly a one-hit wonder, if you remember their recording of "Love of the Common People." For purposes of this discussion, we don't. The Winstons were experienced road musicians who'd played at Motown and for the likes of Otis Redding and the Impressions before making their own deal. "Color Him Father" is a touching story of a step-family that's found true happiness, which is told through the kind of gorgeous pop/soul arrangement unique to a brief period in the late 60s and early 70s. It's just about perfect, which might explain why the Winstons could never hit again.
My Pledge of Love/Joe Jeffrey Group: You gotta get up pretty early in the morning to find a group with a shorter lifespan than the Winstons, who lasted but one year. Clearly, we're at about 1AM with Joe Jeffrey, who charted at the same time the Winstons did with another perfect pop/soul tune, and then vanished without a trace.
In the Year 2525/Zager and Evans: It's a pet theory of mine that the Top 40 was ridden with doom in the last months of 1969. You could argue that the twin spirits of pessimism and fatalism first found their way into the zeitgeist thanks to this, which did six weeks at Number One from mid July through August. Be honest: When you were a kid and heard this for the first time, had you ever thought that far into the future before?
Good Old Rock and Roll/Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys: The main reason this is worth remembering (apart from the euphonious name of the group) is because Jimi Hendrix produced it. This medley of early rock and/ roll tunes is 1969's entry in our culture's continuous rolling nostalgia boom. It didn't start with VH1's five-years-too-soon series I Love the 90s--and it didn't start with Cat Mother, either. It began, in the rock era at least, with the doo-wop revival of 1962 and 1963, with people pining for a bygone era no more than five years past.
Polk Salad Annie/Tony Joe White: Here's some genuine down-home swamp rock, right down to Grandma getting eaten by alligators, punctuated by well-placed grunts. (It's a lot better than that description makes it sound.) White had a couple of other hits in the lower reaches of the Hot 100 after this, but we'll call him a one-hit wonder anyhow since this is the only record of his that anyone remembers. Although he did write the lovely "Rainy Night in Georgia," memorably recorded by Brook Benton in 1970.
I wasn't listening to the radio yet in 1969--not to my own station and my own music, anyhow--so I've discovered these records as oldies rather than currents, as we say in the radio biz. It occurs to me that although The Sixties, capital-T, capital-S, were reaching their peak as a cultural phenomenon that summer--Woodstock was 35 years ago next week--the pop music scene had already moved on. Overall, summer 1969 sounds a lot more like the 70s to me than it does the 60s.