360°Sound’s popular Greatest One-Hit Wonders series returns! Last year, we gave you our picks for the best one-hitters from the years 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000. Now, we give you a new set of standout one-hit wonders from the anniversary years, beginning with 1961.
The early ‘60s saw the world in the midst of the Cold War and Space Age. In 1961, newly-elected President John F. Kennedy launched the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion into Cuba, the Berlin Wall was built, and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth.
On the music side of things, the changes weren’t quite as seismic. The Beatles had yet to alter pop music forever as they were just getting started. In February ’61, the Fab Four played their first gig at The Cavern Club in Liverpool.
The popular music of ’61 largely consisted of rock ‘n roll, country, R&B, and doo wop. Back then, you even had instrumental tunes hit the pop charts, and this list has a couple of great ones. The top hit of 1961 was Bobby Lewis’s “Tossin’ and Turnin,” and some of the biggest acts were Del Shannon, Bobby Vee, Chubby Checker, and Roy Orbison.
To qualify as a 360°Sound one-hit wonder, an artist must have had just one entry into the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. Without further ado, here are our favorite one-hitters from the year 1961:
The Capris – “There’s a Moon Out Tonight”
Songwriters: Al Striano, Alberico Gentile, and Joe Luccisano
Genre: Doo wop
Hot 100: #3 on February 27
One of many gorgeous doo wop ballads from the era, “There’s a Moon Out Tonight” came from a group of young Italian immigrants from Queens. The Capris, who named their group after the luxury automobile the Lincoln Capri, recorded “There’s a Moon Out Tonight” in just an hour. It sounds like much of the doo wop from the time with its vocal harmonies, but it’s unique in that it ends with a voice overlay in which each of the members chant the song title one after another, slowing down each time.
“I don’t think it was intentional,” first tenor Mike Mincelli told Billboard years later. “It was one of the mistakes – there were a lot of mistakes on that record.” The Capris toured behind the hit for a year but disbanded soon afterward.
Ernie K-Doe – “Mother-in-Law”
Songwriter: Allen Toussaint
Hot 100: #1 on May 22
A novelty smash written and produced by New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint, who also plays a piano solo on it, “Mother-in-Law” shot to #1 on the pop and the R&B charts. But the song almost didn’t happen. Unsatisfied with Ernie K-Doe’s shouty vocals, Toussaint threw the song in the trash. Backup singer Willie Harper (or K-Doe, depending on which version of the story) picked it out of the wastebasket and had to persuade Toussaint to finish the tune. It’s a good thing they did as the song is not only quintessential NOLA R&B, but its lyrics are hilarious.
“‘Mother-in-Law’ wasn’t a hard song to sing,” K-Doe, who died in 2001, once told the Chicago Tribune, “because my mother-in-law was staying in my house. I was married 19 years, and it was 19 years of pure sorrow. When I sang, ‘Satan should be her name,’ I meant that…Ooooh, she was a lowdown.”
K-Doe would go on to chart a few minor R&B hits with “Te-Ta-Te-Ta-Ta” later that year and “Later for Tomorrow” in 1967.
Another gem of a quote that K-Doe would say to patrons at his Mother-In-Law Lounge in New Orleans, which he opened in 1995: “There aren’t but three songs that will last for eternity. One is ‘Amazing Grace.’ Another is ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ And the third is ‘Mother-in-Law,’ because as long as there are people on this earth, there will always be mother-in-laws.”
Faron Young – “Hello Walls”
Songwriter: Willie Nelson
Hot 100: #12 on May 29
“Hello Walls” was country singer Faron Young’s first single for Capitol and one of Willie Nelson’s first songs to write. A massive hit, “Hello Walls” hit #1 on the country charts and stayed on the charts for 23 weeks. Although “The Singing Sheriff” placed nearly 100 singles on the country charts throughout his five-decade career, “Hello Walls” was the only one to crack the Top 40, peaking at #12 in May 1961. Nelson recorded “Hello Walls” for his 1962 debut album …And Then I Wrote.
Eddie Harris – “Exodus”
Songwriter: Ernest Gold
Hot 100: #36 on June 5
Saxophonist Eddie Harris’s “Exodus” was one of the first jazz singles to be certified gold, selling over a million copies. The tune, which was included on Harris’s debut LP for Vee-Jay, is a cover of Ernest Gold’s theme from the 1960 biblical epic film of the same name. The success of “Exodus” prompted Columbia Records to reissue the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1959 record “Take Five” (see below). Interestingly, there is some controversy regarding which of the two songs was the first to sell a million.
The Cleftones – “Heart and Soul”
Songwriters: Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser
Genre: Doo wop
Hot 100: #18 on July 3
This doo wop version of the 1938 pop standard (and popular piano duet) peaked at #18 on both the pop and R&B charts in the summer of ’61. The Cleftones started out as a group of five friends from Queens in 1955. Some lineup changes in the late ‘50s moved the group away from traditional doo wop harmonies and to more of a lead vocal sound, which paved the way for “Heart and Soul.” The song was one of many great oldies included on the soundtrack to the 1973 film American Graffiti.
The Mar-Keys – “Last Night”
Songwriters: Charles Axton, Jerry Lee Smith, Floyd Newman, Chips Moman, Gilbert C. Caple
Hot 100: #3 on August 7
Although this groovy, saxophone-driven instrumental was the Mar-Keys’ only hit, they were among the most important Southern soul groups. As the first house band for Memphis’s Stax Records, they played on hits from Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas and others. In 1962, guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn left the group to co-found Booker T. and the MG’s, which would serve as the house band for Stax throughout the rest of the decade. Mar-Keys trumpeter Wayne Jackson left to form the legendary session group the Memphis Horns, who played on the classic From Elvis In Memphis. [Click here to read our interview with the author of the 33 1/3 book on that album.] The Mar-Keys only other chart success came in 1966 with the Top 20 R&B hit “Philly Dog.”
Ann-Margret – “I Just Don’t Understand”
Songwriters: Marijohn Wilkin and Kent Westberry
Hot 100: #17 on September 1
Before researching for this article, I had no idea that the redheaded actress and sex symbol Ann-Margret had a music career prior to her roles in Bye Bye Birdie, Viva Las Vegas, The Cincinnati Kid, and many other films. I really dig the fuzz guitar on the bluesy rocker “I Just Don’t Understand” – surely one of the first hit songs to feature a guitar tone like that. Billed as the female Elvis, this tune was Ann-Margret’s second single for RCA, hitting the charts when she was 20 years old. Ann-Margret also made her silver screen debut in ’61 with a role Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles. The Beatles covered “I Just Don’t Understand” in 1963. It appears on the Live At The BBC, Volume 1 compilation.
Dave Brubeck Quartet — “Take Five”
Songwriter: Paul Desmond
Genre: Cool Jazz
Hot 100: #25 on October 9
Originally released in 1959, this Grammy Hall of Famer wouldn’t realize its true potential until its re-release in ’61. Penned by Brubeck Quartet alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, “Take Five” would go on to be the biggest-selling jazz single of all time. 2:32 shorter than the album version, the single version (presented here) is a completely different recording and eliminates most of the drum solo. Even though it cracked the Top 40 two years after its original release, it makes our list on the technicality that it is freaking awesome.
Some great tunes from 1961! It’s a shame these artists couldn’t repeat their chart success, but we thank them for their outstanding contributions to the annals of pop history. Stay tuned to 360°Sound as we continue our journey through the Greatest One-Hit Wonders. 1971 is next!