In 1981, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th president of the United States, the Iran hostage crisis ended, the AIDS virus was first identified, and Prince Charles and Diana Spencer were wed in front of 750 million TV viewers. The music world, however, was pretty quiet, save for the launch of MTV in August. But even then, it would be a few years before the network became a pop-culture behemoth.
I view 1981 as largely a transition year that had signs of things to come. Disco was out, and the synthesizer sounds we associate with the ‘80s were beginning to take hold with hits from synth-pop groups like The Human League and Soft Cell. New wave music was continuing its rise led by such artists as Blondie and The Police. The new wave sounds even made their way into R&B, as Rick James’s “punk-funk” scaled the charts.
Still, the more familiar AOR was still omnipresent with bands like Journey and Foreigner in heavy rotation. And a substantial amount of MOR-ish music ruled the charts. Take, for example, the top three Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1981: “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes, “Endless Love” by Diana Ross & Lionel Richie, and “Lady” by Kenny Rogers. Not exactly a hip bunch.
I listened to the thirty-some one-hit wonders from 1981 and chose what I believe are five of the standouts. 1981 didn’t have many big hits from one-hit wonders, but it’s an eclectic mix of rock, crossover country, funk and more. To qualify as a 360°Sound one-hit wonder, an artist must have just one career entry in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. Hope you enjoy, and let us know via email or social media your favorites from 1981!
Delbert McClinton – “Giving It Up for Your Love”
Songwriter: Jerry Williams
Billboard Hot 100: #8 on February 21
McClinton was over 40 years old when he notched his first and only Top 40 pop hit. The Texas blues-rock singer-songwriter was already eight albums in to his career at that point. The Jerry Williams-penned “Giving It Up for Your Love,” taken from the album The Jealous Kind, peaked at #8 in February ’81. The follow-up single “Shotgun Rider” stalled at #70. After taking much of the ‘80s off, McClinton would go on to record many more albums, most recently 2019’s Tall, Dark & Handsome.
Phil Seymour – “Precious To Me”
Songwriter: Phil Seymour
Genre: Power Pop
Hot 100: #22 on March 28
Phil Seymour was the drummer and a singer in the beloved Tulsa, Oklahoma power-pop band Dwight Twilley Band (Their 1976 LP Sincerely is a stone-cold classic). Seymour, who also provided backup vocals on the Tom Petty hits “American Girl” and “Breakdown,” signed to Boardwalk Records in 1980 and recorded his eponymous debut in January 1981. “Precious to Me” is the leadoff track and first single from that record, which was produced by Richard Polodor, the man behind 16 Top 40 hits for Three Dog Night and 1970 one-hit wonder “Ride Captain Ride” by Blues Image.
“Precious to Me” has everything you want in a power-pop tune – sweet harmonies, chiming Byrds-y riffs, and a catchy-as-hell chorus. The single peaked at #22 in the States and shot to #3 in Australia. Not long after the release of Seymour’s second record in 1982, the Boardwalk Records label founder died and the company dissolved. Seymour joined The Textones in 1984 and was diagnosed with lymphoma the following year. He passed in 1993 at age 41.
Yarbrough & Peoples – “Don’t Stop The Music”
Songwriters: Jonah Ellis, Alisa Peoples and Calvin Yarbrough
Hot 100: #19 on April 11
Calvin Yarbrough and Alisa Peoples of Yarbrough & Peoples first met when they were children. They grew up in Dallas, studied with the same piano teacher, and both sang in the neighborhood church choir. In the mid-‘70s, Yarbrough played keys and sang in the group Grand Theft. The Wilson Brothers of The Gap Band caught one of their gigs and offered him work as a backup singer on their tour. A few years later, Yarbrough gave The Gap Band’s producer Lonnie Simmons a demo to listen to. He was impressed but declined to sign them.
One day, Yarbrough & Peoples showed up unannounced at Simmons’ L.A. studio. As they were playing in the studio and waiting for him, Mercury Records’ VP was there and signed them on the spot. This led to a recording session, and the result was “Don’t Stop the Music,” a groovy synth-funk track with drum machine and live drums. The tune was ahead of its time and, even though it was the duo’s only pop hit, it would prove highly influential on the R&B of the ‘80s. The million-selling single topped the R&B charts for five weeks. They would go on to place four more singles in the R&B Top 10. Peoples and Yarbrough married in 1986.
Roseanne Cash – “Seven Year Ache”
Songwriter: Roseanne Cash
Hot 100: #22 on July 18
Roseanne Cash, the eldest of Johnny Cash’s daughters, was inspired to write “Seven Year Ache” after hearing Rickie Lee Jones’s 1979 debut album. “Seven Year Ache,” about a man drinking away his marital troubles, was the title track and first single from Cash’s third album. Her then-husband Rodney Crowell, who himself made our 1980 one-hit wonders list, produced. Cash and Crowell referred to their new-wave twist on the Nashville sound as “punktry.” The pop/rock production was likely a big reason for the song’s crossover appeal.
Although Cash would never again even crack the Hot 100, she enjoyed considerable country chart success throughout the ‘80s. “Seven Year Ache” was the first of 10 country #1 hits that decade. In 2001, Trisha Yearwood would record a version of the song with Cash on backup vocals. Cash continues to record and tour. Her latest album, 2018’s She Remembers Everything, released on Blue Note Records, garnered glowing reviews.
Jim Steinman – “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through”
Songwriter: Jim Steinman
Hot 100: #32 on August 15
The late Jim Steinman is best known as the songwriting mastermind behind Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell rock operas. In 1981, he released his first and only solo album, Bad for Good. Steinman wrote all of the songs on the record and sang or played keys on most of them. However, Rory Dodd provided the (uncredited) lead vocals on “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through,” Steinman’s sole solo top 40 hit.
Produced by Steinman and Jimmy Iovine, “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through,” includes contributions from drummer Max Weinberg and pianist Roy Bittan of The E Street Band. A heartfelt ode to the power of rock ‘n roll, the song is bombastic and over-the-top as to be expected with a Steinman composition. Sample lyric: “You’re never alone, ‘cause you can put on the ‘phones. And let the drummer tell your heart what to do.”
Meat Loaf would record the track for his 1993 smash LP Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell. Released as the second single in January 1994, The Loaf’s version went on to peak at #13 on the Hot 100.
For more on the music of 1981, be sure to check out 360°Sound contributor Mark Seaman’s blog. This year he’s been reviewing all the 1981 albums from his extensive CD collection. And make sure to check back soon for our top one-hitters from 1991.