It’s an elite club with three iconic acts and a flock of seagulls.
Although it’s a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy — or on Portugal. The Man — being a one-hit wonder isn’t all bad. They’re celebrated on retro lists and flashback countdowns and by fans who will forever love and remember songs like “Afternoon Delight,” “99 Luftballons,” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” even if they can’t always immediately recall who sang them (Starland Vocal Band, Nena and Taco, respectively, by the way).
“Two-hit wonder” doesn’t have the same cachet, but they’re often mistaken for one-hit wonders, so they inadvertently get nearly as much play. And three-hit wonders? Well, compared to the Adeles and Taylor Swifts of pop, they might be regarded as simply not having been big enough to have swung more hits or lasted longer in the game. It’s a dismissal with nearly as many exceptions as there are acts to support it.
The chart trajectory of three-hit wonders often goes a little something like this: One big hit followed by, or sandwiched between, two lesser ones that are easily forgotten by people who erroneously classify them as one-hit wonders, until some oldies celebration reminds them otherwise. The pair of Top 40 addenda can sometimes make an act seem less notable in retrospect: If Starland Vocal Band had enjoyed two more minor Top 40 entries after reaching number one with “Afternoon Delight” and winning the 1976 Best New Artist Grammy, would they have gone down in history in bold print? They’d probably be relatively forgotten as just another act with a short hit list.
Despite the reputational hazards of landing only a trio of Top 40 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100, I’m a firm believer in the power of three. Don’t think Carly Rae Jepsen wasn’t relieved to graduate from two- to three-hit wonder the week “I Really Like You” climbed into the top 40 in 2015 (peaking at 39). When that happened, four years after “Call Me Maybe” became one of the most inescapable number ones of the 2010s, she joined the elite group celebrated here: assorted mid-tier acts and also-rans, two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, a disco icon, and a soul queen — all of whom (with three exceptions) made it into the top 10 at least once.
// A Flock of Seagulls
Everyone remembers “I Ran” (number nine, 1982), but here’s the twist — make that twists: The British new-wave band’s two follow-up singles — “Space Age Love Song” (number 30) and “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)” (number 26), both from the same year — are actually better songs. And in the group’s native UK, their fortunes were reversed: “Wishing” was a number 10 hit, while “I Ran” missed the Top 40 entirely, peaking at a lowly number 43, and “Space Age Love Song” climbed to a commensurate (to its U.S. high) number 34.
Ah, the joy of sax (solos)! Despite the moments of pleasure provided by Quarterflash’s Rindy Ross on the woodwind, I still don’t understand how a female-led band that came across as a poor woman’s Pat Benatar enjoyed a bigger hit than Benatar ever did, with “Harden My Heart” (number three, 1981). But then, the Hot 100 was as unfair as ever in the ’80s. The group’s superior next single, “Find Another Fool,” only got as high as number 16, two notches lower than 1983’s equally better “Take Me to Heart.”
Since two completely different versions of Animotion — one featuring the incomparably named Astrid Plane and the other with Cynthia Rhodes, the former Mrs. Richard Marx — were responsible for the band’s first two Top 40 hits — “Obsession” (number six, 1984) and “Let Him Go” (number 39, 1985) — and its belated third one, “Room to Move” (number nine, 1989), can we call Animotion a two-hit wonder and a one-hit one with the same name? And where’s the justice in an ’80s pop world where my second-favorite “Animotion” single (after “Obsession” — natch!), 1986’s “I Engineer,” only crept up to number 76?
I’m utterly confused by the career of the late Sylvester. He’s a bonafide disco legend, but he’s the only act on this list who never managed to make it into the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. His biggest chart hit, 1978’s “Dance (Disco Heat)” reached number 19, and although it’s a fantastic song, featuring the future Weather Girls on backing vocals and sampled by Byron Stingily in his 1997 number one U.S. dance and number 14 UK. pop hit “Everybody (Get Up),” it’s not exactly a universally remembered classic of the genre. His follow-up, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” is, however, yet it peaked way down at number 36. On the plus side, Sylvester’s musical legacy does include the third highest-charting (in the U.S.) version of the pop standard “I (Who Have Nothing),” which Sylvester took to number 40 in 1979.
// Black Box
Regardless of who was doing the lead singing (and yes, it was Martha Wash, the back-up vocalist on the left in the Sylvester video above, and not the beautiful model in the group’s videos), Black Box’s trio of Top 40 U.S. singles — “Everybody Everybody” (number eight), “I Don’t Know Anybody Else” (number 23) and “Strike It Up” (number eight), all from 1990’s Dreamland — sound as good today as they did 30 years ago.
// Bonnie Tyler
She’s only made it to the U.S. Top 40 three times in four decades, yet many artists with more extensive hit lists probably would kill for three as big as Tyler’s. Her 1977 U.S. breakthrough, “It’s a Heartache” (number three), earned her one-hit-wonder status until 1983, when “Total Eclipse of the Heart” topped the Hot 100 for four weeks, keeping another Jim Steinman-penned hit, Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” which later would be covered by Tyler, out of the number-one spot, and becoming Tyler’s second signature tune. The following year’s Footloose single “Holding Out for a Hero” only peaked at number 34 but went on to achieve pop immortality as a gay anthem.
// Terence Trent D’Arby
Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby, his 1987 debut, launched his only three Top 40 hits in the U.S. — “Wishing Well” (number one), “Sign Your Name” (number four) and “Dance Little Sister” (number 30) — but the best (1989’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh, 1993’s Symphony Or Damn, and 2001’s Wildcard) was yet to come.
// Winger and Slaughter
I was wrong on three counts about ’80s hair metal: 1) I was certain more bands from the genre would qualify for this list. 2) I was convinced that like most ’80s hair-metal bands, Winger made it to the pop Top 10 at least once, but the closest the band came was not with its two most memorable singles — 1989’s “Headed for a Heartbreak” (number 26) or “Seventeen” (number 19) — but with one I don’t even remember, 1990’s “Miles Away,” which went to number 12. 3) Slaughter actually did a lot better than I thought, with its trio of Top 40 successes, the second of which I bought as a cassette single back in the day: “Up All Night” (number 27, 1990), “Fly to the Angels” (number 19, 1991), and “Spend My Life” (number 39, 1991).
// Stephanie Mills
She may not consider herself “unsung” (which is reportedly why she refused to participate in Unsung, TV One’s Behind the Music-style documentary series for Black artists), but she’s definitely been underrated. A singer with so much talent and so many well-known songs (if you’re Black) deserves more than three Top 40 hits, one of which, 1981’s “Two Hearts” (number 40), she had to share with Teddy Pendergrass, who, astonishingly, was a one-hit wonder as a Hot 100 solo act. Alone, Mills also scored with 1979’s “What Cha Gonna Do with My Lovin’” and 1980’s number six “Never Knew Love Like This Before” (number six).
// The Sylvers
When I watched the Unsung documentary on The Sylvers, I was surprised to discover that there was so much more to the ’70s family act than its number one bubblegum signature, 1976’s “Boogie Fever,” and the two lesser top 40 hits that followed, “Hot Line” (number five, 1976) and “High School Dance” (number 17, 1977). Leon Sylvers was super-producer and hit songwriter for other acts in the ’70s and ’80s, including Shalamar, The Whispers, and Gladys Knight & The Pips. And then there was little Foster, who gave Michael Jackson a brief run for his child stardom in 1973 with the top 20 “Misdemeanor.”
// Sister Sledge
In 1982, when the four Sledge siblings were climbing the Top 40 with their cover of the Mary Wells’s 1964 number one “My Guy,” eventually getting to number 23, I recall having the same unimpressed feeling that I did when their biggest hit, “We Are Family,” was going to number 2 in 1979. So how is it possible that I can’t even remember “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” their 1979 breakthrough single, my favorite Sister Sledge song, and one of my Top 10 favorite disco hits period, except as a golden oldie?
// The Knack
A three-hit wonder with rapidly diminishing fortunes. They packed all three top 40 singles — My Sharona” (number one, 1979), “Good Girls Don’t” (number 11, 1979) and “Baby Talks Dirty” (number 30, 1980) — into a little over six months.
A three-hit, three-album wonder! Although the female trio logged a string of memorable singles successes in its native U.K., Bananarama only managed to enter the U.S. Top 40 three times (once less than Seduction, which accomplished its quadruple play with one album, 1989’s Nothing Matters Without Love), each time making it into the Top 10, with the 1983 number nine “Cruel Summer,” the 1985 number one “Venus,” and the 1986 number four “I Heard a Rumour.”
// Talking Heads
It took the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers eight years — half of its 16-year existence — to score their triple play: “Take Me to the River” (number 26, 1978), “Burning Down the House” (number nine, 1983), and “Wild Wild Life” (number 26, 1986). I still can’t believe “And She Was,” which I remember seeing on MTV all the time in 1985, didn’t go higher than number 54, despite my prayers to God and Casey Kasem at the time that it would go high enough to disqualify the new-wavers from this list.
// The Cure
Alas, “Just Like Heaven” (number 40, 1987), “Lovesong” (number 2, 1989) and “Friday I’m in Love” (number 18, 1992) don’t even begin to hint at the awesomeness that is these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ oeuvre.
// Gary Wright
When Wright peaked at number two with two consecutive hits in 1976 — “Dream Weaver” and “Love Is Alive” — the world no doubt expected great things from him chart-wise. Great things, sadly, were not meant to be. It would take him five years to reach the Top 40 again (with “Really Wanna Know You,” number 16), and he’d never again trouble the Hot 100.
// Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds
In between “Don’t Pull Your Love” (number four, 1971) and “Winners and Losers” (number 21, 1975), the trio whose name sounded like a law firm achieved dreamy perfection with 1975’s “Fallin’ in Love” (number one).
// Franke and the Knockouts
“Sweetheart” (number 10, 1981) far eclipsed either of their two top 40 follow-ups: “You’re My Girl” (number 27, 1981) and “Without You (Not Another Lonely Night)” (number 25, 1982). Franke would go on to eclipse all three as co-writer of the Dirty Dancing smashes “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” and “Hungry Eyes,” the former of which scored him a Best Original Song Oscar.
// The Time
In a reversal of the typical three-hit wonder’s chart fortunes, the Morris Day-led band’s third time was the charm. They finally hit the top 10 in 1990 with “Jerk Out” (number nine), six years after “Jungle Love” petered out at 20 and “The Bird” stopped flapping at 36.
On their three Top 40 ’80s hits, the Black Go-Go’s blunted the sexy edge of their superior early R&B hits “The Men All Pause” and “Meeting in the Ladies Room” and two later ones, “Sexy” and “Divas Need Love Too.” From a sonic standpoint, the results were mixed: “I Miss You” (number 5, 1985) may have been the number-three Hot 100 song of its year, but I missed Klymaxx’s cheeky spunk. To borrow from “I’d Still Say Yes” (number 18, 1987), I’d still say yes to “Man Size Love” (number 15, 1986) over their biggest hit any day.
// The Greg Kihn Band
I used to think they’d end up being what Huey Lewis and the News were to the ’80s, but then they disappeared from Billboard’s Hot 100 a couple of hits after “Lucky” (number 30, 1985) became their third and unlucky final Top 40 trip. Kihn and Co. may have stopped well short of defining the ’80s (maybe it was too-punny album titles like Rockihnroll and Kihnspiracy), but they did produce a trio of great top 40 hits. The two biggies — “The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ’Em)” (number 15, 1981) and “Jeopardy” (number two, 1983) — both sound a lot better nearly four decades later than I ever expected them to at the time.
// Freda Payne
Nope, she wasn’t a one-hit wonder. After “Band of Gold” (number three, 1970), she went top 40 twice more, with “Deeper & Deeper” (number 24, 1970) and “Bring the Boys Home” (number 12, 1971). In the late ’70s and early ’80s, she’d go on to marry one-hit wonder Gregory Abbott, who topped the Hot 100 in January of 1987 with “Shake You Down,” and have a relationship with Edmund Sylvers of the aforementioned The Sylvers.
// Brenda Holloway
Like the aforementioned Franke Previte, Holloway’s greatest claim to fame — and a lifetime of royalties — may not be her three top 40 hits but her work as a songwriter. The elegant lady’s third and final top 40 single, which she co-wrote, went to number 39 in 1967, two years before it became a number-two smash for another act. The song: “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” best known as Blood, Sweat & Tears’ first big hit.