July 24, 1989
One Hit Wonders of the Acoustic Era (and a Few Beyond)
by Tim Brooks
With Assistance From Members of the Mrs. A. Stewart Holt Appreciation Society
Recently a New York radio station that specializes in rock ‘n’ roll oldies spent an entire weekend playing “One Hit Wonders”‑‑an endless parade of singers and groups each of whom had one, and only one, hit record and then were never heard from again. Contemporary music is littered with such musical wreckage. Whatever did become of “Cannibal and The Headhunters”? The acoustic era was different, or so it seems. We see the same small group of names over and over, familiar balladeers like Burr and McCormack, comedians (Murray, Collins & Harlan, Jolson, Uncle Josh), the same orchestras and instrumentalists. But not every hitmaker in pre‑1925 days was guaranteed permanent acceptance. Most collectors will be able to think of a record that they see constantly, even though nothing else by that artist seems to turn up nearly as often. This is true not only in the U.S.: English collectors have their “Hear My Prayer” by Master Ernest Lough (1927), which reportedly nestles in almost every pile of old 78s found in the British Isles(1).
So just for fun we hereby present the first nominees for the U.S. Acoustic Era Hall‑of‑Fleeting‑Fame. It is a purely impressionistic list, and we would be happy to hear your candidates or quibbles with our choices. Remember, to qualify for this dubious Hall of Fame the artist must have had one and only one major hit‑‑nothing else by the same artist can have come remotely close to its success (even though they may have continued to record). We are talking about Yvette Rugel and Signor Grinderino here, not Billy Murray or Paul Whiteman.
Why couldn’t these people repeat their single glorious moment in the recording studio? Some, like Felix Arndt and Gallagher and Shean died abruptly or broke up; others, like Edith Day, fled the country. Several were major stage or movie stars just dabbling in records. But many, like poor James I. Lent and DeWolfe Hopper, simply never had another good idea. Mighty Casey… had struck out.
So sit back and enjoy a stroll down the Boulevard of Broken Disks. Please don’t take any of this too seriously. No special standards of completeness or research purity are claimed here, and in future years I may even deny having written this article.
The year of original recording is shown in parentheses, followed by principal issues. An asterisk (*) indicates that this is the only known recording by the artist.
GEORGE W. JOHNSON was not exactly a One‑Hit Wonder, but he could certainly be called a Two‑Hit Wonder. Although he recorded a few other obscure titles, this pioneer black artist is known for only “The Laughing Song” and “The Whistling Coon.” His first known versions were for the New Jersey Phonograph Company ca. 1890, and Edison in 1891; he subsequently recorded these two specialties for anyone who had a horn‑‑even Bettini. “The Laughing Song” remained in the Columbia catalog in various forms (brown wax, black wax, extra‑large Grand cylinder, extra‑long BC cylinder, discs, embedded in minstrel records, you name it) from 1895 to 1915. By then they were calling it “an old standard.” Not a bad career for a fellow with two silly tunes to his name. And no, he didn’t kill his wife.
JAMES I. LENT, “The Ragtime Drummer” (1904), G&T, Vic 17092, Indestructible 689, Emerson 779. Not just the only Lent record most people have ever heard, but also the only drum solo they’ve come across on acoustic records. Listen to it and you’ll understand why.
JAMES MCCOOL, “The Low Back’d Car” (1905), Vic 4389, 16100. One recent book says “There Never Was a Girl Like You” (Vic 4797) was his only hit, but we know better, don’t we?
EDGAR L. DAVENPORT, “Lasca” (1905), Ed 9087, Vic 31529, Vic 35090, Col A5218, A5970, Indestructible 3143, U.S. Everlasting 1381, Edison 1869. All right, some of his other lachrymose recitations are also familiar, notably “Jim Bludsoe” and “Sheridan’s Ride,” but “Lasca” seems to have been the big one. It certainly was Everlasting and Indestructible.
HELEN TRIX, “The Bird on Nellie’s Hat” (1906), Ed 9450, Vic 4904. Helen went to London in the 1920s and had an extensive recording, stage and radio career there with her sister Josephine, as the Trix Sisters. She never looked back to the days when “The Bird On Nellie’s Hat” blared from every open horn in America.
MAY IRWIN, “May Irwin’s Frog Song” (1907), Vic 5156, 17253. A top stage star of the 1890s, she had only three recording sessions, all in 1907. One might argue that her famous “Bully” song did almost as well, but I doubt it. That song was already a pretty old number by the time she got around to recording it in 1907, having been recorded by just about everybody when it originally came out in 1896. The “Frog Song” was hers alone, and stayed in the catalog for more than 15 years.
DE WOLFE HOPPER, “Casey at the Bat” (1907), Vic 31559, 35290, 35783. This wildly exaggerated monologue stayed in the catalog until the late 1920s, and was even remade electrically by Hopper, though it was a real period piece by then. He first performed it in 1888, and is remembered for nothing else.
SIGNOR GRINDERINO, “Harrigan Medley” (1908), Vic 5478, 16519. Victor’s little joke must have sold quite well, as it is frequently found and remained in the catalog until 1923. Supposedly the Signor was an anonymous street organ grinder pulled in off the sidewalk to make a record. He did so, fortissimo. Of a later, lesser “Grinderino” release, the Victor supplement dryly observed “Here are two lively numbers of great volume‑‑so great, in fact, that in the interest of peace we urge you to use half‑tone needles…”
NAT M. WILLS, “No News, or What Killed the Dog” (1908), Vic 5612, 17222, Col A1765. Broadway’s “Happy Tramp” originated this very funny and clever story that has been much repeated or adapted (i.e., stolen) by other humorists since. Although Wills made quite a few other recordings, including familiar titles such as “B.P.O.E. (Elks’ Song),” “Parodies on Eight Familiar Songs” and “A New Cure For Drinking”, “No News” towers above them all. It stayed in the Victor catalog until the electrical era, and was then replaced with another version by Frank Crumit (Vic 21466) which remained available until 1941. That is an extraordinary run.
STELL, LUFSKY AND SURTH, “The Herd Girl’s Dream” (1908), Col 3908, A587, A1157. Oh no, not that! These artists recorded in various other combinations, and some of those recordings may be familiar too (e.g. “Dreamy Moments” by Stell, Lufsky and Pinto), but none of them rival SL&S’s Herd Girl monster.
HAROLD JARVIS, “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere” (1909), Vic 16008, Col A1121. I have no idea why this single title from the first Victor double‑faced list sold so phenomenally well, while nothing else by Jarvis did. It certainly was not due to Harold’s charisma; he was a portly, middle‑aged church tenor from Detroit (born in Canada). Maybe people just wanted double‑sided records. Jim Walsh observed in his 1961 biography of Jarvis that “his rating as a favorite pioneer recording artist today is based on the popularity of just (that) one Victor disc,” then added, “I wish I could estimate the emotional impact Jarvis’ interpretation of this song had upon innumerable listeners…” The song followed him to the grave. The tenor’s obituary in the Detroit News (1924) began, “Harold Jarvis has gone to the ‘Beautiful Isle of Somewhere’…”
*MRS. HARDIN BURNLEY, “Small Boy and His Mother at The Circus” (1909), Vic 5679, 16413. I’ve never had a copy of this, though I am assured by those who know that it is seen quite often. It was certainly in the catalog a long time (1909‑1926). As for Mrs. B, she wears the mantle of obscurity gracefully.
*TOM MCNAUGHTON, “The Three Trees” (1911), Vic 5866, 17222. Another famous stage routine (“There, there… and THERE!”) which has not held up as well as “No News,” with which it was coupled on Victor 17222.
GENE GREENE, “King of The Bungaloos” (1911), Col A994, Vic 5854, Pathe 5348, Emerson 7228, Vic 18266, Little Wonder 540. A raggy number that is certainly a Little Wonder.
FRED DUPREZ, “Happy Tho’ Married” (1914), Col A1516, Edison 50254, 2373. Everyone has a copy of this, though few have the strength to listen to it very often. Duprez recorded many other titles, mostly obscure (though “Desperate Desmond,” based on an early Harry Herschfield comic strip, turns up once in a while). The Columbia version of “Happy” no doubt benefited from being on the flip side of Joe Hayman’s enormously popular “Cohen On The Telephone.”
GRACE KERNS AND MILDRED POTTER, “Whispering Hope” (1915), Col A1686. The Columbia catalog called Grace “the absolute mistress of the art of vocalism,” which may have irked Mildred. In any event this seems to have been their only duet, although they turned up together in various ensembles with the likes of Charles Harrison, Frank Croxton and the entire Columbia Opera Chorus to keep them apart. The other side of this record was the equally spellbinding “Somewhere a Voice Is Calling” by “the absolute mistress” and Albert Wiederhold.
FELIX ARNDT, “Nola” (1916), Vic 18056. Felix named this famous piano solo after his wife, but he died in 1918 before he could come up with anything to equal it. Many others then picked up the cheerful tune, including Vincent Lopez in the 1920s, radio in the 1930s (according to ASCAP it was played 8,778 times in 1937; ouch!), Hollywood in the 1940s (in the Jack Oakie movie That’s The Spirit) and novelty singer Billy Williams in the 1950s. Some interesting early versions include those of Carson Robison (Vic 20382) and The Revelers (Vic 21100), the latter featuring the original lyrics.
RHODA BERNARD, “Nat’an (For What Are You Waitin’, Nat’an?)” (1916), Vic 18023, Col A1973, Pathe 29138. Some of her other Yiddisha titles are gems too (“When Isadore Sang ‘Il Trovatore’,” “Cohen Owes Me Ninety‑Seven Dollars”), but “Nat’an” is the one we all remember. Isn’t it?
MIZZI HAJOS, “Evelyn”/”In the Dark” (1916), Vic 45091. It took the star of Pom‑Pom four separate recording sessions to get the latter title right, which may explain why she was not invited back by Victor.
GREEK EVANS, “Free Trade and a Misty Moon” (1917), Vic 18285. Not long after he recorded this robust hit from Eileen for the number one record company (accompanied by the show’s composer, Victor Herbert), Greek descended to the number two label (Columbia), then to Okeh, then to Emerson, and finally to lowly Olympic. If he had recorded in the 1950s he probably would have been on Tops.
WILLIE WESTON, “Joan of Arc” (1917), Vic 18307, Pathe 20224. Might be rivaled by his “Rolling In His Little Rolling Chair” (Vic 18233), although “Joan” was the only title he re‑recorded later.
FRANCES WHITE, “M‑I‑S‑S‑I‑S‑S‑I‑P‑P‑I”/”Six Times Six Is Thirty Six” (1917), Vic 18357, 45137. Another stage star, known for these trademark numbers from her hit show Hitchy Koo.
JULIAN ROSE, “Levinsky At The Wedding” (1917), Col A2310, A2366. This is cheating slightly, since Parts 1&2 (A2310) and 3&4 (A2366) did almost equally well according to the Columbia files, selling a phenomenal 222,000 and 206,000 copies, respectively. But it’s all the same routine, isn’t it? Rose continued recording Levinsky titles for the rest of his career, with a few Sadie’s, Becky’s and Mrs. Blumberg’s thrown in.
WILLIAM J. “SAILOR” REILLY, “We’re All Going Calling On the Kaiser” (1918), Vic 18465. This enlisted Navy electrician electrified America with his robust wartime number, but became a “forgotten man” after the hostilities ended.
LIEUT. GITZ RICE, “Fun In Flanders” (1918), Vic 18405. After being gassed at Ypres (or another European battle), the Lieutenant became a recording artist‑‑‑briefly‑‑with this very popular sketch. He was assisted both on this and the similar “Life In A Trench In Belgium” on Columbia by the estimable Henry Burr, a perfect choice for melodramatics if ever there was one.
ADELE ROWLAND, “Granny” (1919), Vic 18621, Col A2820. This stage actress played both the Victor and the Columbia sides of the street. She had recorded a number of titles earlier (including “Mammy O’ Mine” on Victor), but made none after. In fact, although she appeared in films as late as 1948, and lived until 1971, her entire recording career was confined to the single year 1919. Her big number is not to be confused with “Granny (You’re My Mammy’s Mammy)” (1921) by another One‑Hit‑Wonder, Yvette Rugel.
1920 and Later
EDITH DAY, “Alice Blue Gown” (1920), Vic 45176. Shortly after recording this huge U.S. hit the Minneapolis‑born Ms. Day left for London, where she spent the rest of her recording career with English Columbia, Parlophone and Decca. Apparently she couldn’t stand success in the colonies.
YVETTE RUGEL, “Granny (You’re My Mammy’s Mammy)” (1921), Vic 18854. Young vaudevillian Yvette appeared in George White’s Scandals and Earl Carroll’s Vanities, but her recording career was pretty spotty. This was her only issued Victor, rendered in dramatic fashion (see her picture in the March 1922 Victor supplement, looking skyward, hand clutched to breast). Its sales may have been helped by the vocal version of “Ka‑Lu‑A” on the other side. If you hunt you may also find her on minor labels such as Apex and Domino.
*GALLAGHER & SHEAN, “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean” (1922), Vic 18941. The definition of a “one hit wonder.” This patter song from the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies sold an enormous number of records‑‑nearly a million on Victor alone‑‑and new verses were even syndicated in a daily newspaper column, but G&S never released anything else. Perhaps it was because they were sued for stealing the idea by vaudevillians “Mr. Duffy and Mr. Sweeney.” Gallagher and Shean did record two other numbers for Victor, “Quietly” and “Boola‑Boola,” but both were rejected. They broke up in 1925, and Gallagher, who suffered from mental illness, died four years later.
WENDELL HALL, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’” (1923), Gennett 5271, Edison 51261, Vic 19171, 19886. The Red Headed Music Maker was one of the foremost ukelele popularizers of the 1920s, especially with this huge hit that sold over half a million copies on Victor alone, and was called by Variety “a national epidemic” in 1924. Wendell recorded part 2 in late 1924, and even a part 3 in 1933 (for Bluebird), but never came anywhere near his initial success.
A Few Electrics Thrown In
J. HAROLD MURRAY, “Gems From Rio Rita ‑ The Ranger’s Song” (1927), Vic 35816. J. Harold recorded a number of titles earlier for Edison, and one later for Brunswick, but none approached Rio Rita. He also starred in the show.
MORAN AND MACK, “The Two Black Crows” (1927), Col 935‑D. One of the classic cases of a record company getting caught by surprise. Columbia originally ordered 5,875 copies of this disc to be pressed, a normal order for a new artist in 1927; to everyone’s amazement it took off like wildfire, selling an incredible 1.4 million, most of them in the first six months of release! Naturally sequels were immediately rushed out: parts 3&4 (1094‑D) sold 780,000, parts 5&6 570,000, and parts 7&8 223,000. Like Julian Rose’s “Levinsky,” it was really all the same routine. Later efforts by M&M were mostly ignored.
GEORGE JESSEL, “My Mother’s Eyes” (1929), Vic 21852. The latter‑day “America’s Toastmaster General” actually recorded a routine called “The Toastmaster” for Banner in 1921. He also made a few early sides for Pathe and Emerson, but this bit of pathos from his film Lucky Boy was the height (?) of his recording career.
LUPE VELEZ, “Where Is the Song of Songs For Me” (1929), Vic 21932. This number by the Mexican Spitfire, from her talkie film Lady of the Pavements, was recorded when she was only 19. She never recorded again. She committed suicide by a drug overdose in 1944.
GLORIA SWANSON, “Love (Your Spell Is Everywhere)” (1929), Vic 22079. Another film star dabbling in records. She made a couple of others for Brunswick and HMV in 1931‑32, but this is the one that is remembered.
FLORENCE DESMOND, “A Hollywood Party” (1932), Vic 24210. A very funny send‑up of Hollywood personalities, recorded in England by HMV and released here in early 1933. Although sales were limited by the Depression, her hilarious impersonations were apparently quite popular for the time. Perhaps it was because, as the English HMV supplements suggested, her “razor‑edged wit” had more than a little bite. She made many similar impersonation records after this first hit, but none equaled it.
Rust, Brian, and Allen G. Debus, The Complete Entertainment Discography (Second Edition) (Da Capo, 1989). An excellent reference. If you haven’t got it, get it.
Also assorted original record catalogs and supplements in the author’s collection.
(1) Not being British I don’t know how often other titles by Master Lough turn up, but I gather not nearly as often as “Prayer.” Perhaps a reader from the other side of the pond could enlighten us.