Ain't No Stopping Us Now: The Sound Of Philadelphia Explained In 10 Songs | GRAMMY.com (2024)

Ain't No Stopping Us Now: The Sound Of Philadelphia Explained In 10 Songs | GRAMMY.com (1)

The O'Jays perform on Soul Train.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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2024 marks the 50th anniversary of "T.S.O.P. (The Sounds of Philadelphia)," an anthem that defined Philly soul alongside artists including Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell who bridged Motown and disco sounds with classical influences.

Alexandra Fiorentino-Swinton

|GRAMMYs/Feb 9, 2024 - 04:17 pm

2024 marks the 50th anniversary of the song that gave a name to an influential musical phenomena; a song that became an anthem for Philadelphia and for an entire era of Black art and culture.

Written and produced by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, "T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)" represented the pinnacle of what is known as Philadelphia soul — also called orchestral soul, symphonic soul, or in the words of James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley "putting the bow tie on funk." It’s largely associated with Philadelphia International Records, a label founded and owned by Gamble and Huff in 1971.

Outside of Gamble and Huff, Philadelphia soul was also engineered by a suite of songwriters and producers like Thom Bell, Dexter Wansel, Gene McFadden, John Whitehead, and Bunny Sigler. Though Philadelphia has long been a musical city — famed 1950s music variety show "American Bandstand" started as a local Philadelphia broadcast program — the sound of Philadelphia gave it a definitive face.

Philadelphia soul was a transitional, experimental genre that reflected the similarly transitional and experimental culture of the ‘70s. For better or worse, Motown is culturally associated with the fizzy optimism and respectability politics of the integrationist '60s. Disco is pegged as the defining sound of the hedonist, glamorous, sexually liberated late '70s. Philadelphia soul bridged the gap, with an emphasis on self-love, self-determination, and community as the Black struggle raged on.. Philadelphia soul was the sound of a community in motion.

At the musical foundation of the sound of Philadelphia was the blend of traditional soul and classical influences, as its architects used the cinematic drama of both to express the turbulent emotions of the times through music. Philadelphia soul dominated commercially and culturally for about 10 years before fizzling out of the mainstream, and its disregard for strict genre conventions and emphasis on experimentation paved the way for a sonically diverse R&B landscape. Read on for 10 songs that defined the innovative Sound of Philadelphia.

The Delfonics - "La-La Means I Love You" (1968)

Songwriter and producer Thom Bell — who went on to win the very first GRAMMY Award for Producer Of The Year — helped to put the Philadelphia soul movement in motion with his work with the Delfonics. Bell’s penchant for imbuing soul with the larger-than-life opulence of full orchestral arrangements stemmed from his childhood, as he grew up strictly listening to classical music while he trained to be a concert pianist.

Bell’s writing and producing partnership with the Delfonics’ lead singer co-songwriter William Hart was one of the first bridges between traditional soul and what would become Philly sound, with songs like the GRAMMY-winning "Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" featuring an eclectic blend of instruments like bells, an electric sitar, and a prominent Alpine horn. "Ready or Not (You Can’t Hide from Love)" boasted one of the most bombastic string and horn intros music has ever heard, making it extremely popular song for sampling as it provided the basis for songs like the Fugees’ "Ready or Not," Missy Elliott’s "Sock it 2 Me," and Bridgit Mendler’s "Ready or Not."

But the Delfonics’ finest moment was their breezy breakout hit "La-La Means I Love You," a homage to ‘50s love songs and doo-wop inflected Motown. Bell’s grandiose string arrangement gives the song a fairytale feel to match the dreamy "la-las." Rounded out by Hart’s buoyant lyrical emphasis ("many guys have come to you / with a line that isn’t true"), "La-La Means I Love You" kicked off Bell’s illustrious writing, producing, and arranging career.

Billy Paul - "Me and Mrs. Jones" (1972)

Billy Paul’s GRAMMY-winning "Me and Mrs. Jones" is peak Philadelphia soul. Released just one year after Philadelphia International Records was established, the perfect storm of Paul’s jazz-trained vocals, a mesmerizing story, and a full Thom Bell orchestral arrangement made for one of the greatest soul songs of all time. It subverts the usual franticness of "cheating anthems" by moving at a luxuriously slow tempo, relishing in Paul’s vocal vamping and the instruments that glide along with him. It’s a song that epitomizes drama, with a jazzy clarinet, crescendoing horns, and syncopated hi-hats creating an intensity that makes the utter silence when Paul belts into the chorus ever more piercing.

The rest of the songs on the album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul are all covers or socially conscious songs; Paul’s stellar bluesy second single "Am I Black Enough For You?" and album tracks "Brown Baby" and "I’m Just a Prisoner" are among the best to come out of Philadelphia soul. "I’m Just a Prisoner" is a stunning reflection on mass incarceration and injustice, with lyrics by Gamble, Bunny Sigler and Phil Hurtt: "Got no trial in sight / This justice they all talk about just ain't right / Has everybody forgotten about me? / Will I ever, ever, ever be free?"

In his documentary Am I Black Enough For You?, Paul discusses how his decision to lean into songs about Black empowerment and social issues ended up undoing the mainstream success he achieved with "Me and Mrs. Jones" as audiences turned their back on him.

The O’Jays - "Back Stabbers" (1972)

Back Stabbers brought the O’Jays a Billboard No. 1 song with "Love Train," an iconic ode to world peace and unity that made them synonymous with the success of Philadelphia soul. "Love Train" and the album’s self-titled first single "Back Stabbers" are the yin and yang of the sound, as the mysterious and moody "Back Stabbers" represented its early penchant for creative experimentation.

"Back Stabbers'' adopts influences from the funky, psychedelic Norman Whitfield sound that was defining Motown in the ‘70s with songs like "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" and "Smiling Faces Sometimes," the latter of which is quoted in "Back Stabbers." In its extended introduction, a thrilling piano gives way to conga and bongo drums, jazzy guitar, and organ, all underscored by sinister-sounding strings and horns. The O’Jays’ Eddie Levert and William Powell engage in a frantic back-and-forth throughout, building the feelings of frenzy.

As much about the state of the world — one that was in the midst of the Watergate scandal, Vietnam War and mass urban decay — as it is about relationship paranoia, "Backstabbers" is an ode to betrayal, with evocative lyrics like "the blades are long, clenched tight in their fists / Aimin' straight at your back, and I don't think they'll miss."

The Stylistics - "People Make the World Go Round" (1973)

Philadelphia soul is often called a "producer’s genre," but its iconic lyrics can’t be underrated — many of which came from the poetic imagination of Linda Creed, Thom Bell’s most frequent collaborator. The two primarily worked together on songs for the groups the Spinners and the Stylistics, cranking out R&B staples like "The Rubberband Man" and "You Are Everything."

Bell instantly hit a creative stride with the Stylistics largely because of his love of lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr. 's tenor voice. In 2023, Rolling Stone included Thompkins Jr. on their 200 Best Singers of All Time list, affirming "[Thompkins Jr.’s] supernally precise singing defined R&B romanticism and gave the falsetto tradition new heights to hit." Bell dialed up his penchant for both sweetness and experimentation for the Stylistics’ production, such as on the Creed-written "You Make Me Feel Brand New" which combines Thompkins Jr’s falsetto and a hypnotic electric sitar for a spiritual feeling.

Bell and Creed' creative partnership reached its experimental peak with the Stylistics’ "People Make The World Go Round." Creed’s lyrics leaned into poetic commentary on greed and exploitation, like "Wall Street losin' dough on every share, they're blamin' it on longer hair / big men smokin' in their easy chair, on a fat cigar without a care." To complement her experimentation, on top of Bell’s usual stack of orchestration, the song featured wind chimes, marimba, xylophone, and a flute solo. The song’s melody followed a stilted syncopation that reflected the intensity of the subject matter, structuring Thompkins Jr.'s falsetto into a meandering rhythm that turned the usually romantic voice into something haunting.

MFSB - "T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)" (1973)

The literal "sound" of Philadelphia soul is the sound of MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother), the house band for Philadelphia International Records and the instrumentalists on the vast majority of Philadelphia soul songs. MFSB was a group of 30-plus session musicians at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, where the majority of Gamble, Huff, Bell and co.’s songs were recorded by engineer Joe Tarsia.

The rich, symphonic sounds that define Philadelphia soul were brought to life by MFSB, and once they finally claimed the spotlight as a recording act they produced the genre’s most important entry. In 1973 MFSB released "T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)," a song Don Cornelius asked Gamble and Huff to write to become the new theme song for "Soul Train." The result indeed feels like an uplifting, exhilarating train ride.

MFSB had their moment to shine and they delivered; from Zach Zachery’s wailing saxophone outro to Lenny Pakula’s jubilant organ to a dominant drum rhythm by Earl Young, who would go on to be called the father of disco drums and win a GRAMMYfor "Disco Inferno" as a member of the Trammps. The song is tied together with a harmonious bow by the vocals of girl group the Three Degrees, marking the start of their prolific run at Philadelphia International Records with just two lyrics: "people all over the world" and "let’s get it on, it’s time to get down."

The Three Degrees - "If and When" (1973)

The Three Degrees’ self-titled first album on Philadelphia International Records was released in late 1973, hot off of the success of "T.S.O.P.." At a time when the girl group boom had dried up, the Three Degrees soared to international stardom. (The now-King of England still loves their music, and invited them to sing and party with him on his 30th birthday.)

The biggest hit on The Three Degrees was "When Will I See You Again," a dreamy song that follows a fairly straightforward Gamble and Huff formula which, like "T.S.O.P.," treats the Three Degrees’ vocals like one of many beautiful instruments in the mix, rather than the centerpiece. The song trails off into a set of harmonies that scratch the surface of what the group is capable of when given the space to shine.

They shine brightest on "If and When," a wistful, intense ballad that showcases the group as a powerhouse vocal unit. Every second of the song’s sound is emotive and wholly centered on the Three Degrees, with the ornate orchestration and fanfares serving to build up the vocal dynamics rather than the other way around. Around the halfway mark of the song, the brash chorus gives way to a four minute outro where the group erupts into a vocal supernova. The Three Degrees give their finest vocal performance for those lasting minutes of harmonic variations on the chorus, swelling and stretching and blending their voices as elegantly as any orchestra.

The O’Jays - "For The Love of Money" (1973)

The O’Jays were often the conduit for Gamble & Huff’s philosophies and politics, and the messages in their music became most poignant on 1973’s Ship Ahoy. Ship Ahoy charts historical injustice to diagnose what Gamble and Huff identified as issues still plaguing the Black community. Ship Ahoy’s title track is a nine minute epic pointing to the original sin of Black America, the transatlantic slave trade. Bookended by the sounds of waves and whips, "Ship Ahoy" casts a sorrowful, unflinching spotlight on slavery.

The rest of the album looked at issues like environmental injustice ("This Air I Breathe") and lack of solidarity ("Don’t Call Me Brother"). Love songs sprinkled in between balance between consciousness and optimism, but Gamble and Huff never shied away from the topics they deemed most important.

The album’s crown jewel is "For The Love of Money," a moody song about the evils of materialism, lamenting that "people can't even walk the street / because they never know who in the world they're gonna beat for that mean, green almighty dollar." In one of their first big creative departures, Gamble and Huff replaced their typical lovely strings with a funky bass, topped off with background vocal chants warped by echo effects to hammer home the ominousness. Trumpets that sound more like warning sirens, mark the brightest sounds on the song.

Teddy Pendergrass - "When Somebody Loves You Back" (1978)

Teddy Pendergrass’ rise to stardom was a Cinderella story, having been initially hired as a drummer for the group Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes before joining the group as a vocalist. Once the group joined Philadelphia International Records, it became clear to Gamble and Huff that Pendergrass had a standout voice that was perfectly suited to their style and he essentially became the vocal headliner of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

With a voice Rolling Stone listed as the 42nd greatest of all time, Pendergrass was the lead on all of the group’s biggest hits, such as "If You Don’t Know Me By Now," "Wake Up Everybody," and "The Love I Lost."

A solo breakout was inevitable, and Pendergrass went on to become the first Black artist to have five consecutive platinum albums. Debuting in the midst of disco’s late ‘70s reign, Gamble, Huff, and Pendergrass leaned heavier into pure soul than many of their peers. Pendergrass’ baritone voice balanced Gamble and Huff’s ornamental productions with sensual grit. Combined with Pendergrass’ abundance of natural charm and charisma, his stream of bedroom songs like "Close the Door," "Come Go With Me," and "Turn Off The Lights" made Pendergrass into a prolific sex symbol. But the more saccharine "When Somebody Loves You Back" showcases his musical partnership best, as Gamble and Huff amplify a feeling of dizzying elation with playful horns and a whirlwind of strings cushioning Pendergrass’ giddy celebration of loving and being loved.

McFadden & Whitehead - "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" (1979)

Gene McFadden and John Whitehead mastered the art of putting the "message in the music," and proved to be two of the greatest lyricists of Philadelphia soul. At their sentimental best they co-wrote The Intruders’ "I’ll Always Love My Mama" and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ "Wake Up Everybody," channeling their cynical sides for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ "Bad Luck" and the O’Jays "Back Stabbers." Their songwriting specialty was storytelling, and eventually they wanted to be the ones singing the stories.

’s first single off their debut album was "Ain’t No Stopping Us Now," where Philadelphia soul explicitly dovetails into disco, as peppy drum kicks and a synthy keyboard augment the sound. One of the most optimistic songs of all time, "Ain’t No Stopping Us Now" is naturally anthemic, lending itself well to sports and other pursuits of victory with lyrics like "we won't let nothing hold us back, we're puttin' ourselves together, we're polishing up our act. / And if you've ever been held down before, I know you refuse to be held down any more." It became not only their signature hit but a national anthem for Black American prosperity, and was used prominently on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign trail.

The Jones Girls - "Nights Over Egypt" (1981)

One of Philadelphia International Records’ most prolific songwriters and producers was Dexter Wansel, who created a cosmic fantasyland in his musical corner of the world. As he stated in 2018, "I did a lot of instrumentation that was experimental. I’ve always thought of outer space as being my guideline." Wansel’s own underrated debut album on Philadelphia International Records, Life on Mars, layered warbling synthesizers on top of funk and jazz fusion to convey his take on cosmic liberation. Its standout "Theme from the Planets" can be heard in hundreds of samples, notably in the drums and bass line of Dido’s "Thank You" (and thus in Eminem’s "Stan").

Wansel was then perfectly positioned for Philadelphia soul’s transition from classical influences and disco cheer towards the slicker, more future-focused R&B of the 1980s. His collaborations with the Jones Girls were some of the most successful examples of this transition, with vocal dexterity that made them as suited to symphonies as they were to funk. Wansel and co-writer Cynthia Biggs channeled the Egyptology influences that were prominent in Afrofuturist funk for the Jones Girls’ "Nights Over Egypt." A song that married strings and harps with groovy jazz fusion, it became emblematic of the quiet storm subgenre that boomed in the early ‘80s.

Ain't No Stopping Us Now: The Sound Of Philadelphia Explained In 10 Songs | GRAMMY.com (2)

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper

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From Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" to Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's "Shallow," what song gets you in the mood for Valentine's—or Galetine's—Day?

Ana Monroy Yglesias

|GRAMMYs/Feb 13, 2021 - 01:20 am

Valentine's Day is around the corner on Feb. 14, and we hope you're feeling the love in the air.

For GRAMMY.com's latest poll, we want to know what romantic jam you'll be playing to celebrate the love you feel for your partner, yourself, your furry friends or anyone else close to your heart.

Vote for your favorite love song now in our latest poll below, which includes timeless classics from Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Al Green, as well as lovely tracks from Adele, Rihanna and Lady Gaga.

The Supremes Were A Dream, And Mary Wilson Dreamt It

Ain't No Stopping Us Now: The Sound Of Philadelphia Explained In 10 Songs | GRAMMY.com (3)

Rich Medina

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The 30th anniversary of the annual Northern California music festival will feature over 100 acts across 14 stages from Aug. 9–11, with Jazz Beyond highlighting "artists redefining the contemporary jazz genre"

Ana Monroy Yglesias

|GRAMMYs/Jul 18, 2019 - 01:49 am

On Aug. 9–11, the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest will celebrate its 30th birthday by filling the Northern California city's downtown area with world class music across its 14 stages. The newly announced lineup for the Jazz Beyond Stage will showcase "artists redefining the contemporary jazz genre in forms that future generations will carry forward to collectively embrace the timeless tradition of jazz," according to a press release.

This stage's lineup, co-curated by Tommy Aguilar, includes longtime vinyl-spinning DJs Rich Medina and Peanut Butter Wolfandexperimental jazz quartets Sons Of Kemet and The JuJu Exchange. Wolf, who is from San Jose, will return to his hometown to headline Saturday at the Beyond.

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"Since I grew up in San Jose from the age of 6 until I was 25, it's really exciting to be able to go to my hometown to play for that many people," Wolf told S.J. Jazz Fest. "I've been a big fan of jazz since I was a kid, as well as funk and soul. I learned about jazz more through hip-hop music though…This summer, I'll perform with a full multi-media video set-up where I'm spinning vinyl while projecting vintage videos and promo clips from the '60s, '70s, '80sand '90s. San Jose Jazz is up to a good thing."

Related: Preservation Hall Jazz Band On Being The Evolution

This year will be the first time the Jazz Beyond artists take over the Post Street stage. Other acts include the Shigeto Live Ensemble, led by Detroit producer Zach Saginaw aka Shigeto, San Jose-based producer/engineer B. Lewis, jazz drummer/producer/DJ Kassa Overall, Chicago trumpeter/composer Marquis Hill, Oakland-born jazz bassist and singer Aneesa Strings, and others.

Lewis, who has worked with the likes of TOKiMONSTA and K.Flay in recent years, has been named the first Jazz Beyond Artist-In-Residence and will be releasing a collaborative New Works Suite album in October, with "original compositions…written as an emblem of the city of San Jose."

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The event's other stages include ones dedicated to salsa and gospel and swing, respectively. The main stage will feature GRAMMY-winning crooner Gregory Porter, GRAMMY Hall of Famers The O'Jays and The Family Stone, Portland's own 12-piece jazzensemble Pink Martini, GRAMMY-nominated R&B group En Vogue, GRAMMY-winning jazz singer Dianne Reeves and many more.

The fest hasseveral different ticket options, including single-day or weekend options; you can find more info here.

Ain't No Stopping Us Now: The Sound Of Philadelphia Explained In 10 Songs | GRAMMY.com (4)

Dr. Dre

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Recordings from Johnny Cash, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Queen, Nirvana, and Aerosmith also added to the Hall, now in its 45th year

Renée Fabian

|GRAMMYs/Jan 16, 2018 - 07:30 pm

Each year the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame celebrates a class of outstanding recordings at least 25 years old that exhibit qualitative or historical significance. To continue its ongoing commitment to preserving and celebrating timeless recordings, the Recording Academy has announced the class of 2018 recordings added to the Hall.

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Recordings honored include Whitney Houston's unforgettable 1992 cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You"; Dr. Dre's groundbreaking 1992 debut rap album, The Chronic; Public Enemy's 1989 hip-hop classic, "Fight The Power"; Aerosmith's 1973 power ballad, "Dream On"; Nirvana's influential 1991 LP, Nevermind; and David Bowie's 1969 time-traveling track "Space Odyssey."

Dr. Dre's 'The Chronic': 25 Years Later

Queen's fourth studio album, A Night At The Opera (1972), the Rolling Stones' chart-topping "Paint It Black" (1966), Johnny Cash's seminal Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison (1968), Linda Ronstadt's fifth studio album, Heart Like A Wheel (1974), Motown group the Four Tops' single "I Can't Help Myself" (1965), and Gladys Knight & The Pips' classic "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" (1967) each made the list.

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Also earning a spot in the 2018 class is Jimi Hendrix's album Band Of Gypsys (1970), Sam Cooke's classic single "Bring It On Home To Me" (1962), Parliament's infectious track "Flash Light" (1978), Andy Williams' smooth interpretation of "Moon River" (1962), Billy Paul's ballad "Me And Mrs. Jones" (1972), and Leon Russell's iconic "A Song For You" (1970).

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Representing jazz, the King Cole Trio's 1946 song "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," Billie Holiday's 1937 version of "My Man" and Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five's 1927 track "Savoy Blues" have been inducted.

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South African trumpeter/singer Hugh Masekela's track "Grazing In The Grass" (1968), Thomas Alva Edison's original recording of "Mary Had A Little Lamb" (1878), Delta blues singer Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right" (1949), and English musician Mike Oldfield's debut album, Tubular Bells, (1973) round out this year's Hall honorees.

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Each year recordings are reviewed by a special member committee comprised of eminent and knowledgeable professionals from all branches of the recording arts, with final approval by the Recording Academy's National Board of Trustees. With these 25 new titles, the Hall, now in its 45th year, currently totals 1,063 recordings and is on display at GRAMMY Museum L.A. Live.

"The GRAMMY Hall Of Fame strives to embody the changing climate of music throughout these past decades, always acknowledging the diversity of musical expression for which the Academy has become known," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of the Recording Academy. "Iconic and inspiring, these recordings are an integral part of our musical, social and cultural history, and we are proud to have added them to our growing catalog."

The 60th GRAMMY Awardswill take place at New York City's Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 28. Thetelecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 7:30–11 p.m. ET/4:30–8 p.m. PT.

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The One-Hit Wonder Day GRAMMY playlist

Crystal Larsen

|GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

There is very little information available on National One-Hit Wonder Day, other than that it falls on Sept. 25. Even Wikipedia, God's own source of un-fact-checked information, doesn't touch the subject. That said, we think it's worth celebrating anyway.

One-hit wonders have a rich tradition in pop music. Some great, even trend-setting, songs have been one-hit wonders — songs that made an impact that overshadowed the artists' other work.

What is a one-hit wonder? Well, there's no textbook definition. Some say one Top 40 hit is the qualifier. But over the years, we've seen that many songs that hit the 30s often don't become a universal part of our musical lexicon, while some songs that barely make the Top 40 become unforgettable.

So, for our purposes, the songs listed below are, in our opinion, the songs so associated with the artist, defining who they are, that we consider them, in effect, one-hit wonders. And don't be fooled into thinking a one-hit wonder makes the song or the artist somehow second rate. Sometimes it's just fate at work.

Domenico Modugno (iTunes>)
"Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)," Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, 1958

The only foreign-language Record Of The Year winner came the first year GRAMMYs were awarded. The Italian Modugno wrote what became a modern-day standard and then was all but never heard from again on the U.S. charts, save for "Piove (Ciao, Ciao Bambina)," which scratched the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 97 in 1959.

Stan Getz & Astrud Gilberto (iTunes>)
"The Girl From Ipanema," Record Of The Year, 1964; GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, 2000

Another song that has become a standard, this one the signature of the bossa nova movement. Gilberto never made the charts again. Sax great Getz did hit No. 15 with the similarly themed "Desafinado" two years prior to "Ipanema," but that success was clearly trumped.

Gale Garnett (iTunes>)
"We'll Sing In The Sunshine," Best Folk Recording, 1964

The New Zealand-native had her only hit with this catchy, folkish testament to enjoying the moment. Such wanderlust sentiment as "I will never love you/The cost of love's too dear/But though I'll never love you/I'll stay with you one year" must have been a bit surprising coming from a woman in 1964, but Garnett proved her mettle in becoming a successful actress, journalist and essayist after her singing career.

Mason Williams (iTunes>)
"Classical Gas," Best Contemporary Pop Performance, Instrumental, 1968

This guitar-based instrumental hit was huge in 1968, an era that was the heyday for instrumentals. But if you're thinking Williams himself was a one-hit wonder, think again. Before "Classical Gas" ever climbed the charts, he was an Emmy-winning writer for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

Sammi Smith (iTunes>)
"Help Me Make It Through The Night," Best Country Vocal Performance, Female, 1971

Smith's reading of this Kris Kristofferson classic, in which she views sex rather than love as the cure for her loneliness, made her a bit of a female country outlaw in the early '70s. Whether that explains her only pop hit is hard to say, but she did subsequently enjoy a string of country charters.

Les Crane (iTunes>)
"Desiderata," Best Spoken Word Recording, 1971

This spoken-word novelty hit No. 3 on the Adult Contemporary chart, and it became a momentary cultural reference point, even resulting in a National Lampoon parody, "Deteriorata." Crane (real name Leslie Stein), was a talk radio host in San Francisco who ultimately hosted some short-lived TV shows, most notably "The Les Crane Show."

Billy Paul (iTunes>)
"Me And Mrs. Jones," Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male, 1972

This sophisticated and jazzy bit of soul from Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia International machine went all the way to No. 1. Maybe that's what a song about an illicit affair will do for you. Or maybe it was because it was four-plus minutes of smooth R&B perfection.

Van McCoy (iTunes>)
"The Hustle," Best Instrumental Performance, 1975

Some say — or bemoan — that this was the first disco record. Not really true, as a number of Gamble and Huff records were developing the beat and lush arrangements of disco in the early '70s, as were R&B hits such as the Hues Corporation's "Rock The Boat." Still, this No. 1 single, named for a dance, really launched the genre. Two things may have contributed to McCoy's one-hit wonder status: He was really a producer/songwriter, and he died at the age of 35 in 1979.

Starland Vocal Band (iTunes>)
"Afternoon Delight," Best New Artist Of The Year, 1976

A massive No. 1 record in 1976, the band won the Best New Artist Of The Year award on the strength of this song alone. The group had ties to John Denver, which in 1976 was enough on its own to get you attention. But there was no denying the intoxicating catchiness of the song, or the fact that its omnipresence may have killed their career.

Debby Boone (iTunes>)
"You Light Up My Life," Best New Artist Of The Year, 1977

This song was inescapable in 1977, lasting 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Though it lost out for Record Of The Year to the Eagles' "Hotel California," Boone won the Best New Artist Of The Year trophy. Like so many songs that radio puts in endless rotation, this one ultimately suffered some backlash, which may have impacted Boone's trouble in returning to the Top 40.

Bobby McFerrin (iTunes>)
"Don't Worry Be Happy," Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, 1988

The extremely talented McFerrin has won 10 GRAMMY Awards, but this unusual hit truly stands out. Like "Afternoon Delight" and "You Light Up My Life," this tune suffered from being on repeat for the better part of a year, but it's no doubt one of the few (maybe only) a cappella No. 1 hits.

Alannah Myles (iTunes>)
"Black Velvet," Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female, 1990

This Canadian singer hit No. 1 from out of the blue, which may have been appropriate given the bluesy nature of this song and the fact that it sounded like little else on the radio at the time. Of course, it probably never hurts when your song is about the king of rock and roll. Myles broke the Top 40 the following year with the less-bluesy "Love Is."

Sir Mix-A-Lot (iTunes>)
"Baby Got Back," Best Rap Solo Performance, 1992

Certainly not the only hit that's an homage to the female form, but one graphic and humorous enough to capture mainstream attention in a big way. This track defined Sir Mix-A-Lot's career, even though he had a number of hit albums and was a self-made hip-hop success.

Shawn Colvin (iTunes>)
"Sunny Came Home," Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, 1997

Neo-folkie Colvin scored a left-field hit in 1997 with this song, off A Few Small Repairs, about either a scorned wife's revenge or a pyromaniac's confession. Either way, it caught fire with fans and critics alike, becoming her only Top 10 hit, earning two major GRAMMY wins. Her follow-up album, Holiday Songs And Lullabies, may help explain why she didn't sustain this level of commercial success, and reveal that she may never have been aiming for it in the first place.

Bob Carlisle (iTunes>)
"Butterfly Kisses," Best Country Song, 1997

If there are "chick song" equivalents to "chick flicks," this is one of them. A touching song about a father watching his daughter grow up, it tugged heartstrings all the way up to No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It was the only charted single for this primarily contemporary Christian artist.

Baha Men (iTunes>)
"Who Let The Dogs Out," Best Dance Recording, 2000

Perhaps best known for becoming a football anthem, the pervasiveness of the song belied the fact that it only reached No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100. It became the novelty song to either love or hate that year, spawned covers by the likes of the Chipmunks and added a phrase to the pop culture lexicon.

Norah Jones (iTunes>)
"Don't Know Why," Record Of The Year, 2002

When it comes to artists in the 2000s, it's hard to say whether one-hit wonder status will be lasting, or if they'll make another grand statement. For the moment anyway, Jones' Come Away With Me remains by far her biggest hit, a true debut phenomenon that has sold 10 million copies in the United States alone. "Don't Know Why" only hit No. 30, but Jones had become a mainstream star, though she's deliberately remained a respected musical iconoclast since.

Gnarls Barkley (iTunes>)
"Crazy," Best Urban/Alternative Performance, 2006

Singer Cee Lo Green and producer Danger Mouse made not only one of the greatest singles of the year, but one of the greatest singles of the decade. But this was a pair of individual artists coming together, not a true duo. The result? One transcendent hit, a quick follow-up album, and on to other projects, like Cee Lo's recent unmentionable hit.


What's your favorite one-hit wonder? Drop us a comment and let us know.

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