This week’s passing of two noteworthy artists, Percy Sledge (April 14) and Johnny Kemp (April 20) got me thinking about music artists like those two who, despite decades in the business, were forever associated with one song. That one signature song that wasn’t necessarily their biggest (although it was in the case of these two deceased singers), but the one tune they couldn’t get away from – no matter how hard they may have tried.
You know the song I’m talking about. It’s the money-maker. That one song that – if it didn’t exist – bills wouldn’t get paid. It’s that song that everyone associates with the artist and the artist would have to sing in concert – or a riot might ensue.
It’s the first song you think of when you hear the artist’s name and it’s the song that is most likely to be cited in news articles covering their life’s milestones or in their obituaries…as was the case this week.
I thought it might be interesting to come up with a list of such songs and their artists in commemoration of Percy Sledge (“When A Man Loves A Woman”) and Johnny Kemp (“Just Got Paid”) who, by the way, are also included.
I’ve picked 40 singles that I believe fall into this category, although I’m sure you’d be able to come up with more. These are not genre-specific, nor are they my favorite songs or artists by any means. These are merely examples of artists whose careers are largely defined by that huge shining moment. In some cases it’s the act’s biggest hit, in other cases it wasn’t the biggest during its time, but it’s the one to which history has been the most kind.
The list is not meant to settle any debates. For instance, “Single Ladies” (2008) may be considered Beyoncé’s signature song, but her fans could make the same argument for “Crazy In Love” (2003) or even more recently, “Drunk In Love” (2014). So Beyoncé and her songs don’t qualify for this list.
It’s not simply a list of artists and their biggest hits, either. For example, the biggest hit for the Police was “Every Breath You Take” (1983), but one could argue that “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” (1981) or “Roxanne” (1979) are just as memorable. And because they have multiple songs that are etched in our collective memory, the Police are also excluded.
This is also not a referendum on one-hit-wonders, because all such artists would not qualify. Take Crazy Town’s “Butterfly” (2001) or “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by Crash Test Dummies (1994), for instance. Nice songs, yes. But they’re likely not so in demand nowadays that they’re keeping the lights on in the respective acts’ homes. Also excluded is “Play That Funky Music” by one-hit-wonder Wild Cherry. Yes, the song is instantly recognizable and an undeniable classic, but the group disbanded in 1979 and its members have gone on to individual successes – never having performed the song as a group again.
Finally, I excluded situations like Nirvana and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991) because the group was pretty much disbanded after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 and two or three years isn’t enough to gauge just how dependent that band would’ve been on the song in the long run…even though one could safely argue that the rock classic has continued to pay dividends for Cobain’s ex-wife and his daughter, as well as the other band members.
With all those disclaimers out of the way, here’s my list of 40 signature songs and their artists, in alphabetical order by title (by the way, a web link to my Spotify playlist of all 40 songs is at the bottom of this article):
“All Around The World” – Lisa Stansfield (1990). “Been around the world and I-I-I, I can’t find my baby” were words we were all singing along with Stansfield in 1990. Now – 25 years later – it’s hard to imagine her singing anywhere in the world without this song being included.
“Baby Got Back” – Sir Mix-a-Lot (1992). When you think of Sir Mix-a-Lot you think of “Baby Got Back.” When you think of “Baby Got Back” you think of a Sir Mix-A-Lot. End of point.
“Before I Let Go” – Maze feat. Frankie Beverly (1981). This song was a moderate R&B hit for the band in 1981 when it was first released. But since the mid-1990s, it has been a staple for any old-school party thrown by us folks and, as such, is now considered an R&B classic. I’m sure Mr. Beverly and his band have realized that good fortune over the years and may never remove this song from their repertoire. [Okay, I admit you could make a strong case for “Joy And Pain” here, but you don’t hear that one at every single old-skool party you attend.]
“Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke (2013). It’s made him millions, but I can’t help but wonder if he wishes now (after the Marvin Gaye estate debacle) that he’d never recorded it. Nah, I doubt it.
“Caribbean Queen (No More Love On The Run)” – Billy Ocean (1984). The unlikely 1980s comeback of this Trinidadian artist was sparked in ’84 with this big #1 smash. It paved the way for more big hits like “Suddenly,” “Loverboy,” “When The Going Gets Tough” and two more #1s, “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” and “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car.” However, don’t expect to ever see him pull a Sinead O’Connor (see below) on “Caribbean Queen.” He’ll be singing it forever.
“Call Me Maybe” – Carly Rae Jepsen (2012). One of the newer songs on this list, I actually had to look up the artist’s name as hers was the only one that didn’t immediately come to mind when I thought of the song. That’s a good sign that, 10 – 20 years from now, Jepsen will likely be more known for this pop confection than for anything else she’ll do (assuming she’s fortunate enough to even still be in demand to perform it by then).
“Celebration” – Kool & The Gang (1980). Picture this: you’re attending a Kool & The Gang concert where you hear songs like “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Fresh,” “Ladies Night,” “Get Down On It,” and many others – but no “Celebration.” Yeah, you might feel relieved not to have had to sit through yet another torturous listening of that song, but you need to wake up from that dream, because it’s a scenario that’s not likely to happen.
“Don’t Speak” – No Doubt (1996). Sure they had other hits – and their lead singer, Gwen Stefani, has had several more on her own. But if this on-again-off-again band ever took this 1996 smash off their set list, fans would likely demand refunds.
“Don’t Stop Believin'” – Journey (1981). I’m including this one against my better judgment (and against the advice of one of my closest friends, Kv Martin) because Journey had so many hits in the 1970s and ’80s (and even one in the ’90s). But neither the band (and whoever is the lead singer these days) nor Steve Perry (their former leader) would be caught dead without this song on their set list after its resurgence in the 21st century.
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” – Bobby McFerrin (1988). Uggghhhhhh!
“Eye Of The Tiger” – Survivor (1982). This band had several hits in the 1980s in addition to this ever-present rocker. But “Tiger” is the multi-million-selling single that still resonates to this day. A classic in every sense of the word, this may actually be one of those cases where the song is actually more recognizable today than the act who recorded it or the movie from which it came (Quick: for which one of the “Rocky” movies was this the theme song?).
“Forget Me Nots” – Patrice Rushen (1982). Patrice Rushen is probably as respected in the music industry for her production work as she is for her own hit singles. But she is probably keeping the lights on with the residual paychecks she receives from this big R&B hit that also crossed over to the pop top 40 in ’82.
“Gangsta’s Paradise” – Coolio (1995). It’s hard to be taken seriously as a rapper if you’re viewed as a one-hit-wonder, even if you’re technically not one – as is the case with Coolio. That’s what happens when a song is so successful that it becomes the biggest hit of the year it was released (and the first rap song to do so). It may be a double-edged sword, but I can’t imagine Coolio being invited to any old-school rap festival without a stipulation that this song be included in his (very short) set list.
“Ghostbusters” – Ray Parker, Jr. (1984). He may have been in love with ‘The Other Woman,’ but it’s “Ghostbusters” that Ray Parker, Jr. might want to consider marrying. After all, it’s paid a lot of bills – including to Huey Lewis after the singer sued Parker, Jr. for copyright infringement (the song borrowed elements from Lewis’s “I Want A New Drug” from earlier that year – a court ruled). Even with that setback, it’s likely the gift that keeps on giving as Parker’s biggest and most memorable hit.
“Gloria” – Laura Branigan (1982). Laura Branigan had several top ten singles in the 1980s, but none bigger than this. I personally liked “Self Control” better, but I’m sure I would have had to suffer through an extended version of “Gloria” if I’d ever gone to see her live in concert. Laura Branigan -gone too soon.
“Got To Be Real” – Cheryl Lynn (1978). Okay all you fans of her other big #1 R&B hit, “Encore,” I get it. “Encore” is arguably a better, funkier song than “Got To Be Real.” But let’s just imagine she’s touring and for some strange reason forgets to sing “Encore” one night. Yeah folks might be mad for a minute. But let’s be real, those same fans wouldn’t even leave the venue until Cheryl belted out “Got To Be Real.” It’s that 1978 dance classic that is likely one of the most-played old-school jams in history.
“Happy” – Pharrell Williams (2014). Check back in about five years.
“I Will Survive” – Gloria Gaynor (1979). Gloria Gaynor had secured a top ten hit in 1975 with her remake of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and was labeled the first Queen of Disco years before “I Will Survive” charted. However, she may as well be a one-hit-wonder because Gaynor and that anthem are forever linked – and with reported worldwide sales of over 14 million singles, it’s not hard to understand why she’s continued to milk this cash cow for 36 years!
“Just Got Paid” – Johnny Kemp (1988). He likely didn’t die rich, but one presumes that Kemp definitely got paid (and kept getting paid) with this one. It reached the top ten on both the pop and R&B charts in 1988 (#1 on the latter). It’s ironic that he died on a Friday, on a weekend he was being ‘paid’ to appear on a cruise associated with the “Tom Joyner Morning Show.” Any wonder what song he would’ve been performing on that boat? Rest in peace, Johnny Kemp.
“Let’s Hear It For The Boy” – Deniece Williams (1984). This was her second #1 pop single (after “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late”), but it’s the first one that likely comes to the minds of many pop fans when they hear her name. She’s had much better music throughout her career (in my opinion) with gems like “Black Butterfly,” “Free,” “Do What You Feel,” and the top-ten remake of “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle” (my favorite). Williams has since turned to gospel music. But it’ll probably take a divine miracle to separate Williams from her association with this big hit from “Footloose.”
“Livin’ la Vida Loca” – Ricky Martin (1999). He sparked a mini-Latin explosion at the end of the last millennium with this crazy party anthem. “Loca” wasn’t his only top-ten hit, but it’s the one he has to thank the most for becoming a household name. Quick: name his other top 40 songs. Exactly. Those are the ones you won’t be able to request by name even if he came to your house and serenaded you personally.
“My Sharona” – The Knack (1979). This smash rocketed to #1 during the waning months of the disco era in the summer of 1979, effectively ending the genre’s reign on the Hot 100 singles chart. The Knack had other top-40 hits, but this is the one you would pay to see them perform. They disbanded and reunited several times throughout the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s, likely performing this track everywhere they went. Lead singer Doug Fieger died in 2010, but this pop classic lives on.
“Never Gonna Give You Up” – Rick Astley (1987). Rick Astley had another #1 song in the 1980s, but this is the one you remember the most, and I’m sure he knows it. If told he had to flip a coin and decide which of the two he would perform if he could only sing one, I’m sure it would NOT be “Together Forever” – even if the coin dictated otherwise. He knows “Never Gonna” brought in many more coins where that one came from.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” – Sinead O’Connor (1990). O’Connor announced on her Facebook page in March that she would never sing this song again. Without going into the lengthy reason she gave (Google it), I think you’d agree that any time an artist has to make a grand announcement about removing a song from her repertoire, then that song is a big deal. In this case, she’s also making a big mistake.
“Push It” – Salt-n-Pepa (1988). Would you believe me if I told you that this trio of female rappers/dj had bigger chart hits than “Push It”? “Shoop” and “Whatta Man” (their collabo with En Vogue) were top-five singles, while “Push It” managed only top 20. Yet it’s “Push It” that gets the most recognition today – thanks in large part to its current use in television ads featuring the group.
“Rehab” – Amy Winehouse (2007). Her 2006 breakthrough album, “Back to Black,” may have been well received with several critically acclaimed tracks on it, but “Rehab” is easily the one that first comes to mind whenever anyone mentions the late Amy Winehouse.
“Respect” – Aretha Franklin (1967). On second thought, I’d better not go there.
“Rhinestone Cowboy” – Glen Campbell (1975). Glen Campbell, who is reportedly and sadly in the late stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, had several big hits, including “Wichita Lineman” and the #1 pop hit, “Southern Nights.” But his other #1 pop tune “Rhinestone Cowboy” is definitely his signature song…so much so that the song’s title often serves as Campbell’s nickname. He likely never did a tour after 1975 without singing it.
“Rolling In The Deep” – Adele (2011). Adele is making people wait for her third album after the success of her last one, “21,” which remains the biggest-selling album of this decade so far (11 million copies sold in the US alone). The success of “21” was largely due to “Deep,” a huge #1 hit (one of three) and one of the ten biggest-selling downloads in history at 14 million worldwide. Is it hard to see why she’s having trouble coming up with a viable follow-up?
“Spotlight” – Jennifer Hudson (2008). She may not like it, but Hudson may have to live under the ‘spotlight’ of this song for years to come, despite her many successes with other songs and projects (including her Oscar-winning performance in “Dreamgirls,” and current stint in TV’s “Empire”). “Spotlight” is her biggest hit, and while she may not go broke without it, it’s the one song she won’t dare exclude when putting together a set list for her concert performances.
“Stand By Me” – Ben E. King (1961). Mr. King gave us “Supernatural Thing” in 1975 – a funky #1 R&B hit that was a bit of a comeback for the artist. But the return of “Stand By Me” to the charts in 1986 (25 years after it first hit) cemented the 1961 song as the one for which he’ll be remembered the most.
“Take On Me” – Aha (1985). I can see this Norwegian band performing in a multi-act retro ’80s roadshow. What I can’t picture is them doing it without performing this memorable song – their biggest (but surprisingly not only) hit.
“The Twist” – Chubby Checker (1960). Call this a case of the artist knowing which side his bread was buttered on. The song is the only one in history to hit Number One twice in two different chart runs (1960 and ’62). Checker even tried to recreate the magic with the lame “Let’s Twist Again” in between the two chart runs of “The Twist.” And let’s not forget his “Twistin’ USA,” “Slow Twisting,” “Twistin Round The World,” “Twist It Up” and the last installment, “You Stopped Twisting. Why?” Really? He had to ask?
“This Is How We Do It” – Montell Jordan (1995). Like Deniece Williams, Jordan turned to gospel as he now leads the Victory World Church in Norcross, GA (I enjoyed one of his programs there a few years back). But even being saved couldn’t stop him from returning to this classic 1995 jam for a performance during halftime of a recent NBA game between the Wizards and the Timberwolves.
“U Can’t Touch This” – MC Hammer (1990). This rap/dance classic took MC Hammer and his “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em” album over the top. He famously went broke shortly thereafter, but I’m sure he could offer a few renderings of this 25-year-old hit at any number of old-school rap festivals and generate some big bucks along the way – probably not so much so with any of his other hits (“Pumps And A Bump” or “Addams Family” anyone?).
“Un-break My Heart” – Toni Braxton (1996). This slow burner was etched into our collective memories when it charted in 1996/97 and became Toni Braxton’s biggest chart hit selling 10 million copies worldwide. It is thus one of the 40 biggest-selling singles in recorded music history. Yes, she’s had many other hits – good ones, too. But songs like this don’t die easy. Could she exclude “Breathe Again” or “You’re Making Me High” from her concert and get away with it? Possibly. “Un-break My Heart”? Nope.
“War” – Edwin Starr (1970). “War” was Edwin Starr’s biggest hit. After its immense success, he figured one song protesting the Vietnam War wasn’t enough, so he immediately followed that up with “Stop The War Now.” Get the picture? He died in 2003, but “War” became his signature tune and one he likely embraced ’til the end.
“We Are Family” – Sister Sledge (1979). Sister Sledge had several top 40 R&B singles during their active recording career. They also had three pop top-40 hits: a remake of Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” and the two Chic-produced disco hits from 1979, “He’s The Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family.” And while “Dancer” was a big hit and the source of at least one big sample in the ’90s, can you honestly see them performing a gig anywhere without doing “We Are Family”? Heck, their granddaughters will likely be performing it under the Sister Sledge billing in years to come.
“What’s Love Got To Do With It?” – Tina Turner (1984). The now-retired Tina Turner reportedly didn’t like this song when it was first presented for her to record back in 1983/84, but I’ll betcha during her concert touring days that those world-famous legs would not have escorted her offstage without her first having belted out this #1 monster.
The 45-rpm single for Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” on Atlantic Records (1966)
“When A Man Loves A Woman” – Percy Sledge (1966). He had 14 songs reach the Hot 100 with five of those reaching the top 40. But this #1 smash was his most memorable and the one with which he’ll forever be associated. Rest in peace, Percy Sledge.
To hear these songs (although you’ve heard them many times before), check out my Spotify playlist by clicking here.
Until next week,