Reviving the one-hit wonders
One-hit wonder. It’s a tag with certain connotations for singers. On one hand it denotes they had at least one hit song; on the other, much like Andy Warhol said, that singular hit denotes their 15 minutes of fame. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a common phenomenon within the music industry.
Black Ensemble Theater reaches into this grab bag of artists and their songs for its new show simply titled, “One Hit Wonders.” Written by Rueben D. Echoles in collaboration with Dawn Bless and directed by Daryl D. Brooks, the show features tunes from the ’60s through the ’90s. Some artists are familiar, some not so much.
Around five years ago, Echoles and Bless were talking during a rehearsal break for another Black Ensemble show and the topic of one-hit wonders came up.
“We were actually singing a song in that show that happened to be a one-hit wonder,” Echoles recalls. For the fun of it, they began to make a list of other songs. “Right then and there, we thought this would be an awesome topic for a show.”
Around 20 songs are featured in “One Hit Wonders,” including “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, “Ring My Bell” by Anita Ward, “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul, “It’s Raining Men” by the Weather Girls, “How Can I Ease the Pain” by Lisa Fischer, “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas, “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. and “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin.
“The list just goes on and on,” Echoles says. “It’s been an interesting trip back in time with these hit songs. I feel no matter who you are or where you’re from or how old you are these songs will move you.”
The cast of “One Hit Wonders” includes Yando Lopez, Claudia Cunningham, Kelvin Roston Jr., Mark J.P. Hood, Brittney Thomas, Ally Jones, Mallory Makede, Ta-tynisa Wilson, Donald Craig Manuel, Lyle Miller and Eretha McCullough. As in all Black Ensemble shows, music director Robert Reddrick leads the live band.
Both Echoles and Brooks say that digging into the artist’s backstories was part of the fun of creating the show. While most of Black Ensemble’s shows follow the life of a single artist, “One Hit Wonders” focuses on the music and only hints at the artists’ lives.
For instance, Ward, who was a schoolteacher, never wanted to record the disco hit “Ring My Bell.” She said no twice, before a producer convinced her to try it. “After that, she kept trying to go back to music career but it never really worked out for her again,” Echoles says.
Fischer, a singer who was featured in “20 Feet from Stardom,” the recent Oscar-winning documentary about backup singers, never wanted to be a star, she just wanted to sing. The Weather Girls started out as Two Tons of Fun and had been making house and dance music many years before and after their trip to the top of the charts.
Songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were searching for a singer to record “Me and Mrs. Jones.” “Nobody could sing it to their satisfaction,” Brooks says, noting it’s one of his favorite karaoke songs. “And then Billy Paul came out of nowhere. It was their biggest hit and won a Grammy but you never heard much from Billy Paul again.”
The research is ongoing for Echoles who sees the possibility of perhaps another show told from a different angle growing out of the stories he is uncovering.
“The research has turned into a sort of hobby for me,” Echoles says. “There are just so many interesting stories here and other directions a show could take with them. Our goal is to bring people together through music and story and I think this combination does just that.”