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Monday 9 July 2018

Me and Norman Greenbaum

It's coming up for 14 years now since I completed my "One-Hit Wonders" series in The Canberra Times. I'm still not allowed to forget it. It's rare that a month goes by when someone doesn't ask, "Remember those 'One-Hit Wonders' articles?" How could I not? In terms of reader response, "One-Hit Wonders" was easily the most successful weekly feature ever run in the Times. Its following reached halfway across the country, to Adelaide in the west and Brisbane in the north. It was the sort of fun, nostalgia thing that the newspaper's dwindling subscribers now so badly miss.
During a year-long run, I covered 68 tracks, detailing the stories of the performers and their songs. The criteria was quite rigid: "One-Hit Wonders" had to be tracks that had reached No 1 on the Australian national Hit Parade, and be the one and only entry on to the charts by that artist or group. We had lots of "But, but, what about ...", yet I stuck firmly to the rules, no exceptions were made.
At the end of the run, 45 guest judges, all considered very knowledgeable in the field of pop and rock music, were invited to list their Top 10s from the 68 nominations. From those votes, a consensus was reached, and the final Top 10 can be seen below.
The Times was soon flooded with thousands of entries from readers trying to match exactly the consensus Top 10 (one threatened to send in 31,263,411,763,584,000 computer-generated entries, to cover every base). It was at that point that we started to think about settling on competition winners, and giving out appropriate prizes. And I was busy in other ways. I was tracking down artists from the Top 10 consensus list and interviewing them on the telephone. It was no simple task, as it might today, given the way the Internet has expanded - there was no Wikipedia back then, for example.
To my great delight, I was able to find one artist representing each song - from Norman Greenbaum on his farm in Northern California, Denny Zager in Nebraska, Doug Fieger of The Knack, Ed Bazalgette of The Vapors (super importantly, as he was able to explain what Turning Japanese was all about), Verdelle Smith in Brooklyn, Mary Weiss, one of the two survivors of The Shangri-Las, Evelyne Lenton of Belle Epoque, who for a while became a good friend, Robin Scott ("M"), the only one of the Top 10 to argue he wasn't a "One-Hit Wonder", and Cynthia Johnson of Lipps Inc. I was all the more pleased about this achievement when the late Times journalist Mark Juddery returned from England to announce that BBC TV had done the same series, with almost the same Top 10, and had failed to track down Norman Greenbaum.
I had found Norman Greenhaum early on in my searches, and we struck up a very good rapport. So much so that Norman was soon offering any sort of support I needed. And then it struck me that the most appropriate prize for the overall winner of our competition would be something personal, an item of memorabilia from the No 1 One-Hit Wonder himself, Norman Greenbaum.
Norman duly obliged, with not just one item, but a bundle of them. When his box of stuff arrived, Australian Customs took one look at the name and address of the sender (some dippy Santa Rose hippie?) and ripped Norman's package apart, then Cellotaped it back together. When, at the prize presentation, the competition winner saw what her prize was, she too tore the retaped package to shreds, in her excitement. I managed to grab and repair the top part, as my own souvenir of the "One-Hit Wonders" feature. I still have clippings of all the articles in the series, but Norman's piece of cardboard sits proudly on top of the pile. And I think fondly of Norman every time I look at it.
No 1
No 2
No 3
No 4
No 5
No 6
No 7
No 8
No 9
No 10

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Ted said...

Heh, my musical education as a youth was so sheltered that I thought "Spirit in the Sky" was written by Larry Norman. Only learned about Norman Greenbaum in my 20's :D

Seems like a pretty chill fellow (:

Bill M said...

I remember those. Mostly from listening to oldies stations and later when I was in radio. The songs bring back many memories.