Pop Music’s Most Unlikely Hits

Some songs are surefire hits.  Some “surefire” hits go down in flames.  And some become hits almost despite themselves. Here are some of pop music’s most surprising hit songs.

“Dominique” (1963)

“Dominique” is not merely an unlikely hit song.  It touches upon the impossible.  That’s because it was sung by a Belgian Dominican Convent nun for Heaven’s sake!  Sister Luc Gabrielle  (aka “The Singing Nun”) perched this peppy French-language performance atop the US charts for a full month in 1963. Gabrielle became the first musician in American chart history to have a #1 song and a #1 album (“Sister Smile”) at the same time.

“The Ballad of the Green Berets” (1966)

In mid-1960s America, opposition to the war in Vietnam was growing both in voice and vehemence.  Enter United States Army Special Forces Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. His Top 10 hit “The Ballad of the Green Berets” was a reminder to a divided country that ultimately, we’re all in this together.

“This Guy’s in Love with You” (1968)

Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass helped define popular music in the 1960s.  The band scored a string of lively Latino-style instrumental hits over the decade, each featuring the distinctive stylings of master trumpeter Alpert.  The prodigious musician, composer, and producer could also sing (a little).  His vocal performance on the 1968 hit “This Guy’s in Love with You” oozes with vulnerability.

MacArthur Park (1968)

Richard Harris is one of the finest stage and screen actors. Yet the fabled Irishman doesn’t exactly bowl anyone over with his vocal range in the 1968 smash “MacArthur Park.” Still, his strained efforts to hit all the notes serve as a perfect interpretation for this off-beat chronicle of love as cake “melting in the rain.”

“Hey Jude” (1968)

The Beatles’ epic “Hey Jude” was #1 for nine consecutive weeks in 1968.  However, the fact that this song was played in all its glorious 7 minutes 11 seconds on commercial AM radio, instead of two standard-length tunes and a couple of commercials, was pretty stunning.

“Oh, Happy Day” (1969)

Some songs become popular simply because of their capacity to move the listener.  “Get Together” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” are some examples.  So too is the 1969 hit “Oh Happy Day” from the Edwin Hawkins Singers.  If one isn’t touched (even a little) by this rousing gospel choir recorded in a California church, it’s time for a pulse check.

“After the Lovin’” (1976)

It’s nothing short of startling that anyone named “Engelbert Humperdinck” would have a hit song — of any variety.  But this sensual sex symbol did just that with his 1976 Top Ten ballad “After the Lovin’.” Now ain’t that a kick in the “Humperdinck”?

-John Smistad

Photo: The Edwin Hawkins Singers (public domain via Wikimedia)

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13 comments on “Pop Music’s Most Unlikely Hits

  1. Epidrake

    Read the back and follow-up story of the Dominque song and its singer. OMG

  2. About “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” the song came out on at the end of January 1966 when the nation was still firmly in favor of the American war in Vietnam and the antiwar movement was just starting to pick up steam. If it had come out a year later, when the nation was bitterly divided about the war, it very likely never would have become wildly popular as it did in the winter and spring of ’66. I cover that in depth in my 2017 biography, “The Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Army Sgt. Barry Sadler,” which was published in 2017.

    • John Smistad

      Thanks VERY much for reading, Mark. Several large, organized Vietnam War protests were conducted throughout America in ’66, including a massive crowd of nearly 100,000 in Washington DC. However, this is certainly point taken, and we collectively and respectfully recognize and defer to your research and expertise, sir.

      As ever, rock on.

  3. TvProf53

    Kyo Sakamoto’s “Sukyaki,” the only Japanese lyric American hit record, is certainly in the same vein as “Dominique” and equally as weird. Con’t forget Norman Greenbaum’s groovy, psychedelic “Spirit in the Sky” either.

  4. Eoghan Lyng

    Nice one!

  5. Angelo Furlan

    Stage name aside, Arnold Dorsey (a.k.a. Englebert) had hits prior to 1976. I know this because I saved up my allowance and bought his “Greatest Hits” LP for my mother a few years before 1976.

  6. Good on ya, Angelo! And, yes, he most certainly did, this smash being his biggest pop music hit. Thanks VERY much for reading, sir!

  7. Ellen Fagan

    Superb piece! All these tracks are indeed quirky additions to pop culture. Music is a gloriously weird gift!

  8. Thanks, my friend. Weird & wonderful…

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