Sneak (Chart) Peaks: 20 Greatest Hits and Not One Signature Song

For some superstars, the biggest singles weren’t the ones most likely to still be playing 20 years later.

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Photo: flickr

I have a theory: The more hits a superstar act has scored, the more likely the biggest one of those swinging singles is to be a totally unexpected home run.

Take the greatest band — and one of the top hitmakers — of all time. “Hey Jude” spent more weeks (nine) at number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 U.S. singles chart than any other single by The Beatles, but is it the first song fans think of when they think of the Fab Four? Is the 1968 classic synonymous with The Beatles over “She Loves You,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” or “All You Need Is Love”?

The quartet racked up a number of signature early, mid-, and late-period songs, and it’s hard enough to choose one from each era, so I won’t even attempt to pick one overall. But if I had to single out one track that defined The Beatles in their later days, it might be their penultimate number one, 1970’s “Let It Be,” or even “Revolution” (the B-side of the “Hey Jude” 45), or several songs that were lesser hits than the monster smash Paul McCartney wrote to comfort John Lennon’s son Julian after his parents’ divorce.

As for the four chart-topping solo acts The Beatles spawned (five, if you count honorary Beatle Billy Preston), Lennon had the strangest chart career. One might have expected it to produce more than four Top Tens on the Hot 100 in the decade before his death.

I remember how huge the six-weeks-at-number one “(Just Like) Starting Over” was in the aftermath of Lennon’s 1980 murder. But even now, I have a hard time accepting that his posthumous chart-topper as well as “Whatever Gets You thru the Night” (number one, 1974) and “Woman” (number two, 1981) were all bigger than “Imagine” (number three, 1971). Imagine that.

Now consider fellow ex-Beatle McCartney. His longest-running post-Beatles number-one wasn’t “Band on the Run” or “Silly Love Songs” (Billboard’s top Hot 100 single of 1976) or any of his other ’70s radio staples. It was “Ebony and Ivory,” his 1982 duet with Stevie Wonder that ruled Billboard’s Hot 100 for seven weeks, which is as long at the top as the number-one runs of Wonder’s “Superstition,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” “I Wish,” and “Sir Duke” combined.

Here are 16 other superstar acts with surprise biggest hits.

Bee Gees

Along with the aforementioned McCartney and Wonder, as well as Elton John (see below) and (for the first half of the decade) Carpenters, the brothers Gibb pretty much ruled Billboard’s Hot 100 in the 1970s. Barry, Robin, and Maurice scored more chart-toppers (nine) and spent more cumulative weeks at the summit (27) than any other act.

Now, quick — name the biggest Bee Gees song of any decade!

Like most people who were alive for Saturday Night Fever mania or caught the disco bug during a subsequent outbreak, you probably thought “Staying Alive” — and you thought wrong. It certainly would qualify as the trio’s signature song, but “Night Fever” spent twice as many weeks at number one. Eight weeks on top isn’t such a big deal these days, but it was virtually unheard of in the ‘70s.

In fact, only two other singles matched it all decade: Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” (see below), which also logged eight weeks at the top between 1976 and 1977, and Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” which spent 10 weeks there in 1977, before being replaced by Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” which spent three weeks at number one.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and (sometimes) Young

“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”? “Woodstock”? “Teach Your Children”? “Ohio”? None of them rank as the biggest single recorded by the harmonizing supergroup. That honor would go to 1977’s “Just a Song Before I Go,” the Crosby, Stills and Nash single that hit number seven and out-charted anything else that David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash would ever do together or solo, including Stills’ number-14-peaking 1970 single “Love the One You’re With.”

Depeche Mode

Depeche diehards may have an assortment of favorites, but for fans between diehard and casual, either 1981’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” (which didn’t even chart on the Hot 100) or 1984’s “People Are People” (number 13) would probably be the song that comes to mind first when anyone brings up the synth-pop band.

However, their biggest hit is neither of those new-wave classics but rather, “Enjoy the Silence,” the band’s lone U.S. Top 10, which climbed to number eight in 1990, the year after the decade most associated with Depeche Mode ended. (Interesting fact: Despite their reputation as an ’80s highlight, DM enjoyed more global commercial success — and their only U.S. number-one album, 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion — during the next decade.)

Duran Duran

The premiere pin-up band of the ’80s went to number one for two weeks in the U.S. twice (with 1984’s “The Reflex” and “A View to a Kill” the following year). But the words “Duran Duran” are probably more closely identified with their 1983 U.S. chart debut “Hungry Like the Wolf” (number three) and “Girls on Film,” which never even made it to the Hot 100.

Shocking fact: “A View to a Kill” is the only James Bond theme to top the pop singles chart in the U.S., accomplishing what Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” (number eight), Paul McCartney and Wings’s “Live and Let Die” (number two), Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” (number two), Sheena Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only” (number four), and Adele’s Oscar-winning Skyfall (number eight) couldn’t.

Dusty Springfield

Would Dusty Springfield be the blue-eyed Brit soul icon she is today if she had never recorded her 1969 album Dusty in Memphis , which included “Son of a Preacher Man,” her best-known song? We’ll never know for sure, but although it climbed to the bottom rung of the Top 10, three Dusty singles went higher: 1964’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’” (number six), 1966’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” (number four — and her all-time greatest solo success), and “What Have I Done to Deserve This,” her 1987 collaboration with Pet Shop Boys (number two).

Elton John

Even if you don’t count “Candle in the Wind 1997,” which spent 14 weeks at the top and was a monster by association (with Princess Diana’s untimely death), the Elton single that spent the most weeks at number one in the U.S. wasn’t either of the two arguably most associated with him. Neither of those even went Top 5: “Your Song” peaked at number eight and “Rocket Man” at number six.

Elton’s biggest hit not tied to the death of British royalty was — surprise! — “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” his duet with Kiki Dee. It spent four weeks at the Hot 100 summit in 1976 and was the number two Billboard single of that year.

Curiously, although Elton is most highly regarded for slower, more contemplative ’70s tracks like the aforementioned “Your Song” and “Rocket Man,” as well as “Daniel,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “Tiny Dancer,” and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” with the exception of his cover of The Beatles “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” his number ones in the ’70s (“Crocodile Rock,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Island Girl,” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) were all uptempo.

Fleetwood Mac

“Dreams” may have been the band’s only U.S. chart-topper, but it’s probably not even Stevie Nicks’ signature FM song, an honor that would more likely go to “Rihannon” (number 11), “Sara” (number seven), or the non-single “Landslide.” I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the fourth most-essential song on Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 magnum opus Rumours, after “Don’t Stop,” “The Chain,” and “Go Your Own Way,” barely edging out Nicks’ own “Gold Dust Woman.”

Gordon Lightfoot

“Sundown,” the Canuck singer-songwriter’s only U.S. №1, is a fantastic song, but am I the only one who would have expected “If You Could Read My Mind,” which Barbra Streisand covered on her 1971 album Stoney End and which resurfaced as a ’90s dance hit by Stars on 54, to have been a much bigger one? It only got to number five in 1971, making it Lightfoot’s third-biggest hit (after 1974’s “Sundown” and 1976’s number-two “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”) in the land down under Canada.

The Hollies

The Manchester band that featured Graham Nash may have been considered a second-tier British invasion act, but they still nabbed a space in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.

Although they never topped the Hot 100, they recorded at least two timeless pop classics, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” a 1969 number seven, and “The Air That I Breathe,” which hit number six in 1974. Two years earlier, they released what would be their biggest hit: “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” a song that lives up to the fabulousness of its title but is still more or less forgotten today.

Interestingly, the track sounded less like a Hollies hit than one by Creedence Clearwater Revival, even peaking in the same runner-up spot as five CCR singles.


“Holiday” never made the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100; “Material Girl” stalled in the runner-up slot; and “Into the Groove” was never even a U.S. single. The Madonna song that spent one more week at the top than 1984’s “Like A Virgin,” which claimed the throne for six, was a now-all-but-forgotten ballad written by Babyface.

And when was the last time you heard “Take a Bow” (not Rihanna’s 2008 number one with the same title)? Well, today’s your lucky day. Press play below.

The Pretenders

The Chrissie Hynde-led band’s third single “Brass in Pocket,” first released in 1979, topped the UK singles chart and went on to become their signature, but it stopped at number 14 in the U.S. The Pretenders would have to wait until 1983 to score their biggest Stateside hit with “Back on the Chain Gang,” which, intriguingly, only rose to 17 in the UK, where most Pretenders singles charted considerably higher than in the U.S.


Time has been much kinder to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” We Will Rock You,” and “We Are the Champions” than it has been to Queen’s two U.S. number ones, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust.” The former, an ode to Elvis Presley that was more rockabilly than the band’s typical glam and art rock, reigned for four weeks in 1980 (compared to three for the latter that same year), making it Queen’s highest-ranking chart hit in the States.

Rick James

“Super Freak” is not only the song for which the King of Funk Punk is best known, but it also launched MC Hammer’s short burst of superstardom in 1990 (via a sample in “U Can’t Touch This”). Now, here’s the really weird part: “Super Freak (Part 1)” only peaked at number 16 on the Hot 100 in 1981, eight notches lower than Hammer’s hit, and, unlike four other James singles and “U Can’t Touch This,” it didn’t even top the R&B singles chart (peak: number three).

“You and I,” the soul auteur’s breakout disco hit from 1978, was his first to make the pop Top 20, peaking at number 13, and it was also his first to claim a sweet spot atop the R&B hit list.

Rod Stewart

Most fans would probably consider 1971’s “Maggie May” or 1979’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” to be his signature hits, but they spent five and four weeks at number one, respectively. “Tonight’s the Night,” which Billboard declared the top pop single of 1977, was as lucky as Stewart ever got — on the Hot 100, that is.


Strong signature-song arguments could be made for “One,” “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” or even “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the Irish band’s second and final U.S. number one. Few, though, would probably go to bat for “With Or Without You,” which ruled the Hot 100 for three weeks in 1987 and will go down in history as U2’s biggest U.S. hit.

Van Morrison

Ireland’s greatest male vocalist (sorry, Bono) is better known for his intricate ’60s and ’70s albums like Astral Weeks, Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir, and Tupelo Honey, but he did manage to place five songs in the U.S. Top 40. The biggest, “Domino” (number nine, 1970), bested his 1967 signature “Brown Eyed Girl” by one notch. Who said Americans have poor taste in music? Well, I occasionally do, but the chart triumph of “Domino” (and the number 23 placing of its flawless follow-up “Blue Money”) proves that we occasionally get it right.

Other surprising greatest hits that aren’t quite signature songs

Bob Marley Biggest: “Roots, Rock, Reggae” (number 51, 1976, previously discussed here and here) Signature: “One Love” (failed to chart in the U.S.)

Chuck Berry Biggest: “My Ding-a-ling” (number one, two weeks, 1972) Signature: “Maybellene” (number five, 1955)

Def Leppard Biggest: “Love Bites” (number one, one week, 1988) Signature: “Pour Some Sugar on Me (number two, 1987)

Donna Fargo Biggest: “Funny Face” (number five, 1972) Signature: “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” (number 11, 1972)

Eric Clapton Biggest: “I Shot the Sheriff” (number one, one week, 1974) Signature: “Layla” (number 10, 1972)

Janet Jackson Biggest: “That’s the Way Love Goes” (number one, eight weeks, 1993) Signature: “Control” (number five, 1986–87)

Journey Biggest: “Open Arms” (number two, 1982) Signature: Don’t Stop Believin’ (number nine, 1981)

Kelly Clarkson Biggest: “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” (number one, three weeks, 2012) Signature: “Since U Been Gone” (number two, 2005)

Loverboy Biggest: “Lovin’ Every Minute of It” (number nine, 1985) Signature: “Working for the Weekend” (number 29, 1981)

Paul Simon Biggest (solo): “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (number one, three weeks, 1976)*

The Who Biggest: “I Can See for Miles” (number nine, 1967) Signature: “My Generation” (number 74, 1965–66)

*”Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the biggest Hot 100 hit with Simon’s name attached to it (number one, six weeks, 1970) is his signature song, even though Art Garfunkel sings lead on it.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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