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Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder: Rupert Holmes

“Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” is one of the biggest and most iconic soft rock hits of the late 70’s. Its smooth echo-enhanced jazzy production sent it to a 3-week stay at #1 on the Billboard charts in the U.S. in November of 1979 and made it one of those songs that caused folks who considered themselves fans of real rock ‘n’ roll to retch a little. If I wasn’t a sucker for verse-chorus-verse style songwriting, I’d probably be one of them. As it is, I could only  bear to listen to the song once while writing this article, and that was just to be sure the video I included matched what I was hoping for.

This ode to a pair of lovers who plan on cheating on one another only to find that they’d answered each other’s personals ad somehow caught on with the folks who program the music in dentists’ waiting rooms. I find it hard to believe that a real couple in this situation would find it so hilarious and romantic. It sounds more like a fast track to the end of a relationship to me.

The “Me” Generation easy listening dork with the glasses and beard to match is definitely a 1-hit wonder, right? Right?

Ummm…Nope. Not by a long shot.

Rupert Holmes was born to musical American parents in England back in 1947 as David Goldstein. Maybe it is his birth name which made him think “Rupert” was a cool moniker. Geez dude, if you’re going to change your name, you can sure do better than that, can’t you? By the way, do you think Christian Bale has put his costume from American Hustle in mothballs yet? He could put it to use in a Rupert Holmes biopic with very little effort.

Holmes was a young songwriter and arranger brought in to help put together a full album for the group the Cuff Links after their initial single “Tracy” was a top10 hit. Unfortunately, the Cuff Links’ lead singer promptly signed a contract with another label that forbade his recording with anyone else. As talent and management clashed, good old Rupert put the finishing touches on the album and then found himself as the replacement lead singer in a follow-up effort. The change hurt the already tenuous grasp the group had on the record buying public and only one Cuff Links single hit the charts after the first album, with “Run Sally Run” reaching all the way up to #76 in the U.S. They had a little bit more success in Australia. A little bit.

The disconnect was substantial enough that Holmes made a few tweaks to one of his Cuff Links songs and re-released it under the group name “Street People.”

The song “Jennifer Tomkins” scratched at the U.S. top40, landing at #36 in 1970.

He also showed up playing piano for a band called The Buoys. Things get interesting here. Holmes had written a song called “Timothy” with the express anticipation that it would get banned by radio stations and had personally selected The Buoys to record it. Why would “Timothy” get banned you ask? Well, the song is about three coal miners who get trapped under ground due to a cave-in. It takes a little bit of time for them to be rescued, and they get hungry, so…they eat Timothy. Timothy is one of the three miners.

“Timothy” was not well promoted by The Buoys record company, but was a grass-roots hit because teenage boys in the early 70’s had nothing better to do than listen closely to the lyrics of obscure bands. The cannibalistic subject matter inspired lots of smirking phone calls to radio stations requesting that they play this song by this unknown group. By the time the radio stations realized what they were playing and started banning the song, as Holmes had expected, “Timothy” was already a hit. The Buoys record company tried to convince many stations that Timothy was a mule instead of a human miner, but Holmes did not play along. “Timothy” peaked at #17 on the Billboard charts, possibly the best-selling song ever about cannibalism. Hey, Shakespeare wrote about it too.

In 1974 Holmes began his career as a solo artist, releasing his first album, “Widescreen” and becoming one of Barbara Streisand’s favorite songwriters of the time. She recorded songs of his for seven different albums during her career. Despite this and plenty of work as a producer, solo success eluded him until “Escape” hit it big on his fifth studio album, “Partners in Crime.” It was a smash.

If you haven’t panned down yet, see if you can name the other top10 hit Holmes garnered from the album just a few months later.

I never would have come up with it, myself. Even after seeing the title, it didn’t ring a bell. But at about the 1 minute mark, I thought “oh yeah…that!”

I guess once you’ve had a hit about cannibal coal miners, back to back tunes on the subject of infidelity shouldn’t raise a ripple.

But that’s not all! Nope! Rupert Holmes had another top 40 hit in 1980. The idea that you could leave a recorded message for someone if they weren’t home when you called was still a little novel in 1980 (despite the fact that James Garner had been using one of these machines on his show The Rockford Files since 1974) and Holmes capitalized on it by scoring yet another story song, this one about lovers who can’t quite connect with all their new-fangled technology.

“Answering Machine” was not such a big hit, topping out at #32 in June. This was the kind of music some of my friends’ parents listened to while they drove us to school or chorus practice.

With three top40 hits in one year, you’d think Holmes would have doubled down on his recording career, but his discography shows just three more pop albums. Instead, Holmes saw the writing on the wall that was MTV and switched gears, becoming an award-winning playwright instead, most notably penning The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Accomplice, and Say Goodnight, Gracie. He’s won multiple Tony awards, Drama Desk awards, and Edgar awards for his dramatic writings. It’s always nice to have something to fall back on when your pop music career peters out.

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Posted on April 9, 2014, in Music, Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder, theatre and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. This is pretty mind-blowing stuff. I grew up on the Pina Colada song. It wasn’t until adulthood that I actually listened to the lyrics and followed the story. After years of listening to the song in dentist offices and the like, I was taken aback by what I heard. I guess in the 70s, cheating on your significant other was acceptable so long as your deception is revealed by answering each other’s personal ads.

    I’m having a similar revelation now. Amazingly, I have never seen Rupert Holmes. I had no idea who sang this song even. Now that I have watched the video, well, this wasn’t at all what I imagined the Pina Colada guy would have looked like. I’m not sure what I was expecting, really. But this wasn’t it. Maybe something like the Captain from Captain and Tennile. I don’t know.

    Of course I have to quibble with your definition again. Scratching the bottom of the Top 40 just doesn’t do it for me when you have had an iconic hit song like the Pina Colada song. Also, in my book, a solo artist having a hit with another group does not disqualify them from being a 1-hit wonder. In fact, I would argue that you can be a 1-hit wonder multiple times recording with different groups. Bottom line, my gut still tells me Mr. Holmes is a 1-Hit Wonder.

    I get why I’m technically wrong. But it doesn’t change my perception at all. I have a much broader definition of what constitutes a 1-Hit Wonder.

    Gotta say, this is my favorite entry in the series so far. It’s just all kinds of crazy. I had no idea there was so much going on behind that song.

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    • Ah, but in this case Holmes’ 2nd hit (“Him”) actually went all the way to #6 on the Billboard charts. I mentioned that it was top10, but maybe I didn’t write that part with enough structure. I’ll consider a small revision.

      I honestly just looked at my list of possible subjects and thought “hey this is a good choice! The song is iconic. It mixes up the eras nicely so I’m not stuck in the 80’s. Cool. I’ll do that one.” I had totally forgotten about “Timothy.” This is probably my favorite so far, too.

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      • I have no memory of “Him”. Crazy.

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      • For the sake of argument, let’s consider groups/artists like:
        Fatboy Slim
        Bryan Ferry
        Frank Zappa
        The Vapors
        Mel Torme
        Talk Talk
        Sugarhill Gang
        Roxy Music
        Radiohead
        Prodigy
        If a Billboard hit ranked in the 30s doesn’t count, then none of these artists has any hits at all. I’m not comfortable with that.

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        • lol. I am. I couldn’t name a song by most of those acts. Sadly, the one I could name is from the Sugarhill Gang. Were it not for Night Court, I would have no idea who Mel Torme is. I recognize some of the names on your list and might recognize a song if I heard it.

          Obviously, this says more about me than it does about these artists. Growing up, there was no music in our house. No one listened to it. In middle school, I bought an alarm clock radio so I could listen to some top 40. Everyone in my family thought it was strange I would waste money on such a device.

          I tend to know a great deal about a small number of things. I’ll be the first to say that music isn’t one of them.

          When it comes to what constitutes a One Hit Wonder, I have a fairly broad definition. Basically, if an artist has one song which they are known for and everything else in their catalog is basically forgotten by the general public, that feels like a one-hit wonder to me.

          Of course part of the problem is that I missed a lot of music. So there are several artists and songs that were popular that were never on my radar. So when I argue my position on One Hit Wonders, it is with full acknowledgement that I am far from an expert on the subject.

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        • ummm…wow, that’s like…the opposite of my upbrining.
          My Father taught himself to play the piano because vinyl didn’t really sound like a live instrument does to his ear. I was put into piano lessons myself and took them for several years (I never had the patience for it, so I didn’t get good at it) and sang in chorus right through to high school.

          Most of my really great conversations with my Dad have taken place in his hobby room/office where his stereo and music collection are. We will put on recordings for one another and talk about them as we also discuss other life issues. Any time our family went on a long car trip it was always accompanied by music on the car stereo. This is how I became familiar with a wide variety of jazz, classical, and early rock ‘n’ roll. My Dad was in the Navy, so popular music mostly fell away for him in the mid sixties, but his collection continues to grow.

          During my teenage years I usually inherited whatever stereo my Dad had just replaced. This included enormous speakers. A friend once looked around my room and asked where my speakers were. I pointed at my bedside tables. The sound wasn’t particularly good from these, but hey, they were big (about 2.5 feet cubed) and they doubled as furniture.

          As always, these articles are about my own perceptions and the assumed perceptions of others, so it’s an inexact science, but I feel like having a clear definition is the only way to go.

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        • My mom was born in 1950 and could not name all four Beatles. The last time I asked, she forgot Paul. PAUL! My dad treats all pop culture will equal disdain. My interest in pop culture completely baffles the man. He doesn’t know the name of this site. No one in my family is a regular reader. And I have a large family. Truth is, one of the reasons I started this site is that I don’t really have anyone in my immediate circle of friends and family who have any real interest in talking about pop culture.

          Music was not forbidden in our house. But it was discouraged. I remember being chased out of the living room for the crime of watching a documentary on the Beatles. MTV was forbidden as was any program that included music videos. I remember wanting to see the Thriller video. Everyone at school talked about it. It took me nearly a year to see it at a friend’s house.

          I started babysitting at the age of 13. I saved up my money and bought an alarm clock radio. I shared a room with my brother who despised my use of the radio to listen to the top 40 channel. It was the source of many fights between us during our teen years. I was the only person in the house to spend money on any albums until my younger sister eventually started listening to the New Kids. By then, I was just about on my way to college.

          In college, I was exposed to all kinds of things that were completely new to me. That was true in a lot of ways. But it was especially true in terms of music. I knew next to nothing. So while everyone else was being introduced to rap, indie and grunge, I was catching up on the decades of music I had missed. I have all kinds of holes in my musical background.

          For the purposes of the series, I absolutely understand the use of a precise definition. My own perceptions – especially where music is involved – are fairly unique. I think part of what you are trying to accomplish here is to address misconceptions like mine. Even though these don’t always “feel right” to me, I appreciate getting a greater sense of perspective.

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        • No offense but seems to me that your parents & bro might’ve been SOB’s,to be honest!

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        • whatever they are, they produced a good guy.

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        • I like to think so.

          If nothing else, you can thank their lack of interest in pop culture for the creation of this site. If my friends and relatives were interested in talking about this stuff, I probably never would have taken to the blogosphere.

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        • lol

          My parents just don’t have any interest in pop culture. My mom was 20 when she started having kids. She had 6 of them! So her hands were full. When I was little, my dad was finishing up law school. After that he was practicing law, raising 6 kids, doing the little league coach thing and operating several small business on the side. Neither one of them had much time or interest in that sort of thing. It was strange to them that I did.

          As for my brother, he has a legit gripe. We shared a room. He wanted peace and quiet. I wanted some background noise. More often than not, he lost. I tried to accommodate him as best I could. I recall putting the radio under a pillow and then laying my head on the pillow so I could just barely hear the music myself. But he claimed he could still hear it. That’s just the kind of thing that happens when you share a room.

          Not to totally derail the conversation (oppps too late) but I used to come home from my job stocking shelves around 10:30 and I would put on The Twilight Zone in our room. We had a rinky little black and white TV with rabbit ears. I would throw a blanket over the TV and myself to reduce the glow and muffle the sound. I’d keep the volume as low as I could and sat basically on top of the TV. But my brother was still annoyed because he wanted to go to sleep. Which, I can’t say as I fault him.

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        • jeffthewildman

          My own story is almost the opposite. I grew up with parents that loved music. My dad in particular passed his love for the Beatles, Stones, Motown and certain other artists on to me.

          When I first started listening to music on my own around 1989 it was primarily top 40. Got bored with that pretty quickly and got into rap big time. My parents didn’t like that at all and at first tried to guide me away form it. But after a while they gave up. Later on I got into alternative, punk and indie. Then I reconnected with classic rock and soul.

          Today I have fairly eclectic tastes in music ranging from Miles Davis to Johnny Cash to Massive Attack. The genres I find myself listening to primarily are rock (primarily alt and classic), old school (primarily late 80s to mid 90s) hip-hop and R&B. The only genre’s I’m not really a fan of are Opera (although I appreciate the talent involved in Opera) and I do not like modern country at all. Most of it comes off to me as redneck pop.

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        • The baby boomers always seemed to think that their kids would never be able to rebel. They didn’t see rap coming and they foolishly tried to dismiss the importance of punk.

          The Top 40 was pretty awful in ’88-’91 and lots of people reacted by splitting off towards Alternative and Hip Hop. It was timed well for me, because I feel like I got to enjoy the great pop of the early to mid 80s and then rebel right on schedule as high school wound down and college began.

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        • My musical tastes reflect my lack of guidance. In middle school, I listened almost exclusively to 50s rock and roll music. I was the only kid my age listening to the oldies channel. I don’t even know why. In my 20s, I developed a fondness for disco. I always seemed to be a couple decades behind the trends. The only reason I am up on modern music at all is that my kids insist on listening to it in the car. If I put on anything from the 20th century, I am booed.

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  2. jeffthewildman

    Working title for Timothy (According to Dave Barry): Yummy Yummy Yummy I Go Tim In My Tummy.

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    • The guys over at Mystery Science Theater 3000 also made a reference to “Timothy” one time. One of them insisted that Timothy was actually a duck.

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  3. I love the Pina Colada song. It was a huge song back then, and I still hear it on the oldies station regularly to this day. I like songs like that that actually tell a story. Him is an interesting song in its own right, I remember hearing it quite a lot on radio back in the day, hearing it again brings back memories. Him had the more traditional trajectory of what usually happens to hit songs: after its rise and fall from Top 40 radio, it just fades away and is virtually never heard of again, not even on oldies stations. That happens to most hit singles if you really think about it, songs like Pina Colada are the rareity in the music business, songs that become classics and years (or even decades later) still get radio airplay.

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    • …and now I’ve had “Him” stuck in my head for the last 15 hours…

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      • Watching that music video for Pina Colada is a gas. Rupert Holmes in this video encapsulates a brief time in music history that a pop singer would actually wear a nice sweater in his video to sing his song! He’s really working that stage too, with all those stairs leading nowhere. That stage reminds me of all those 80’s hair metal bands’ music videos, it looks like the same stage Whitesnake, Poison, Winger, Scorpions and a thousand other pop metal bands used in their videos. Did Rupert Holmes indirectly influence heavy metal bands? That’s open for discussion.

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  4. This article is in the category of “treasure trove.” Pats on the back are in order for Daffystardust. Yes, I remembered “Him” without having to listen for it, but I DID NOT KNOW that Rupert Holmes wrote “Timothy”! My friends and I used to listen for definite confirmation in the lyrics as to what really happened to Timothy – it wasn’t easy to hear. I preferred to think he simply ran away.
    “The Pina Colada Song” did tend to capture the imagination, what with the story told in the lyrics, matching the catchy melody and without overly forced rhymes. I’m no relationship expert, in fact chalk that up to my list of failures, and Daffy’s point is well taken, that the happy ending might not be all that plausible in reality however I’d say that’s part of the “Escape.” Much like a good romcom that you watch 50 times, you start with a realistic enough premise (the couple is bored with each other) and contrive a neatly packaged ending. What works, to me, is they are both equally bored and equally guilty. 50-50! Trying to decide which is worse: writing the ad or answering it – is a fruitless chicken and egg debate. You’re left with 50-50 and a willingness to start over.

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    • thanks for the nice response!
      I don’t think the characters in “Escape” would be all that angry with one another, but that they would reach an agreed resignation about the fact that their relationship is one of Woody Allen’s “Dead Sharks.” They would shake hands and part sadly.

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      • Well, some good news for all Rupert Holmes fans out there: the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy, which features “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”, hit #1 this week on the Billboard album chart. It looks like a whole new generation will be learning to love a song about a married couple attempting to cheat through the personal ads of their local newspaper.

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