one hit wonders: introducing We Five!

we five(Editor’s note: This is the first in a periodic series of blogs on notable one-hit wonders, a species of song that may well be dying. One-hit wonders became hits due to top 40 radio, which is of course itself dying. There may be one-digit downloadable wonders, but never more will there be songs that cause you to breathlessly turn up the car radio and tell everyone else to shut up. Because of their great abundance I will highlight only a sampling; however, I invite readers to submit their own favorite one-hit wonders, preferably with laptop-quality YouTube links.)
When I was in eighth grade and laid up in a Lansing hospital with a back injury, my roommate, a nice guy from Ovid-Elsie schools, and I kept transistor radios clamped to our ears and let each other know when our favorite songs came on. For me, my favorite favorite that fall of 1965 was “You Were On My Mind” by We Five. When that came up on Ovid-Elsie’s radio, he’d excitedly relay the news from his bed: “Hey Charley, ‘I got troubles’ is on!”
“I got troubles” was a key line from the song, a mournful reflection on lost love set to an insanely catchy tune:
When I woke up this morning
You were on my mind
And you were on my mind
I got troubles, whoa-oh
I got worries, whoa-oh
I got wounds to bind
Written in 1964 by Sylvia Tyson of the Canadian folk duo Ian & Sylvia, the song was covered a year later, considerably amped up and decidedly less melancholy, by We Five, fresh out of the San Francisco folk-rock scene. Unlike Ian & Sylvia’s version, which never went anywhere past the hi-fi’s of their dedicated fans, the We Five rendition shot to No. 3 on Billboard after its release in late summer of ’65 — arguably the greatest year in AM rock radio. It was the fourth most popular song of the year. (Any guesses on No. 1? Hint: It ain’t “I Can’t Get No.”)
More importantly, it was my most popular song of the moment, at a time when Petula Clark, the Beatles and a certain eighth-grade girl named Jackie were heavily vying for my attention. The song’s combo of jangly guitars, propulsive drumming and high-energy vocals were intoxicating to my highly hormonal 13-year-old psyche. For a few fleeting months, We Five were very important to me.
The group was formed by Michael Stewart, brother of John Stewart of The Kingston Trio, and fronted by an irresistibly perky singer named Beverly Bivens who had a powerful and husky alto voice. Bivens walked barefoot on the beach on the cover of We Five’s first album, aptly titled “You Were On My Mind,” and rocked in adorable go-go boots in this primo performance of the group’s sole hit on Hollywood Palace. Please take 3 minutes now to enjoy the act, suavely introduced by no less than Fred Astaire.
Back now? Good. Besides the camcorder numbers whirring away in the upper-right corner, I’m sure you noticed a few other things: 1) Bivens’ adorable go-go boots; 2) her avocado dress; 3) her fetching smile and knock-out vocal; (ok, on to the other four now…) 4) the darling dickies on the immaculately clean-cut guys; 5) the gorgeous Rickenbacker; 6) the horn-rimmed jazz-studies major hammering away on his Gibson hollow-body like his life depended on it.
The whole performance looks like We Five’s lives depended on it. One minute they’re a nowhere Southern California group singing folk, show tunes and kind-of rock; the next they’re on freakin’ Hollywood Palace riding a No. 3 hit. One can imagine them in the dressing room beforehand: “OK guys, this is it. This is our time. We gotta be great tonight! Let’s go!”
And great they are, starting a little too fast with jacked-up nerves but rapidly finding their groove. Propelled by their arrangement’s exquisite build from mild-mannered shuffle to hurdle-jumping rock, the band and Bivens fully live up to Fred Astaire’s billing. They got their big chance and they nailed it.
Their performance reminds me of The Wonders in the quintessential one-hit wonder flick, “That Thing You Do.” A group of guys from Erie, Pa. starts out wowing a Mercyhurst College talent show and winds up on national TV playing their nationwide hit. You can almost feel their palms sweating before they take the stage. And they nail it.
But like The Wonders, We Five’s hit song and moment of glory on Hollywood Palace would be as good as it got. Their followup, “Let’s Get Together,” peaked at No. 31 (though it later became a hit for The Youngbloods). They cut a second album in 1967 then split. Michael Stewart went on to be a record producer and died in 2002. Beverly Bivens married jazz bassist Fred Marshall and sang with his group Light Sound Dimension, an experimental music-psychedelic light show hybrid. They later divorced and Bivens’ life became your more or less normal private affair.
Like so many others, though, that one band, and that one song, left lasting marks on me. I will forever associate “You Were On My Mind” with a time of exciting wonder and scary transition. And to this day, the sound of it fills me with joy.

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10 Responses to one hit wonders: introducing We Five!

  1. RB says:

    I once owned BOTH albums by the Wee 5. Bev Bivens was great. What happened to her?

  2. marg says:

    I remember being a little kid and really liking the tune “In the Summertime.” It seemed appropriate because it’s hot here today. Check out Mungo Jerry’s enormous muttonchops!

  3. I remember liking the tune “In the Summertime” when I was a kid. It seemed appropriate since it’s so warm today. Check out the enormous muttonchops on Mungo Jerry!

  4. Ric says:

    I agree that 1965 was a great year for rock AM radio and I have reel-to-reel tapes using a hand-held microphone next to my low fidelity radio to prove it. After “Your Song” by Elton John became popular, I told my girlfriend (now wife) that he was a one hit wonder. 30+ albums later, I am still eating those words.

  5. zac says:

    Spot on with this write-up, I truly think this website needs much more consideration. Ill probably be again to read much more, thanks for that info.

  6. Pam says:

    One of my favorite “one hit wonders” is from Edward Bear, a Canadian band. They went to #1 in Canada and #3 in the US about 1972 and I was in High School. Here’s a link I found for a YouTube version with Larry Evory singing the original. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EP0xhKUbHM

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