The whole concept of “one-hit wonder” has always seemed a little unfair to me, but there’s little doubt that there have always been a lot of musicians who are remembered for one big tune. Tom Hanks even made a movie about the subject, That Thing You Do, which featured a band whose very name, The Oneders (One-ders…or O-needers) suggested their eventual fate.
There was probably even some wise guy in 18th century Vienna who dismissed Mozart as “that guy who wrote ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik'”, or something to that effect (except of course in German). OK, bad example, but it just always seemed to me as if it’s a little too easy to dismiss a musical artist as someone who has only one bullet in their gun.
Ethel Smith, who was known as the “first lady of the Hammond organ”, would be a likely candidate for such treatment. If ever an artist was attached to a song, it was her and “Tico-Tico”, a previously obscure Argentine tune written by an unknown composer. Ethel had many other good songs and moderately successful recordings, but none approached the popularity of this song.
I can’t claim that I actually remember hearing this song around our house when I was growing up – that would give too much credit to my porous memory – but it certainly could have been one of the old records my parents played all the time. I base that on several facts: first, it’s one of those songs that seem so familiar that you can’t remember a time when it wasn’t around, and second, it was certainly the kind of music my parents liked — especially my Dad. But most of all because it was a huge hit when it came out during World War II – selling millions of copies – so you would have been hard pressed to find a house with a record player that didn’t have it.
It certainly made a star of Ethel, who actually had some success as a performer before the song came along. She’d studied piano and eventually mastered the Hammond organ, working her way up through appearances at clubs and traveling musical shows. The big change for her came when she was tapped for a six-month engagement at the famous Copacabana in Rio. Ethel immersed herself in Latin music during her time there, and also discovered the song that would make her famous.
When World War II started, she came back to the US where she soon found herself performing her new favorite song on the highly-rated radio show, Your Hit Parade. She became one of the show’s most popular performers and her recording of “Tico-Tico”, which was issued in 1944, became one of the best-selling records of the 1940’s, rivaling the success of the big bands.
For many, many years Ethel maintained a successful career in music through her recordings and touring, and also became very proficient on the guitar. She also branched out into acting, appearing in a few films and on Broadway, and managed to work in a short-lived marriage to actor Ralph Bellamy. She continued playing her music – including, I’m sure, “Tico-Tico” – well into her 80’s, before dying in 1996 at age 85 after a full, rich life.