There’s no rule that says winning the Grammy Award for Best New Artist guarantees a long and successful career, but it’s sort of implied. Otherwise, it would be called the Grammy Award for Best One-Hit Wonder/Flash in the Pan, right? Of course, we know that while some Best New Artist winners — the Beatles, the Carpenters, or Mariah Carey for instance — go on to enjoy continued commercial and/or critical success, others… well, they had their moment. Here’s a list of seven such artists.
Note: I’m well aware that sales figures or chart positions aren’t a true measure of talent or quality. So all you angry Starland Vocal Band fans out there, simmer down.
#7. Marc Cohn (1992)
Cleveland’s own Marc Cohn beat out the likes of Seal and Boyz II Men (not to mention Color Me Badd and C+C Music Factory) to claim the Best New Artist award in 1992. This despite the fact that his self-titled debut and its big single, “Walking in Memphis,” were not huge commercial smashes compared to past and future winners. Marc Cohn did achieve gold status — finally hitting platinum in 1996 — but it only reached #38 on the album chart. Still, something about his style of smoldering, soundtrack-friendly adult contemporary spoke to NARAS voters, and so he became the first male act to win (and keep) the honor since Bruce Hornsby in 1987.
Cohn’s second LP, The Rainy Season, was released in 1993 and featured contributions from Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash, and a not-yet-famous Chris Botti among others. Even so, it topped out at #63 and only spun off one charting single (“Walk Through the World”, #28 Adult Contemporary). His third record, Burning the Daze, was five years in the offing and got no higher than #114. Cohn didn’t release another studio effort until 2007, two years after making headlines for surviving a gunshot to the head during an attempted carjacking.
Surprisingly, Cohn returned to the charts this decade with the release of a covers album, Listening Booth: 1970. It reached #28 in August 2010 and spent five weeks in the Top 200. Time will tell if he can be one of the few Best New Artists to return to the commercial spotlight, but there’s always a chance.
#6. Bobbie Gentry (1968)
Gentry struck gold in 1967 with “Ode to Billie Joe,” and introduced a generation of music fans to the Tallahatchie Bridge in the process. The song sold three million copies and earned Gentry a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance — beating out Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” for the honor. Her album of the same name topped both the Billboard 200 and Top Country Albums charts.
Just months after her Grammy triumph, Gentry released a collaboration with Glen Campbell, which peaked at #11 on the mainstream album chart (and was another #1 country record). The album yielded three charting singles, most notably a cover of the Everly Brothers hit “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” which hit #27 in 1970.
Over the next few years Gentry released music at a torrid pace — even by the standards of the era — but other than the Campbell record she never came close to replicating the success of Ode to Billie Joe. She cracked the Top 40 singles charts for the final time in 1970 with “Fancy,” a song Reba McEntire covered and scored a #8 country single with in 1991. Gentry’s last charting album, Patchwork, stalled at #221 in June 1971.
Gentry retired from performing in the late ’70s, and has lived privately in the Los Angeles area since.
#5. Paula Cole (1998)
It wasn’t until her second album broke through that Berklee-educated singer-songwriter Paula Cole was launched into the national pop culture consciousness. But that album, This Fire, was big. It reached #20, sold a few million copies, and resulted in seven Grammy nods.
You likely remember at least two songs from This Fire — the Top 10 hits “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait,” the latter of which was appropriated as the theme to teen TV angst-fest Dawson’s Creek. Cole also was one of the featured artists on the Lilith Fair tour in 1997 and 1998.
Cole returned in 1999 with her third album, Amen, credited to the Paula Cole Band. She scored a minor hit on the Adult Top 40 chart with the “I Believe in Love” single, but that was about it. The album barely cracked the Top 100, and Cole didn’t release a follow-up for almost eight years. In the meantime she moved from New York to L.A. and raised her daughter, Sky.
In 2007, Cole returned with her fourth album, Courage. It peaked at #163 on the Top 200. She released the Ithaca album in 2010 and launched a Kickstarter campaign in September 2012 to fund the completion of her sixth LP, Raven. She met and exceeded her modest goal of $50,000, and the album is tentatively set for a spring 2013 release.
#4. Lauryn Hill (1999)
It’s hard to say exactly how Lauryn Hill ended up on this list. She was as popular as any performer as the 20th century drew to a close, both as a solo act and as a member of the Fugees. Her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was critically beloved and a commercial juggernaut (it sold 19 million copies worldwide). By the summer of 1999, the music world was at Hill’s feet.
But Hill, reportedly disillusioned with the record industry and the obligations of fame, dropped largely out of sight in 2000. She released her second — and to date last — album, MTV Unplugged 2.0, in May 2002. It featured nothing more than Hill and her acoustic guitar, and was as much an exercise in psychological catharsis as it was a musical effort. While the album sold well, it baffled many critics and fans.
Over the past decade, Hill has courted controversy and even briefly reunited with the Fugees. She has released a handful of songs, tours intermittently (often to mixed reaction), and has supposedly been recording a mountain of material for an as yet unreleased album. While there is clearly an appetite for a full-scale comeback, it’s clear that if it happens at all it will be on her timetable.
#3. Christopher Cross (1981)
For his contributions to the world of Yacht Rock via his self-titled debut album and mega-hit single “Sailing,” Christopher Cross won four Grammy Awards in ’81. Cross’s soothing tenor and mellow arrangements were inescapable in the early ’80s. He even managed a second #1 single in 1981 with “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” the title track to the hit Dudley Moore comedy Arthur. To this day it stands as the most successful song ever written about a fictional drunk.
But by the time Cross released his sophomore effort, 1983’s Another Page, the commercial freefall had begun. While the album hit #11, spawned two Top 20 singles, and sold enough in the U.S. to earn Gold status, the wind was clearly out of Cross’s sails (get it?).
He attempted to up the tempo and rock out a little more on his third album, Every Turn of the World, but to no avail. It debuted at #134 in November 1985 and was gone within weeks.
Cross is still out there doing his laid back adult contemporary thing. His last album, Doctor Faith, was released in 2011.
#2. Starland Vocal Band (1977)
If I say the words “Starland Vocal Band,” what do you think of? If you think, “Hey, those bastards beat out Boston for Best New Artist!” you’re right. I would also have accepted, “Oh yeah, that ‘Afternoon Delight’ song.”
Yup, the composers of the most bloodless song ever written about sex hit the big time in ’76/’77. Their eponymous debut LP peaked at #20 and the aforementioned “Afternoon Delight” hit #1. It also earned three Grammy nominations, winning the short-lived Award for Best Arrangement for Voices.
But the afterglow was painfully brief. By the spring of ’77, America’s Afternoon Delight turned into the morning after Walk of Shame, and a repentant nation was done with Starland Vocal Band. Only three of the group’s next seven singles charted, none higher than #71. Their second album, Rear View Mirror, was released in April and rose no higher than #104. After three more records stiffed over the next three-plus years, the band called it quits in 1981.
#1. Milli Vanilli (1990)
If there is one act that perfectly encapsulated how plastic and corporate mainstream pop music had become by the end of the ’80s, it’s Milli Vanilli. You know the sordid details of the story by now, but just a cautionary reminder of what this “group” achieved: Girl You Know It’s True, itself a modified version of a Europe-only release called All or Nothing, was released in the U.S. in March 1989. It went on to sell six million copies in America and spawned five Top 10 hits (including three straight number ones).
The faces of Milli Vanilli — Fabrice Morvan and Rob Pilatus — danced and lip-synced their way to the top, but it all started to unravel even before their Grammy triumph. The now-famous “skipping” incident occurred in late 1989, and in November 1990 the group’s founder/producer/mastermind, Frank Farian, copped to the whole scheme. Rob and Fab held a press conference that same month, and shortly after Milli Vanilli was stripped of their Grammy. It was not awarded to any of the other nominees from that year.
Scorn and ridicule rained down on Morvan and Pilatus, who gamely attempted public redemption with new music. Under the moniker of Rob & Fab, the duo released a self-titled album in 1993. I bet you can guess how that went. Hint: It sold about 2,000 copies.
Meanwhile, Farian spearheaded an album featuring most of the original musicians from Girl You Know It’s True. The Real Milli Vanilli released The Moment of Truth in 1991, but the truth was that no one cared anymore.
Rob Pilatus led a troubled life following the Milli Vanilli scandal. He died of what was ruled an accidental overdose in April 1998, at the age of 32. Morvan still performs and even released a solo album in 2003. He also spent a few years as a radio DJ in Los Angeles.