‘High On a Hill’ and the Timeless Mystique of the One-Hit Wonder

The late Scott English wasn’t really a one-hit wonder. I’m always going to hear him that way anyhow, because to me he only had one song that mattered: “High On a Hill.”

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Which, I should add, wasn’t even much of a hit.

English died in November, in England, at the age of 81. I only caught the news this week, when Alex Ward saluted him on Pink and Black Days over SiriusXM.

By standards of music biz fame, Scott English wasn’t a major figure. But as pop legacies go, he left one that was perfectly respectable.

Growing up in the late 1950s, he wanted to be a singer and a songwriter. That’s all he wanted. He cut a few records that didn’t go much of anywhere, and then in 1963 he recorded “High On a Hill.”

It was released on the tiny Sultan label and went nowhere. It was picked up by the tiny Spokane label and did slightly better, cracking the national Billboard top 100 chart the week of Feb. 2, 1964, rising to №77 and hanging around for five weeks.

By way of context, “High On a Hill” debuted on Billboard two weeks after “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” one week after “She Loves You” and the same week as “Please Please Me,” all by a band called the Beatles.

Those were really really bad weeks to be anyone except the Beatles.

English had already been writing songs, though he didn’t write “High On a Hill.” In the years that followed, while he still performed, he became more prolific as a writer. He cowrote “Bend Me, Shape Me,” a top-five hit and million-seller for the American Breed in early 1968. A few years later he cowrote and recorded “Brandy,” not the Looking Glass song about the lonesome barmaid, but a ballad that was picked up by Barry Manilow and renamed “Mandy.”

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This one also sold a million copies and went to №1 on the national charts. Out of a million songwriters, a tiny handful can say they wrote a №1 song.

English kept writing until he died, and along the way he had songs recorded by the likes of Jeff Beck (“Hi Ho Silver Lining”), Bobby Darin, Dionne Warwick, Carole King and Thin Lizzy.

The kid who only wanted to be a singer and songwriter when he grew up got to spend his long life being and doing just that. That’s a win, and so is this: People who knew him all seemed to love him. Great guy, they said. Fun, lively, engaged, everybody’s friend.

On the summary page for Scott English’s life, then, they won’t scribble “One-hit wonder.”

To me, though, with no disrespect to Mr. English or his other achievements, he’s the guy who sang “High On a Hill.” I don’t mean that in a diminutive sense. That was plenty, because 55 years later I still play and love that record.

For starters, it didn’t sound like anything else. It sounded like this. With most pop records, you can say they remind you of some other record, or artist. With “High On a Hill,” there’s no immediate point of reference.

Purely as a song — written by Frank Cariola and A. Mangravito — it wasn’t “Stardust.” But it had some nice images and the verbal economy that defined a lot of golden-age classic pop songs: “High on a hill / Where troubles are few / High on a hill / By our old rendezvous.”

It’s probably significant that it was also recorded by the Marcels, because English’s high tenor, a hypnotic beat and a wash of vocal harmony gives it something of a vestigial 1950s rhythm and blues sound.

But by 1963 and 1964, ’50s group harmony R&B had really evolved more into the Four Seasons or the Temptations. It didn’t still have the eerie, lonesome echo of “High On a Hill.”

On WDRC and WPOP in Hartford in early 1964, “High On a Hill” stood out every bit as much as “She Loves You.” Just with slightly less appeal to five million teenage girls. Amazing what a difference that can make.

While Scott English sang with the Accents, the group behind him for “High On a Hill,” he didn’t make a lot more records in that vein. With the million-kilowatt jolt of the Beatles coursing through the music business, “High On a Hill” was an outlier. A weird and wonderful outlier, but an outlier nonetheless.

When I read English’s obituary, I looked through his other songs and none of them, including “Bend Me Shape Me” or “Mandy,” did much for me. I’m happy they did something for English, like give him a viable career, but I don’t need to hear any of them again.

On the other hand, every so often I pull out the beat-up old Spokane 45 and spin “High On a Hill.” When it’s the right hit, even if it’s not really a hit, one is enough.

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David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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