Was it divine inspiration? Was it luck? Was it the producers realizing they only had ten minutes left before the studio closed for the night, and whatever they produced was going to have to be good enough? We might get all three. Some of your favorite artists are sure to be on this list, so read on and pick up some fun music history!
“Twist and Shout” – The Beatles
There was really no doubt at least one song by the Fab Four was going to end up on this list. The Beatles recorded so much material that just based on averages, some of them had to be recorded in one take.
“Twist and Shout” is a 1961 song originally written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns. The Beatles covered it for their 1963 debut record, “Please Please Me.” Not only did the band only have fifteen minutes left in the studio, but John Lennon was suffering from a terrible cold. They put everything they had into their first take, leaving Lennon's voice wrecked.
“The House Of The Rising Sun” – The Animals
There was a lot of opposition to this song when it first came out – at four and a half minutes; it was seen as far too long to be a pop single. Yet The Animals knew they had a hit on their hands in 1964 when they recorded it, which took a mere fifteen minutes in the studio between shows.
The band was touring with legend Chuck Berry at the time. It's a modified version of the traditional folk song “Rising Sun Blues,” and it now goes down in the annals of history as one of the most famous songs ever.
“Bodysnatchers” – Radiohead
It seems impossible that anything Radiohead does could be done quickly, with how complicated and intricate it is. Their 2007 album included the single “Bodysnatchers,” which was recorded in a single take in a ruined and run-down mansion, which producer Nigel Godrich thought would spur some additional creativity.
It certainly worked, as the song was the band's biggest single since “Creep,” which came out all the way back in 1992. It was a bit of a throwback to the recording of “OK Computer,” which took place in St. Catherine's Court, a secluded manor house in Bath, Somerset, England.
“Hail Mary” – 2Pac
If you're a 2Pac fan, you know that this song has the dubious honor of being his final single from his final album, but you may not know how fast it was written and recorded.
While 2Pac was great at recording, his writing process was always long and complicated unless the song was a cover. Neither was true of “Hail Mary,” since it took 2Pac fifteen minutes to write the song. The beat came along in only five minutes, and 2Pac jumped into the studio for a single take. He changed the location of the song's hook right before recording, and magic was made.
“Elvis Presley And America” – U2
When the frontman of this famous Irish band, Bono, recorded “Elvis Presley And America” for their 1984 album “The Unforgettable Fire,” he thought it was a good first start. He wanted to take another crack at it to see if he could get it perfect, but producer Brian Eno had an interesting idea.
Eno and Bono improvised a bunch of lyrics as they listened to the music for the first time. Bono didn't know it, but Eno was recording and would use the spontaneous lyrics on the album. This one is a bit of a sneaky single-take, but it still lands on the list since it only took one try.
“Rainy Day Women 12 & 35” – Bob Dylan
Incredibly controversial at the time of its release, this song features a line in the chorus which encourages people to take a drag of a special cigarette. Even in the sixties, that was an interesting thing to say in a song. It still became a big hit, and it remains one of Dylan's most famous works.
The story goes that all the musicians – and there are clearly a lot of them present in the studio – were taking the song's advice as they recorded. Tuba, piano, bass, drums, trombone – it's all here. Somehow, they got something workable from the first recording, and then somehow, it became a hit.
“Bette Davis Eyes” – Kim Carnes
After only one take in the studio, Carnes eventually earned herself a pair of Grammys. Originally by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon, Kim Carnes covered the song, made it massively popular, and made herself a star to boot.
After giving it her all in a single take, Carnes released the song, and it shot to the top of the charts. In fact, it spent nine weeks at the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Not only that, but it was the biggest single of the entire year, according to Billboard. At the Grammys, it won Song of the Year, and its album, “Mistaken Identity,” won Record of the Year.
“That's All Right (Mama)” – Elvis Presley
Of course, the King of Rock and Roll would make an appearance on this list. From his sultry voice to his scintillating dance moves, Elvis was a born entertainer. The first single he ever released, “That's All Right,” only required one take. It was originally written by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.
Elvis was playing around with his guitar during a recording break, started an up-tempo beat, and the other musicians jumped in. The producer hit record, and the rest was history. More history than you might have guessed – in 2004, “Rolling Stone” put forth the thesis that this was the first true rock and roll song ever, back in 1954.
“Lose Yourself” – Eminem
A lot of the songs on this list have earned Grammys, but far fewer have earned an Oscar. “Lose Yourself” is one of them. Released in 2002 on the soundtrack for “8 Mile,” it was a massive hit, becoming the first rap song to ever win the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Since Eminem also starred in “8 Mile,” he hadn't had much studio time and was eager to record. When he finally got the chance, he delivered all three verses perfectly to the shock of the others in the studio. Rap songs are almost always recorded in sections due to the difficult delivery.
“Sister Ray” – The Velvet Underground
There is so much going on in The Velvet Underground's “Sister Ray” that we could write an entire article on it. Though reaching twenty minutes long, the band managed to record this hit song in one glorious take.
It was a choice the band made specifically – despite whatever mistakes they made; it was going to be one take. Apparently, the recording engineer, overwhelmed by the absurdity and the song, walked out of the booth after telling the band to get him when they were done. The complexity and length of the song make the single take an unforgettable moment in music history.
“How Will I Know” – Whitney Houston
While it wasn't the first single off her debut album, it became the most memorable. The song found its way to Houston after Janet Jackson passed on it, and Jackson probably ended up kicking herself when it came out. Everybody who heard Houston record on the first take knew it was going to be something special.
While additional backing vocals were added later, the original lead track stayed put. Houston was on her way to superstardom thanks to this little song by writers George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam.
“Louie Louie” – The Kingsmen
It's wild, it's crazy, it's completely unintelligible, and it actually sparked controversy when it came out because it was thought the odd vocals were hiding secret, reprehensible messages. They weren't, but the drummer did drop a certain four-letter word when he dropped his sticks.
The stingy producer rushed The Kingsmen through the recording process in order to save money. The band didn't like the shoddy production, but the song ended up being a hit anyway, despite the numerous recording, playing, and singing errors that are present. Vocals were mistimed (creating intelligibility), and the playing was shoddy. It was good news for musicians everywhere – you don't have to be perfect.
“Maggot Brain” – Funkadelic
At the beginning of this ten-minute song, George Clinton delivers a moody spoken intro, and from then on, it's all guitarist Eddie Hazel. Clinton told Hazel to “play as his mother had died, to picture that day, what he would feel, how he would make sense of his life, how he would take a measure of everything that was inside him and let it out through his guitar.”
Hazel managed to do all of that in just one take, though he did have ten minutes to do it. The song was an immediate hit, and it formed the foundation of the anxious, disturbing image of the album of the same name it appeared on.
“Kind of Blue” – Miles Davis
Including a jazz song on this list is a little bit of a cheat since jazz is, almost by definition, ad-libbed in the studio while recording. However, “Kind of Blue” is actually an album – one that was reportedly recorded in a SERIES of single takes from start to finish.
Davis was a leader of the jazz world in the fifties and pushed his ensemble to create a simple background and solo between two different scales. He came up with the basic framework for each section and then let the other players play. It redefined the modern jazz era and was all, technically, one take.
“Rapper's Delight” – The Sugarhill Gang
We don't really have direct quotes or solid info about the recording of this famous song, but the story goes that it took only one ground-breaking take for “Rapper's Delight” to come together.
All Platinum Records co-founder Sylvia Robinson was out at a disco one Friday night when the disc jockeys did a little bit of rapper. Robinson ran out and found Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike, and Master Gee for a recording session the following Monday, and they somehow managed to create this masterpiece in a single take. In 1979, it was easily the most popular rap song of the decade and got the ball rolling on the genre as a whole.
“The Monster Mash” – Bobby “Boris” Pickett
Inspired by a nightclub routine that record producer Gary Paxton liked, “The Monster Mash” is a novelty song that you're still bound to hear at least once in October. It's goofy, it's funny, and it has just the right amount of creepy for even kids to enjoy.
Paxton created the tune and put together the sound effects, while Bobby “Boris” Pickett (after Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein's monster in the Universal movies) recorded his vocals in one glorious take. The result was pure Halloween fun, and it became a quick hit, rising from the dead at costume parties and fall festivals.
“Crazy” – Gnarls Barkley
When Cee Lo Green stepped up to the mic to record this song in 2006, it was his first time ever trying to sing it. In fact, he was reading the words off a piece of paper. Somehow that one take was not only good enough to release but good enough to win a Grammy.
“Rolling Stone” named “Crazy” is the best song of the entire decade AND one of the five hundred greatest songs of all time. With a neo-soul aesthetic infused with electronic sounds, the song broke through the stratosphere and launched the Gnarls Barkley duo into the upper echelon of fame.
“Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” – Rupert Holmes
Long before people were swiping for potential dates, there were the classified ads. The first take of this song was supposed to just be a dummy recording to get the tune right, and then Holmes would rewrite the lyrics. But he found he couldn't muster the enthusiasm when he went to re-record, and the original version stuck.
It became not only Holmes's biggest hit but the final hit song of the seventies. Fun fact: the famous original lyric was “If you like Humphrey Bogart and getting lost in the rain,” but Holmes changed it right before recording. Good change.
“Born in the U.S.A.” – Bruce Springsteen
This surprisingly unpatriotic song is on “Rolling Stone”'s five hundred greatest songs of all time list, and the Recording Industry Association of America called it one of the Songs of the Century.
Bruce and the band came up with the lyrics and instrument parts while jamming, recorded it once as practice, discarded that recording without listening to it, and blasted out the final version of this legendary song. Yes, on a technical level, that's two recordings, but it's a one-take-wonder in spirit, so it's on the list. Just one of the reasons he's the Boss.
“A Boy Named Sue” – Johnny Cash
This song is all about an unfortunately-named boy's lifelong quest for respect, “A Boy Named Sue” was recorded in one take as part of a live album at San Quentin State Prison. He'd read over the lyrics a few times but had never actually played it. You can hear inmates laughing and Cash's own chuckles on the recording.
The Man in Black would eventually head into the studio to create a clean recording and created one of the biggest hits of his career that crossed from country to pop and back. Surprisingly, Cash was never in prison, though he did spend a little bit of time in jail for various misdemeanors, including picking flowers while trespassing.
“El Paso” – Marty Robbins
“El Paso” is a story about a man who falls in love with a Mexican maiden, kills another for her, flees, and then ends up losing his life as he tries to return.
Robbins put the “Western” into country-western music with a twanging guitar and a soulful, world-weary vocal style. He recorded the Grammy-winning song only once. There are some versions out there that cut a verse to shorten the song a little bit, but both Robbins and his fans prefer the longer version. Robbins would go on to sing it at every single one of his performances for the rest of his career.
“My Way” – Frank Sinatra
Despite the fact that this famous crooner hated this tune – one of his signature songs – he could never get away from it. Even with an entire live orchestra backing him up, Sinatra was unflappable, nailing “My Way” in a single performance.
Sinatra was known as “One-take Charlie” (for some reason), but it was mostly because of his acting instead of his recording. When in the studio, he'd do as many takes as required to get the song perfect. Maybe that's why he ended up not liking this chart-topper. Maybe he always thought he hadn't gotten it right and would rather have had a few more tries.
“Are You Lonesome Tonight?” – Elvis Presley
With a few months left in his army stint, Elvis needed a hit to reignite his musical career. He chose a classic vaudeville tune, which was a favorite of Colonel Tom Parker's wife.
Elvis went to the studio, trying to create a somber mood by turning off the lights. A mishap in the recording occurred — something like a guitar problem or too much echo. The King wanted to scrap the song, but a record executive present knew they had a hit on their hands. The backup singers re-recorded the end of the song, and the song became a hit.
“I Can't Make You Love Me” – Bonnie Raitt
Inspired by a newspaper article about a man firing at his girlfriend's car, it only took Bonnie Raitt one take to create a heart-rending song about one-sided love. In fact, Raitt was so sure she had hit the nail on the head that when the producer asked her to record it again, she refused.
As the story goes, she had poured every drop of emotion she had into the song, and she wasn't going to be able to produce anything better. Raitt was right – the song is now in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
“Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson
With a sequined glove and matching socks, The King of Pop moonwalked into history in 1983 as he performed “Billie Jean.” The song was yet another incredible piece of art from “Thriller,” and the song helped him become one of the biggest stars of the world.
His vocals for the song came in one single take, which only builds the song's legend higher. To think that Jackson got all of that energy and emotion out all at once – astounding. The song has a place on the 500 greatest songs of all time, and for good reason. Even among Jackson's work, it stands out.
“Papa's Got a Brand New Bag” – James Brown
This Grammy Award-winning song about an older man hitting the dance floor to strut his stuff is pure James Brown – an eye-popping dancer himself.
The funky music was contagious, and the man who got the soul train rolling is said to have recorded all his vocals in one take. However, it's also said that Brown hadn't even memorized the words yet, and during the song was reading them from a lyrics sheet. Both stories are very likely to be true. He said there were a lot of words on the sheet, and then right before the horns blared, he shouted, “This is a hit!”
“I Say a Little Prayer” – Aretha Franklin
This international hit was totally unintentional. The queen of soul was having some fun in the recording booth with her backup singers in 1968, and they all started singing a song that had come out nine months earlier.
Dionne Warwick was the first to record “Say a Little Prayer,” but when Franklin and her crew recorded it, they managed to do it in one flawless take. They all loved the recording and decided to include it on the album they were working on, “Aretha Now.” The R&B and pop crossover song was a hit around the world.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – Israel Kamakawiwo'ole
It wasn't even close to the first version of the song that the world heard – that would be Judy Garland in 1938 for “The Wizard of Oz” – but many people consider this famous ukulele version from Hawaiian Kamakawiwo'ole to be the definitive version.
It was part of a medley with “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. Israel walked in, sat on a huge steel chair, and sang and played, getting it out in one take. Oh, also, all of this happened at three in the morning. Israel requested only fifteen minutes, and he only needed five. He won an Echo Award in 2011, which was received by his producers (pictured above) on his behalf.
“Crimson and Clover” – Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
First released in 1968 from the rock band Tommy James and the Shondells, “Crimson and Clover” sold over five million copies as a single.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts tried their hand in 1981 on their debut album, and in 1982 it reached number seven on the Billboard Hot 100. It was their second-highest hit in the United States, and they did it in one brilliant take on their way to earning stardom around the world in the eighties.
“I'm Only Out for One Thang” – Ice Cube
Ice Cube told a funny story in an article commemorating the twentieth anniversary of “AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted,” the album where “I'm Only Out for One Thang” originally appeared.
Famous clock-wearer Flava Flav was featured on the track, but he was running late getting to the studio. Ice Cube got the track ready to record, and as soon as Mr. Flav appeared, they did the recording, knowing they only had one shot before their time in the studio was up. They messed up at the end but just kept rolling. Whether or not they wanted another crack at it, they had no choice.
“I'm Your Baby Tonight” – Whitney Houston
When Houston showed up at the studio to record “I'm Your Baby Tonight,” it wasn't fully written – but Houston had places to be. Specifically, the mall. Houston wanted to do some shopping before it closed, and she had an hour to record.
Her perfect performance meant she had plenty of time to try on clothes. Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds was writing the song and hadn't finished the bridge, but all of the lyrics had been completed, so Houston jumped in and did her part, creating a huge hit in the process.
“Roxanne's Revenge” – Roxanne Shante
This hit would never have happened if not for Roxanne going to do her laundry. At the laundromat, she ran into Marley Marl, who asked Shante to come up to his apartment to freestyle over U.T.F.O.'s “Roxanne, Roxanne.” He recorded the freestyle as Roxanne showed off her skills, and the single take turned into an immediate radio hit.
A music video came not long after, and the record-scratching hip-hop got plenty of play on radio and music television stations. Shante and U.T.F.O. got into a feud over the new track. Shante woke up and realized she was a star, all because she had gone to do the laundry.
“Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” – JAY-Z
When it came out in 1998, “Hard Knock Life” was the most successful of JAY-Z's singles. JAY-Z originally heard the beat from 45 King, who was holding it for Kid Capri, but JAY-Z managed to coax the track away from the producer.
According to 45 King, JAY-Z was so excited about it it only took him one take – and less than five minutes – to create the track. He didn't have lyric papers in front of him; he just did it. As 45 King said during an interview, that's just JAY-Z.
“Teenage Lament '74” – Alice Cooper
Recorded in 1973, “Teenage Lament '74” is about the hassle and sometimes horror of being a teenager. Even if it was written in the seventies – and times have changed quite a lot since then – there are plenty of people out there who understand the meaning and enjoy the song.
As the story goes, the band was recording for the album “Muscle of Love,” and when it came time to record this song, they all just clicked, laying the entire thing down in one try. The song reached number twelve on the UK singles chart in 1973 and charted in a number of other countries as well.
“South Bronx” – Boogie Down Productions
Back in 1987, when Boogie Down Productions recorded “South Bronx,” fifty dollars was a significant amount of money – especially for two young hip-hop artists without a label. That was how much it cost for them to rent out an 8-track studio for two hours.
Apparently, however, they only needed five minutes and ten seconds – the running time of “South Bronx.” You can hear Scott La Rock and KRS-One arguing at one point. Nothing better than saving money. We wonder if this duo was able to clock out early after their famous diss track aimed at MC Shan.
“The Dream Shatterer (Original Version)” – Big Pun
According to D.I.T.C. member and producer Buckwild, Big Pun was the kind of guy that needed a couple of do-overs when recording a song. Sometimes entire verses, sometimes single lines. But when Big Pun entered the studio to record the original version of “The Dream Shatterer,” there were no do-overs, no stops, no breaks.
Inside Mystic Studio in Staten Island, Big Pun did it all in what seemed like a single breath. Buckwild was there to witness it, as well as a couple of others, and they all called it incredible.
“La Villa Strangiato” – Rush
If you're a fan of Rush, you know how intricate and complicated their songs can be. “La Villa Strangiato” is no different, even without any lyrics. Guitarist Alex Lifeson recounted that the song was recorded all at once, with all three of the holy trinity in the same room, looking to each other for cues on the next section.
Lifeson admits that he did go back and re-dub the guitar solo in the middle section, but everything else was one smooth take. They had written the entire song while touring and used sections of it to warm up or do sound checks while on the road, so when they finally recorded it, it was easy.
“Get Down and Get With It” – Slade
First released as “Get Down With It” by American R&B artist Bobby Marchan, “Get Down and Get With It” as covered by British rock band Slade was their first UK chart hit.
They started to play the song live after the failure of their 1970 album “Play It Loud,” and concert-goers decided they loved the track. They recorded it in the studio for a single, requiring only one take to get it right after all that time playing it live. With the addition of stomps and claps, the song even has a certain live feeling to it.
“The Motto” – Drake
Lots of rappers claim to have let fire flow from between their teeth in the studio, but a rap song almost always requires plenty of takes thanks to the speed of delivery. Drake, however, recorded the bonus track from “Take Care,” “The Motto” in one take, and DJ Franzen was there to see it.
It only took about a day for Drake to both write and record the song. Drake's producer, Noah “40” Shebib, says that Drake often does lots of takes, but the first one is almost always the best. There's lots of emotion flowing, and Drake is still fresh.
“My Heart Will Go On” – Celine Dion
You've probably heard this one. Not only is it the main theme for James Cameron's blockbuster film “Titanic,” but it's likely Dion's biggest hit, and that's saying something. It's considered her signature song, with over eighteen million copies sold.
Dion's manager and husband, Rene Angelil, convinced her to sing for the demo version at the very least, but the demo was so good that no other work was needed. That version was released with the movie, but it proved so popular that Dion requested a re-recording for an album version. She's that kind of artist.
“The Show Must Go On” – Queen
It was 1990, and Freddie Mercury was approaching the end of his life. It hadn't been made public to the fans yet, but Mercury and the rest of the band knew it. He was weak, looked tired during shows, and knew he didn't have a lot of time left.
“The Show Must Go On” is famous for this reason, but also because, even though he was weak and sick, Mercury went into the recording booth and laid down the vocals for the track in one brilliant take, despite the rest of the band's fear he wouldn't be able to perform. The song came out as a single for “Greatest Hits II” in October of 1991, just six weeks before Mercury passed.
“Skyfall” – Adele
Adele is an incredibly talented vocalist and performer, but even she has to have a couple of tries to record. Not so when it came to the eponymous theme song from the James Bond movie “Skyfall.”
The song runs a little under five minutes total, which means if you listened to it back-to-back, you've spent as much time with the song as Adele did. It only took her ten minutes to get her vocals out for what would end up being a Grammy-winning performance. By all accounts, Adele doesn't waste too much time in the studio, but even for her, this was fast.
“I Feel Love” – Donna Summer
On Summer's fifth studio album, “I Remember Yesterday,” she wanted a different sound for each song to recreate specific decades. “I Feel Love” was a futuristic sound thanks to a Moog synthesizer.
While most disco songs used deeper chest voices (singing from lower in the chest), for this song, Summer used a high head voice. She took the lyrics written by producer Pete Bellotte, walked into the recording booth, and walked back out with a take good enough for a hit. It was the B-side of the single “Can't We Just Sit Down (And Talk It Over),” but it quickly overshadowed the other song.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” – Sinéad O'Connor
If you need to cover a song, there's nothing like the Purple One. Prince wrote and composed “Nothing Compares 2 U” in 1985 for his side project, The Family, for their first album.
In 1989 the late Irish Singer Sinéad O'Connor covered it for her second album, “I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got.” It only took her one take to get something she loved, and she wasn't the only one – the single became a worldwide hit and got heavy rotation on MTV. Weirdly, Prince would then go on to cover O'Connor's version of the song a few years later.
“Mama Tried” – Merle Haggard
There are few country music stars more well-known than the great Merle Haggard. Country music has to have some pain in it, and this song was all about the pain Haggard caused his mother when he was put in prison for three years. However, the song is not exactly autobiographical, just heavily influenced by Haggard's life.
No matter what the story is, it only took Haggard one try in the booth to get this legendary song just right. After it was released, it reached number one on both the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles and the Canadian RPM Country Tracks lists.
“Crazy For You” – Madonna
It's been called the ultimate slow-dance song, and it's also been ranked as the eleventh-best Madonna single of all time...and it only took once in the studio.
“Crazy For You” has tons of accolades, like landing on VH1's “100 Greatest Love Songs. It was even nominated for the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 1986 Grammy Awards, but it lost to Whitney Houston's song, “Saving All My Love for You.” It was the first song Madonna released as a single, and it proved to be a new direction for the singer. Becoming her second number-one single, it charted all over the world.
“You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet” – Bachman-Turner Overdrive
With a B-side containing the instrumental “Free Wheelin',” “You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet” was a number-one hit for BTO and was also the band's only major hit in the United Kingdom.
The song wasn't even supposed to be recorded – Bachman sang it mostly as a joke in one take, but the producer listened to it and liked it, saying it felt brighter than a lot of the other songs. Bachman says that he sang it terribly, stuttered, and laughed, but it all managed to give the song a very real, light-hearted feeling.
“Skyscraper” – Demi Lovato
This one is a bit inaccurate since Lovato did actually record several different versions of this hit single. However, during the first one, Lovato broke down and started crying, as she was tackling a number of emotional issues, for which she would seek help and treatment.
After completing treatment, she returned to the song and recorded it again for real, reportedly only needing a single take once she went back to it. She kept the original recording, stating that it was symbolic to her. Her breathy, tenuous vocals throughout the song speak to the struggles she went through while working on it.
“Soldier Boy” – The Shirelles
Written by Luther Dixon and Florence Greenberg, it was girl group The Shirelles that got this song onto the airwaves. They released the song as a single in 1962 and watched it climb the charts until it stood at the top.
The Shirelles must have been pleased since apparently it only took them one try to get the vocals out the way they wanted them. The song might not be that long – only two minutes and forty-two seconds – but that can feel like forever if you need to get it perfectly perfect.