Original members :
Mention the term doo-wop and many people’s first association will be the song “Get A Job”, though some purists loathe the song for its seeming caricature of doo-wop’s attributes. It was the only hit of the Philadelphia quartet the Silhouettes, but they made several other worthwhile recordings.
Though the nucleus of the Silhouettes was created as early as 1951, we will begin the story in 1956. In that year the group the Gospel Tornadoes added a new member to its line-up to replace the departing James Jenkins. The newcomer, Richard (Rick) Lewis, convinced the other three members to sing rock ’n’ roll as well as gospel. For their secular music they used the name the Thunderbirds, while still performing gospel as the Silhouettes with another Philadelphia singer, John Wilson.
For about a year they searched all over Philadelphia and New York for a record deal but no one was interested. Their break came when deejay / producer / label owner Kae Williams saw them perform. He liked their style and signed them to his label, Junior Records. The group recorded its first single in October 1957, at Robinson Recording Laboratories in Philadelphia. They used the name the Silhouettes, as they had found out that another group had a prior claim on the name the Thunderbirds. Rollee McGill was brought in to honk the sax, Slim Howard played piano and James Harris was the drummer.
The intended A-side was “I Am Lonely”, an original ballad, backed with an upbeat tune that Lewis had written after getting out of the army entitled “Get A Job”. (The songwriting credit went to the whole group, though.) Released on Junior in November 1957, “I Am Lonely” became a hit in Philadelphia due to Kae’s radio play. Other jocks started flipping it and “Get A Job” began blaring out of radios everywhere. Soon Kae Williams understood that his small label (with no national distribution) could not handle the demand of record buyers, so he made a licensing deal with Al Silver’s Ember label, a much bigger New York independent. After its reissue on Ember, Dick Clark pushed “Get A Job” on American Bandstand and the record entered both the pop and R&B charts on January 20, 1958. Already two weeks later it was # 1 on the R&B charts (for 6 weeks) and on February 24 also top of the pop charts (for 2 weeks). The record sold a million copies in just three weeks. Soon the group would be touring with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter and other big stars.
Probably no other record inspired as many answer songs as “Get A Job”. The Miracles had their very first release with “Got A Job” (End), the Heartbeats sang “ I Found A Job” (Roulette), the Don Clairs came with “I Lost My Job” (AMP3), the Mistakes with “I Got Fired” (Lo-Fi) and there were several other employment songs. A cover of “Get A Job” by the Mills Brothers (Dot) went to # 21, their biggest hit of the rock era.
The Silhouettes’ second single, “Headin’ for the Poorhouse” (Ember 1032) fared less well. In fact, the group would never have a chart entry again. “Bing Bong”, the last Ember single, was a quality release, but clicked only in Philadelphia. For their fourth single they released the ballad “I Sold My Heart To the Junkman” on Junior, which was picked up by Ace. It did nothing, but in 1962 the Bluebelles (with Patti LaBelle) scored a # 15 pop hit with an up-tempo version of the song. After “Evelyn” (which also came out on both Junior and Ace) there was a two-year hiatus before the Silhouettes recorded again (“Never”/“Bull Frog” on 20th Century Fox, 1961). After one-off singles for Grand and Imperial in 1962, they were back on Junior with the excellent “Rent Man”. By then Horton and Edwards had departed (both men would release a few solo recordings) and were succeeded by John Wilson and Cornelius Brown. These new Silhouettes recorded for Jamie in 1967 and for Goodway in 1968, including an LP (“The Original and New Silhouettes, 58/68”) that combined old singles with three new recordings (among which a remake of “Get A Job”).
The Silhouettes eventually disbanded in 1968, a few years before the doo-wop revival act Sha Na Na (who took their name from the exuberant lyrics of “Get A Job”) was about to make an impact. No further records were released and the group did not perform together for the next twelve years. In 1980 the original four members re-formed the group and stayed together until 1993, performing regularly on the oldies circuit. An album with new material (“Workin’ Hard”) appeared in 1982, but had no national distribution and only a limited local release. The 30-track Silhouettes CD “The Complete Package” on Rhythm Records (2001) is far from complete and includes only two tracks from the “Workin’ Hard” LP.
All four members died between 1995 and 2005. Cornelius Brown and John Wilson are also deceased. The Silhouettes remain among the most loved and respected of R&B harmony groups of the 1950s.
Website : http://www.thesilhouettes.org
CD : Get A Job (Collectables 5748). 13 tracks from 1957-63. Released in 1996. Liner notes by Todd Baptista.
Acknowledgements : Shana Lewis, Jay Warner, Wayne Jancik, Bruce Eder.
Dik, April 2016
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