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Harmony Lane: The Silhouettes did more than just ?Get a Job?

Find out how publishing practices kept this group from reaching its potential.

As one of the first crossover R&B-pop rock ’n’ roll hits, “Get A Job” sold more than a million copies in its first three weeks, earning the Philadelphia-based Silhouettes a gold record.

The nucleus of the original group was formed in a South Street pool hall in 1951 when Virginia-born bass singer Raymond Edwards and baritone Earl Beal formed The Balladeers, a spiritual group, with Clarence Basil and Joe Miller. In 1954, Basil left and was replaced with William Horton, who had begun singing gospel in his hometown of Hickory, N.C., before moving to Philadelphia in the hope of making a record.

Miller soon left, and the newly named Gospel Tornadoes underwent several personnel changes until floating tenor James Jenkins arrived in 1955. Jenkins had previously toured the United States and Canada, singing at carnivals, state fairs and clubs with The Parakeets, a pop-oriented group that included tenor Richard “Rick” Lewis and bass Andrew Jones. By late 1955, Lewis was serving as road manager for The Turbans with Jones singing bass. Returning home in August 1956, Lewis learned of a death in his family, which prevented him from returning to the road. Jenkins and Lewis then, in effect, traded places. Singing in churches, The Gospel Tornadoes found it hard to earn a living, discovering little money left after the pastor, deacons and ushers finished collecting their share from the offering plate.

Lewis subsequently encouraged a switch to rock ’n’ roll. As The Thunderbirds, they sang songs like “Love Me Tender” and “Cool Water” at local clubs, bars, cabarets and in the streets. During the summer of 1957, Robert Williams, a stagehand at Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater, arranged an audition for them with WHAT disc jockey Kae Williams, who had managed Lee Andrews and The Hearts and was attempting to get his own label started. Williams liked The Thunderbirds and their original ballad, “I Am Lonely.” He agreed to record and manage them.

In October, Williams brought the group into the studio at WIP to record “I Am Lonely” and “Get A Job” with a band including veteran jazz drummer James “Coatsville” Harris, pianist Orlando “Slim” Howard and tenor saxophonist Rollie McGill. “When I was in the service in the early ’50s,” Lewis recalled, “and came home and didn’t go to work, my mother said, ‘Get a job’, and basically that’s where the song came from.”

Although arranger Howard Biggs is often credited with creating the “dip-dip-dip-dip-boom” and “sha-na-na-na” hooks, they was actually conceived by the quartet.

“When we auditioned ‘Get A Job’ for Kae, the arrangement was as it is on the record,” clarified Lewis. “Biggs did the charts for the session based on our arrangement. He tried to replace our opening with a musical intro. It was scrapped because it didn’t work.”

About this time, The Thunderbirds learned their moniker was already taken. Beal suggested a new name from The Rays’ current hit, “Silhouettes.” “Get A Job” got immediate attention, and Williams quickly realized he could not meet the demand. A national distribution deal was arranged, and the record was released by Ember in December.

A multitude of concert and television appearances followed. On Feb. 3, 1958, the record spent the first of six weeks at #1 on the R&B chart. By Feb. 24, it was #1 on the pop list. All told, “Get A Job” spent 11 weeks on the R&B chart and 13 on the pop chart. The Silhouettes made frequent appearances on “American Bandstand” and were booked on Irv Feld’s “Biggest Show of Stars” tour.