Get a Job
Song lyrics come in all types, and some have transformed a melody into a million dollars...or ten. There's no rule requiring lyrics to be intelligible, so as rock songwriters employed more shortcuts, the previous generation grimaced. One set of opening lyrics, 'Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na, ba-doo' along with 'yip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip, mum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum,' written and performed by The Silhouettes, became an unlikely but enduring benchmark of 1950s rock and roll.
The group was formed in Philadelphia in 1956 with lead vocalist William Horton and former gospel singers Earl Beal, Raymond Edwards and Richard Lewis. Beal and Edwards had performed with local gospel group The Balladeers and this new quartet, The Gospel Tornadoes, aimed to continue on the same path. Struggling to establish themselves anew in Philly's highly competitive gospel field, and at the urging of Lewis, the group's youngest member, they strayed into rhythm and blues, finding they had a knack for the popular vocal-gymnastic doo wop technique. Becoming The Thunderbirds, they played at a local club and in late 1957 disc jockey Kae Williams picked them up for a label he'd started, Junior Records. "I Am Lonely" was an R&B ballad not unlike many that had been popular since the start of the decade. Well written with solid vocals, it could have been a hit in 1953 or 1954, but would certainly face an uphill climb in the more teen-oriented post-Elvis environment wherein some vocal groups were going the route of The Rays, a quartet riding high in '57 with "Silhouettes," a midtempo ballad blending the standard R&B approach with the more contemporary doo wop harmony style. When Billy Ford's Thunderbirds became nationally known in late '57 as backup band on the hits of Billy and Lillie, the group realized they would have to change their name again, so they went with The Silhouettes from the title of the Rays' hit song.
It wasn't the ballad on the A side of the single that connected, though. The uptempo flip was a song based on an idea Richard Lewis had come up with. Recalling his discharge from the Army a few years earlier, his mother had insisted he get out and find a job. The four worked together forming lyrics around this idea, claiming writer credit as an equal member team, adding the 'sha-na-na' doo wop flourishes inspired by the 'sh-boom's and 'dum-de-dooby-dum's of earlier hits. The end product, "Get a Job," was considered worthy of the record's B side. Taking advantage of American Bandstand's home base in Philly, they made sure Dick Clark got a copy of the Junior label single, but Clark preferred the hotter-sounding flip side and its relatable message. Playing it on the show, demand for the record came fast and Williams arranged for national distribution with Ember Records. Soon afterwards the group appeared in person on Bandstand and in February 1958 achieved something few doo wop acts, in spite of the genre's many hits, have pulled off: the song hit number one on the R&B charts first, then number one on the pop charts a few weeks later. The Ember single quickly hit the million-plus mark in sales.
Competition came quickly when a cover version popped up by The Mills Brothers, one of the top acts from the aformentioned "previous generation." A surprisingly good effort by the highly successful 40-something siblings, it nevertheless came off as a less authentic near-carbon copy; receiving a fair amount of airplay, it was ultimately snuffed out by the bonfire-size spread of the Silhouettes' original. In the wake of its chart-topping success, "Get a Job" inspired several artists to record "answer" songs. The best known of these, by Detroit group The Miracles, conveyed a positive message about the obvious outcome of hitting the pavement in search of employment: "Got a Job," featuring lead singer Smokey Robinson (who'd just turned 18), marked the beginning of the act that, with Berry Gordy, built Motown's Hitsville U.S.A.
The long-running success that followed the Miracles' imitative beginning stands in sharp contrast to what resulted for the song's originators. As was all too common in the record business, very little money found its way to the Silhouettes in spite of their song being one of the biggest hits of its time. The situation only got worse when a hoped-for follow-up hit failed to materialize, yet "Headin' For the Poorhouse," "Bing Bong," "Voodoo Eyes" and other records continued to give songwriting credit to the entire group, a move that would unpredictably reap benefits years later. When Horton and Edwards decided to leave, John Wilson and Cornelius Brown came in as replacements. Several Silhouettes singles were released on United Artists, Ace and Imperial over the next few years and they worked with hot writer-producer Jerry Ragovoy along the way, but had no further appearances on the charts, cementing their dubious place in music as one of the all time biggest one-hit wonders.
Feeling the cycle had run its course by 1968, The Silhouettes, by that time consisting of a mostly-new lineup, called it quits. In the meantime, Sha Na Na, a new group bearing a name based on the "Get a Job" opening hook, performed at the Woodstock festival in the summer of '69 and sparked a doo wop revival of sorts in the 1970s culminating in their own syndicated TV series from 1977 to 1981. Horton, Beal, Edwards and Lewis of the original Silhouettes came together in 1980, after more than 20 years, to perform on the oldies circuit, where demand was stronger than it had been since the '60s. Still feeling the sting from the minimal income received for their late-'50s hit, but realizing the copyrights for their original work (much of which they had also written) were set to expire in 1985 and 1986, the four were able to secure renewal themselves, thereafter receiving payment for the recordings and songs they had created nearly three decades earlier. Nice timing! One '50s act, at least, finally achieved fair treatment by taking matters into their own hands.