Silhouettes' John Wilson Tribute

 

John Wilson at Classic Urban Harmony Headquarters, February 2009

 

John Wilson, last surviving member of the R&B/R&R vocal group the Silhouettes, died at his home in Spartanburg, SC, on September 21, 2009.  He was 69.  While not on the Silhouettes’ huge chart hit, “Get A Job,” John “Bootsie” Wilson never-the-less played an important roll in the Philadelphia vocal group’s history.

Thanks to Elaine and Shana Lewis, wife and daughter of the late Silhouettes’ tenor Rick Lewis, we got to meet and spend a little time with John Wilson during the last year of his life.  We wish we had known him sooner, for John Wilson was a fascinating man.

John Wilson was born in Philadelphia on July 18, 1940.  His uncles were professional musicians, having played with Max Roach and Maynard Ferguson.  John sang with the Philadelphia Glee Club when he was young.  In addition, he sang with neighborhood street corner groups.  By 1957, John was living in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

John Wilson knew the Silhouettes’ Rick Lewis from the neighborhood.  Before the Silhouettes ever recorded, John Wilson sang with them.  “The group that became the Silhouettes had a changing line-up, like most amateur groups,” John told Elaine Lewis.  “We were all friends.  I sang with them many times [in the early days].  I sang Richard’s song ‘Get A Job’ too.”

When the Silhouettes landed a recording contract with Philly deejay Kae Williams, Bill Horton became the group’s established lead singer and John Wilson was out of the group.  But they all remained friends.  John Wilson dabbled with becoming a prize fighter but he also kept singing.

Throughout the late 1950’s the Silhouettes were internationally known recording stars, touring the United States on the strength of “Get a Job.”  Meanwhile, John Wilson was singing with a Germantown neighborhood street corner group.  Also in the group was a young Germantown singer named Frankie Beverly.  [Frankie would later gain fame as the lead of the Butlers and then Maze.]  “Every Friday and Saturday nights we would go down the speakeasy and we would sing there,” John told us.  “For our drinks.  We would sing for our drinks.  Frankie [Beverly] was real young.  He was younger than any of us.  That’s why we sang in the speakeasy because he couldn’t sing in any bars or clubs.”

By late 1961, the Silhouettes were a group in transition.  Lead Bill Horton had left the group, as had bass Raymond Edwards.  Rick Lewis and Earl Beale wanted to keep singing so Rick recruited John Wilson as the Silhouettes’ new lead and Cornelius Brown as the new bass.

“Neil [Cornelius Brown] came into the group about the same time I did,” recalled John Wilson.  “Neil was from South Philly, the same neighborhood that Earl Beale was from.  Neil was from from 22nd street.  He was a performer.  He did tap dancing.  He also was an amateur boxer, but I don’t think he ever turned pro.  Neil could tap dance.  He could sing too!  He was a lead bass.  A singing bass.”


The New Silhouettes: (l->r) Earl Beal,
    John Wilson, Cornelius Brown, Rick Lewis
 

“Richard asked me to come sing with him,” John said.  “So I went to a rehearsal at Earl Beale’s house where he was rooming down in South Philly.  And I started singing with them.  Guys offered us contracts that wanted to manage us but I was very particular as to who I wanted to manage us.  Kae Williams wanted to manage us again.  And we talked about that but we said no.  We were singing at a club on Columbia Avenue and the guy who owned the club was a taproom broker named was Bill Fox.  That’s how we got with Jerry Ragavoy.  Jerry Ragavoy worked for Bill Fox.  Bill Fox came and talked with me.  He wanted me to go single but I wouldn’t do it.  I told him to take the group and he took the group.  And we recorded 'Move On Over'.”
 

(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

“Move On Over (To Another Land)” b/w “Wish I Could Be There” came out in 1962 on the legendary Philadelphia R&B label Grand (# 142) which Herb Slotkin and Jerry Ragavoy had formed nine years earlier to record the Castelles.  Now Jerry Ragavoy was working with Bill Fox to establish a successful record production company that would manage the Majors, Garnett Mimms & the Enchanters and others.  While “Move On Over” did well for the regionally, it failed to chart nationally.

Jerry Ragavoy and Bill Fox tried again, having the Silhouettes record “The Push” b/w “Which Way Did She Go” for Imperial Records.  “The Push” was a dance record that got a lot of airplay on Philly radio station WIBG.  “We did shows all over,” said John.  “Rick was very concerned about the music.  And he was always concerned about the group.  Wherever Rick would ask us to go, we’d go – Baltimore, North Carolina, down South.  Rick was getting a lot of the engagements.  So we didn’t have a booking agent.  And some of the places they had performed before, he’d get in touch with them and we’d go back and perform again.  We did the Steel Pier (TV) Show (in Atlantic City) one time.  And over here in Trenton.  We used to appear in Trenton a lot.  We had one disc jockey [promoting us a lot], a real hip guy – Jerry Blavat.”


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

“There was one place where we were appearing six nights in one week and had people waiting around the block in line, for a bar!” said John.  [The bar was most likely Sid Booker's "Stinger" at Broad & Belfield Avenue, according to Elaine Lewis]  “When ever we appeared in Philly there’d be people lined up around the block.  We’d start out on one night and by the third night we got a $300-400 raise.”


The New Silhouettes
(Photo Courtesy of Elaine Lewis)
 

Reluctant to sign a long term contract with any one promoter, John insisted that the group’s contract with Bill Fox was only for one year.  In 1963, the Silhouettes moved on.  “I led ‘Rent Man’,” John said proudly.  “See what happened was, after we left Bill Fox, we went back to Kae Williams.”

Kae Williams, who’d managed the Silhouettes during their glory years tried again with an answer record to “Get A Job” called “Rent Man.”  “Rent Man” sold well in Philadelphia, where it is still regarded as a classic doo wop piece.  However, it did not sell up to the expectations of either Kae or the Silhouettes and the rekindled association ended with that record.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

“Kae Williams tried but it wasn’t going anywhere,” recalled John.  “So we met some people in Frankford (a neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia).  They owned Maitre d’ Meat Company.  I went there and got a job.  I was working in the place where they ground hamburgers and I was singing.  And the boss came out who owned the company heard me.  He said, ‘Do you sing by yourself?’ and I said no I have a group.  And he said let me hear the group.  I called Rick and they came down and the next thing we knew he was recording us.  We did some songs we made up, like ‘Your Love’ and we rearranged ‘Climb Every Mountain.’  That’s our arrangement.  ‘Gaucho Serenade’ was one of our arrangements.  ‘Climb Every Mountain’ was a much requested song when we sang.

The songs the Silhouettes recorded came out on an album on the Goodway label.  The album packaged songs by the original 1950’s Silhouettes on one side and the “New Silhouettes” on the other side.  Included on the new side was an updated version of “Get A Job” with John Wilson doing lead.  Packaged in the album was a 45 RPM single of “Not Me Baby” backed with “Gaucho Serenade.”


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

“Not Me Baby” would eventually become a Northern Soul classic in the UK.  It was a tune the Silhouettes had been singing for awhile, since their time with Jerry Ragavoy.  “Jerry Ragavoy wrote ‘Not Me Baby’,” said John Wilson.  “With ‘Not Me Baby’ he wrote the melody and a lot of time we’d get with him and write the lyrics.”


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

“Climb Every Mountain” was leased to Jamie-Guyden Records but really didn’t do much.  Discouraged, John Wilson left the group.  “I don’t know what happened to the songs we recorded because I left and came down south.” John said.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

In the early 1970’s John Wilson moved to South Carolina where he became a minister and served as a pastor for eight churches over three decades.


(Photo courtesy of Elaine Lewis)



(Photo courtesy of Elaine Lewis)


(Photo courtesy of Elaine Lewis)
 

We first met John Wilson when Elaine and Shana Lewis brought him to our home offices in February 2009.  We enjoyed his company and had a chance to interview him about his musical career.  We’ll always remember John singing “Move On Over” while Elaine Lewis played guitar.


(John Wilson & Elaine Lewis)


(John Wilson, Charlie & Pam Horner)


(Elaine Lewis, John Wilson, Shana Lewis)


Later in April 2009, John, Elaine and Shana attended one of our Classic Urban Harmony presentations at the Bridgewater (NJ) Library.  We played part of “Rent Man” and John Wilson greeted Silhouettes fans in the audience.  We had lunch with John but that was the last time we saw him.  We’d been working to get him to the UK to perform “Not Me Baby” but it was not to be.  John Wilson passed away on September 21, 2009 of cancer.


John Wilson at the Classic Urban Harmony presentation,
Bridgewater, NJ, April 2009


(Left to right: John Wilson, Bobby Thomas, Shana Lewis)
(Photo by Elaine Lewis)


Charlie, John Wilson, Pam
(Photo by Elaine Lewis)

 

For more information on the history of the Silhouettes visit our Silhouettes Profile Page.  To read about John Wilson's visit to Classic Urban Harmony Headquarters click John Wilson.  To see photos of John Wilson at our Bridgewater presentation click Bridgewater.

Our special thanks to Elaine and Shana Lewis for bringing John Wilson to us and for sharing their photos and information.  Please visit their Silhouettes website for much more information on the Silhouettes and an interview with John Wilson.  Then use the Back Button to return to our website.

 

Copyright © Classic Urban Harmony LLC, 2009.  All Rights Reserved.