The Silhouettes: “Get a Job”
In 1957, a doo-wop group in Philadelphia called the Silhouettes recorded a song called “Get a Job” at the Robinson Recording Studios in Philadelphia. Like “Ice Ice Baby” many years later, “Get a Job” was actually a B-side that DJs preferred to the single. The song caught fire on local radio, and the group eventually performed the song on American Bandstand (which, at the time, was recorded in Philly). The song was soon a national sensation, selling more than three million copies and shooting to the #1 spot on the Billboard pop chart. Sadly, like many performers of that era, the Silhouettes were completely taken advantage of by the record companies, and they made almost nothing off of the song. Finally, after years of fighting in court, in 1987, songwriter and group member Rick Lewis won his case, and received some of the money he deserved from writing one of the most memorable hits of the doo-wop era. (You can read more about the Silhouettes here.)
Len Barry: “1-2-3″
This one comes with an asterisk, as Barry was the lead singer of the Dovells, who had major hits with the “Bristol Stomp” and “You Can’t Sit Down.” But his song “1-2-3″ was a huge success in 1965, and the West Philly native reached #2 on the Billboard charts. He continued to record for decades, but never had another big hit.
Born James Keefer in Philadelphia, he went by the simple name Keith when he released his biggest hit, “98.6,” in 1967. He was soon arrested for evading the draft, and his second album didn’t do well. He went on to play with Frank Zappa in the ’70s and open his own recording studio in the 1980s. In 1988, he changed his name to Bazza Keefer, and he currently lives in Southern California.
Robert Hazard: “Escalator of Life”
Possibly another asterisk on this one, since his song “Change Reaction” was also a minor hit. Of course, Hazard is even better known for a song that he wrote in 1979 called “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” He recorded it, but it never really went anywhere. Then, the man working on Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual remembered it, and asked Hazard if Lauper could rework the song. Hazard agreed, and the rest is history. It was a blessing and a curse for him, as he made a fortune off the song, but perhaps it prevented him from being seen as a serious songwriter. Hazard continued to record until his death in 2008 at age 59.
Toni Basil: “Mickey”
Toni Basil was always more of a dancer than a singer. The Philly-born dancer choreographed David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour, and regularly worked with Bette Midler. She also did some acting, appearing in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, among other films. But it is her 1982 single “Mickey” for which she is best known. The song was a cover of a song by a group named Racey called “Kitty.” She changed the name of the song to “Mickey,” naming it after Micky Dolenz of the Monkees, whom she had met while choreographing the Monkees 1968 film Head. It was her only Top 40 hit, and she stopped recording music in 1983 and went back into choreography full-time, where she continues to be extremely successful.
Pretty Poison: “Catch Me (I’m Falling)”
Pretty Poison is a dance group that formed in Philadelphia in 1981. They had modest success until their song, “Catch Me (I’m Falling)” was featured in the Jon Cryer movie Hiding Out. That led to heavy rotation on MTV, and their song became a top 10 hit on Billboard. The song was their only smash hit, though they continue to record.
Cool C: “Glamorous Life”
In 1989, a young Philly rapper by the name of Cool C (born Chris Roney) released his debut album, I Got a Habit. Its single “Glamorous Life” went all the way to #11 on the hip-hop charts. The 20-year-old seemed destined for stardom. But his second album didn’t fare as well, and an album he recorded with fellow Philly rapper Steady B was a disappointment as well. In 1996, the two rappers entered a PNC Bank in Feltonville and held it up. When officer Lauretha Vaird responded to a silent alarm, she was shot by Roney. He is on death row and received a last-minute stay of execution in 2006.
Frankie Smith: “Double Dutch Bus”
Frankie Smith was a staff songwriter for Gamble and Huff in the 1970s, but when Philadelphia International ceased operations, Smith applied for a job as a bus driver. He wasn’t hired, but the experience inspired a song, called the “Double Dutch Bus.” The song was an instant hit, and is considered the inspiration for the “izzle” style of slang heard today on Snoop Dogg songs. The song was covered by Raven Symone in 2008. Smith never had another hit. But his one hit helped bring down a huge cocaine syndicate based in Philly (albeit unwittingly and unknowingly on Smith’s part). The incredible story was told in an excellent Philadelphia Weekly piece in 2005.
MFSB: “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”
MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother) was really a rotating crew of studio musicians for Gamble and Huff. In 1972, they began recording as a named act, and in 1974, recorded the song “TSOP.” Don Cornelius wouldn’t allow them to name the song, “The Soul Train Theme” (a move Cornelius later admitted he regretted), so it came to be known as TSOP. It went to #1 on the charts, arguably the first-ever disco song to do so. It also won the Grammy for R&B instrumental. The group’s ensuing album made the top 10. They had a few more minor disco hits in the ensuing years, but nothing that approached “TSOP,” and the group disbanded in 1981.
Karen Young: “Hot Shot”
In 1978, a 27-year-old woman from a North Philly rowhome became an overnight sensation with a disco song called “Hot Shot.” The song went to #1 on the Billboard dance music chart. Suddenly, Young was in demand all over the world. After her whirlwind tour of performances, disco crashed and burned, and Karen went back to playing local clubs and bars. Tragically, she died of a bleeding ulcer at age 39 in 1991.