Friday, September 21, 2012

Pittsburgh's Silhouettes

George Bacasa, Ronnie Thomas and Al Secen were inseparable Lawrenceville buds. They went to high school together, and formed a polka trio during their senior year, practicing in George's basement. In 1953 they auditioned for Uncle Sam, and enlisted as members of the 536th Air Force Band.

In exchange for a four-year stint, they were stationed at Cape Canaveral, Florida (or maybe nearby Patrick AFB). When on-base, they showed VIPs around the rocket facility. But most of the time, they were out entertaining the troops, doing PR-type tours, performing on radio and TV and for recruitment drives. Their final year saw them recognized with the Roger Award, the Air Force's honor for its most talented airmen.

They came back home a little more sophisticated musically and morphed into a jazz group, with Bacasa on flute and reeds, Secen on vibes (he played the squeeze box when they were a polka band) and Thomas on bass. They eventually added jazz drummer Lenny Rogers (who went to Duquesne and later taught there) and vocalist Cathy Martin, though they would run through a number of singers over the years.

The band called itself the Silhouettes, sometimes messing with the minds of vocal fans who expected Bill Horton/John Wilson and the Philly harmonizers of "Get A Job" fame. Pittsburgh's Silhouettes were anything but doowoppers.

They had a funky, bossa-nova sort of sound with a mellow side. The group played the college and jazz circuits, and gigged at local clubs like the Red Door, Casa Di Monzo, Pilot House, Escapades, Encore, the Hilton and the Holiday House, going strong from the late fifties into the early seventies. While their Latin beat was infectious, they're remembered today because the Silhouettes left behind some great vinyl.

The first single was released on Bacasa's Bye George label (#1000). It was "St. Thomas," a remake of the Sonny Rollins piece, backed with a cover of John Phillip's song "Monday, Monday," released in 1967.

But their piece de resistance was the Segue release of 1969, their LP "Conversations With The Silhouettes." (SEG-1001) Segue was a local jazz label owned by WRS Labs and run by Basaca and Nathan Davis. (It would later fold when the owners switched from jazz to rock unsuccessfully.) Bacasa produced the imprint's first release, Davis' "Makatuka," and Davis produced the Silhouettes' "Conversations," their one and only album.

The band added Willy Smith on congas and percussion for the session, and tossed in a little lo-tech electronic trickery while recording. The tracks included on "Conversations" are Young Blood, Time To Fall In Love, Norwegian Wood (Lennon/McCartney), Sally's Tomato (Mancini), Question: Why?, Fonky First, Hashi Baba, Conversation, Sesame, What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life (Bergman/Bergman/Legrand) and Lunar Invasion, with most of the tracks written by Al Secen.

It was quite well received critically - Norwegian Wood was especially popular among affectionados - but as often happens, the wax didn't sell at the time though it's worth a small mint on today's collectors' market. Several of the tracks have been downloaded to by funk fans, as have the 45s.

The last single by this group was 1969's "Oh What A Day," an upbeat pop tune sung by Carol Christian and produced by Bill Lawrence for his Canonsburg based Western World label (WWS-5503). The B-Side is "Red Snow," a composition penned by the band. The record companies at the time were trying to get the jazz guys to cross over by leading with a pop side in exchange for the flip being the group's choice. And as it ended up, "Red Snow" is the more remembered song.

Bacasa and Secens fronted a group called New Horizons into the early-to-mid eighties, playing clubs like Cunimondo's Keyboard in Verona. And that is about where Old Mon's trail runs cold. George Bacasa suffered a heart attack in 1976 and passed on in 1988 while still in his early fifties. Ronnie Thomas met his maker in 1991, while he was in his late fifties. The last we heard, Al Secen is still hanging in there and soaking up the sunshine in Palm Beach.

If anyone can help us fill in the missing pieces of Pittsburgh's Silhouettes, give us a yell so we can finish the story.


Anonymous said...

I am Al's daughter. He still lives in Palm Harbor and plays his vibes every day. He gets together with some other guys and they play for hours. They haven't had a job in a few months. He turned 80 om 2/23/13 but you'd never know it to look at him. I enjoyed the article.
Karen Mooresmith from Alabama

Vinyl Ritchie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Lynch said...

My name is Dave Lynch, and I am a Jazz Guitarist that plays with Al Secen in a Jazz Quartet called "The Al Secen Jazz Quartet", and we play private parties, functions, banquets, clubs, and restaurants around Tampa, FL., and recently perfomed for the City of Tampa's "Friday Extra Concert series outdoors on May 16th, 2014. Al has been a real mentor to me, and I truly enjoy playing with him, and I have learned a great deal from him. Al writes good original jazz music also, and inspires me to do the same. I can provide some photos of our group from our recent concert which was televised on City of Tampa TV recently. The other members of the group are John Tschirhart-bass, and Tom Brocato- drums. For booking info, please call 813-362-8648. Al lives in Palm Harbor, FL. and is still going strong,Thank God. He's a great musician.

Anonymous said...

My name is Dave and I worked at WRS when the album was recorded and I still have the vinyl. As an employee, I was awarded a copy from a bad pressing, but it was/is good enough for me. My favorite songs from the album are "Sally's Tomato" with George on the alto flute and those beautiful vibes in "Hashi Baba."