Lillian Walker-Moss and the Exciters: Having One Hit Is a Win, Not a Loss
When we think of one-hit wonders in the pop music world, we often assume that catching the lightning once exhausts everything this artist had to say.
Sometimes it does. But for others, the miscalculation is ours, because we carelessly equate commercial success with artistic merit.
Most pop music fans these days, it’s safe to assume, don’t know the name Lillian Walker-Moss. A few more may know the song “Tell Him,” which was a top-five hit in 1963 for the Exciters, with whom Lillian Walker sang soprano.
Those who do know the song might remember it best from the movies The Big Chill (1983) or My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997).
It’s a terrific song, one of a thousand points of proof that rock ’n’ roll did not die when Elvis Presley went into the Army in 1958 and only come back to life when the Beatle invaded in 1964.
For the Exciters, it was their only hit in almost 15 years of recording, which didn’t prevent Lillian Walker-Moss from having a rather nice musical career. When she died Sunday at the age of 78, from the rare cancer angiosarcoma, she left a legacy of recording and singing music on stage, something thousands of young folks dream about and only a handful have the talent, tenacity and good fortune to pursue.
Growing up in the late 1950s in Jamaica, Queens, Lillian Walker wanted to form a singing group when she was barely a teenager. Early rock ’n’ roll may have mostly sold itself as guys wielding guitars, but women played a major part as well, often in captivating styles of rhythm and blues harmony: the Shirelles, the Teen Queens, the Chantels, the Clickettes, the Bobbettes.
Walker found a friend who shared her vocal group ambition, Sylvia Wilbur. “Sylvia and I were trying to start a group,” she told John Clemente for his exhaustive 2000 book Girl Groups. “But every time we would get somebody they would only last a month or two. We were the only two who were serious.”
It turns out that being in a musical group, singing or instrumental, requires time and commitment. It can take teenagers away from, say, boyfriends or girlfriends. But Lillian and Sylvia were persistent 15-year-olds, and they finally found a third voice, Brenda Reid.
Reid told Clemente that “they asked me because I had a piano,” and while it turned out she couldn’t play it, she could sing. They started rehearsing in Reid’s house at the invitation of Reid’s mother, an accommodating parental gesture that would one day lead Mrs. Reid to fix dinner for the Beatles.
That’s getting ahead of the story. Another friend, Carol Johnson, would sometimes drop by to listen to the rehearsals and one day Walker heard her singing to herself. Walker asked if she wanted to join the group and Johnson said it was about time they got the hint.
One day Herb Rooney from the vocal group the Masters dropped by, looking for fellow group member Dickie Williams. “He asked what we were doing,” Reid told Clemente. “I said we were singing. He said, ‘You call that singing?’ “
Turned out he meant this in a constructive way, and he started helping the quartet polish its harmonies. Months of rehearsals later, they had a name — the Masterettes, a “sister group” to the Masters. Reid had become the lead singer, and they sang both familiar songs and Rooney originals. Months later, after they had cut a record, they made their public stage debut at the Hillside Theater in Queens, opening for Baby Washington and Shep and the Limelites.
It went well, they got noticed and they were offered an audition for Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, two of the top songwriter/producers of the day. They passed the audition and were offered a deal, though not without a hiccup. Sylvia left to get married and her replacement, Penny Carter, said her parents wouldn’t sign the necessary papers for their underage daughter to join.
So Herb stepped in, as a background singer, and that became the group that recorded “Tell Him.”
“Tell Him” had been written by the talented and troubled Bert Berns, whose other songs include “A Little Bit of Soap,” “Twist and Shout” and “Piece of My Heart,” and it originally was a guy song, titled “Tell Her.” It had been recorded by two male singers, Gil Hamilton and Ed Townsend, and gone nowhere.
The women in the group, now called the Exciters, wanted nothing to do with it.
“We couldn’t wait to get out of the office and say we hated it,” Lillian told Clemente. “We said we’d stick together, but that never worked on Herbie. They’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, learn the song.’ We almost missed it because didn’t even want to do the song.”
The Exciters’s version became a hit because they simply did it better. Townsend’s rendition sounds like a samba production. The Exciters, further backed by Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston, turn it into a freight train roaring downhill with the brakes off: “I know something about love / Gotta want it bad.”
“Tell Him” would over the years come to be seen as a female empowerment song, the voice of girls who were tired of waiting for a guy to make up his mind.
This wasn’t an entirely new thought in popular music. Bessie Smith was saying it 40 years earlier and over in the 1950s rockabilly world, Wanda Jackson was singing “Let’s Have a Party.” But it felt fresh. Dusty Springfield famously said that hearing “Tell Him” pushed her to launch a solo career.
“Tell Him” reached №4 in early 1963. The Exciters made some fine records after that, including the first version of “Doo Wah Diddy,” but while they stayed together until 1974, they never again made more than a slight ripple on the charts.
What that frustration did not do was relegate them to a dark corner of the music business. A year and a half after “Tell Him” left the charts, they were invited to be one of the support acts on the Beatles’s first American tour.
Walker-Moss and the others remember talking music with John, Paul, George and Ringo, like when the producers rented an entire Florida motel for the touring company. Mrs. Reid came along as a chaperone who also liked to cook, and when the Beatles were imprisoned by their fans in New York’s Plaza Hotel, Mrs. Reid fixed a meal that the Exciters walked in to the lads upstairs.
By the early 1970s, the Exciters had begun to wind down, and by 1974, Walker-Moss told Clemente, they felt burned out. They would reunite occasionally in later years, suggesting that unlike some groups, they hadn’t mostly become tired of each other.
Reid went to work for her church, Johnson became an accountant and Walker-Moss went back to school, after which she became a guidance counselor for the New York Department of Education. It’s fun to imagine some student asking Mrs. Walker-Moss about what she did when she was younger, and then imagining the student’s reaction. She retired in 2015, remaining lively and active on social media.
The Exciters arrived at a good time for female vocal groups, alongside the likes of the Orlons and the Angels, the Ronettes, the Blossoms, the Crystals and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, not to mention the Motown groups.
They don’t always get their deserved credit for this, partly because of the one-hit-wonder thing. So it’s worth remembering that making one great record is not a failure. It’s a success.