DETROIT SPINNERS: Reaching Dizzy Heights
Showcasing their 10-year reign as the most successful male soul vocal group of the Seventies, veteran quintet The Detroit Spinners have this month released their 21-track, all-hits compilation 'The Very Best Of The Detroit Spinners - Are You Ready For Love?'.
Ranging from early Seventies, Thom Bell-produced sweet soul classics like 'I'll Be Around' and 'Could It Be I'm Falling In Love' to the group's successful move into disco with their 1980 international chart-topper 'Working My Way Back To You / Forgive Me, Girl' (and taking in their 1974 US Number One duet with Dionne Warwick - 'Then Came You' - along the way), said compilation certainly represents an impressive musical snapshot of the most successful period in the fivesome's illustrious 55-year career. As one of two still-remaining original Spinners - longstanding, Georgia-born co-lead vocalist Bobbie Smith - concurs, while reflecting on his group's trailblazing history with 'Blues & Soul''s Pete Lewis.
"I feel great about this compilation, because I think there are some great songs on there", begins an immediately forthcoming, now-72-year-old Bobbie: "I'm also particularly excited about them naming the CD 'Are You Ready For Love?', because I don't think too many people know the facts behind that song! It was originally created back in '79 by Thom Bell for The Spinners, but we actually ended up recording it as a duet with Elton John. Basically we put our vocals on the song, then he put HIS on at a later stage. So we never actually recorded in the studio together. But then, a few years back, Elton released it in the UK with just his voice on it - and I believe it became a big Number One hit! So we're hoping something can now happen with that song for The Spinners TOO over there! Though, having said that, l definitely have confidence in ALL the material that's on the album. Because they're all proven hit songs."
Indeed, the Spinners' story began way back in 1954 when a group of friends in Ferndale High School, Michigan came together to make music. While the original line-up comprised Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, C.P. Spencer and James Edwards, within a few weeks Edwards left and was immediately replaced by Bobbie Smith. Bobbie, appropriately, takes up the story: "Well, actually, we all lived in the same neighbourhood in Ferndale, Michigan, which is just outside Detroit. And back during that time groups were very, very popular. So everybody'd be standing on the corner doo-wopping, trying to sing... And while at first we were amateurs and just did it for fun - we'd sing at High School dances, in the parks - ultimately we did plan to make a career out of it. Back then our idols were a group called The Moonglows. And, as luck would have it, in 1960 we actually met a member of The Moonglows - Mr. Harvey Fuqua."
"Harvey had initially moved to Detroit to become the A&R man for a small label there called Anna Records", continues Bobbie: "And we actually met him through Berry Gordy's sister, Gwen Gordy. By then Gwen and Harvey had decided to set up their own label in Detroit called Tri-Phi Records. So Harvey signed us and became our manager... And the first release on his label was a song by The Spinners called 'That's What Girls Are Made For'. Harvey wrote and produced it, I did the lead vocals - and it became a huge hit for us all across the nation. So that was when we actually turned professional. And another interesting fact about that record is that Marvin Gaye - who'd first come to Detroit as a member of Harvey's group The New Moonglows - was actually playing drums on it!"
With 'That's What Girls Are Made For' hitting the US R&B Top Five in 1961, it also marked the first time the fivesome had called themselves 'The Spinners': "Yeah, prior to that song we'd called ourselves The Domingoes", reveals Bobbie: "But, because it was so close to other groups that were out back then - The Flamingos, The Dominos - we decided to change our name. And, while everybody in the group tried to come up with something new, with me being into old cars I came up with 'The Spinners'! Because at that time, when the kids would customise their cars, they'd put these great-big, chrome Cadillac hub-caps on the front and call them 'spinners' because of the way they'd spin round on a car's wheel. So from that point on 'The Spinners' became our name!"
While The Spinners' second single - 'Love I Found You' - did become a minor US pop chart entry in November 1961, in truth none of their other three Tri-Phi singles sold anything like their first. So, having by now married Gwen Gordy, in 1963 Harvey Fuqua - tired of the constant hassles of fighting distributors for royalties - decided to link-up with his now-brother-in-law, Berry Gordy, at Berry's considerably-bigger Motown Records. As Billie recalls: "Yeah, the Tri-Phi label was pretty small and it could never really get off the ground financially. So what Tri-Phi did was merge with Motown. Which meant Motown was then able to choose whatever Tri-Phi acts they wanted, and put them out on their own label. Which is how The Spinners ended up getting signed to Motown in 1964."
With The Spinners kicking off their Motown career with the 1964 single 'Sweet Thing', it was 1965's 'I'll Always Love You' that provided them with their only US R&B Top 10/Pop Top 40 success during the Sixties. Much of which Billie feels was down to the fact that they were very much playing second-fiddle to already-established Motown groups like The Temptations and The Four Tops: "Yeah, that seemed to be the problem. Motown just had so many groups! Which meant acts like The Temptations and The Four Tops - who were already having the big hits - got to get first choice in the material. You know, the staff writers and producers could choose who they wanted to work with. So quite naturally they'd give their best songs to the guys who were hot at the time. Plus, while we did have SOME hits at Motown, what always happened was we'd have to wait like year or so to get ANOTHER record out! And, as you know, it don't WORK that way! Once you get a hit, you gotta follow it UP! Whereas with us it was always like we were starting OVER, and so we were never able to really break the ice."
"So we did a lotta other things to survive at that time", he continues, now in full flow: "Every chance we got we'd be in the studio, singing background on other people's songs to make money. Plus they had a programme called Artist Development, where they'd teach you dance steps and various other things, to make you more professional. So, while the groups who had hit records were out on the road, we'd be working with the Artist Development people perfecting our craft. Because we'd have no engagements! Also, in addition to that, Pervis worked as a clerk in the shipping department for a while; Henry used to drive Berry Gordy's mother around... While I used to drive one of the company station wagons. As a matter of fact, I drove The Temptations' limousine during one of their tours! And I also once went out with Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, as their chauffeur and chaperone!"
Surprisingly, it was directly as a result of one of the group’s numerous “extra-curricular” activities that The Spinners finally attained their first major success at Motown - the 1970 transatlantic Top 20 pop hit ‘It’s A Shame’. Which - produced and written by Stevie Wonder - has since additionally emerged as one of the most sampled Motown tracks ever by today’s hip hop generation: “Yeah, another way we survived during that time was by putting an act together called ‘The Motown Revue’, in which we imitated all the other Motown acts that had hit records - even The Supremes!”, relates Bobby with a smile: “Plus - when The Beatles were huge - we also had an act where we called ourselves ’The Brown Beatles’! Which went over REAL big! And basically those comedy routines were a clever way for us to be able to keep working. Because they enabled us to then become a live supporting act for a lot of the big Motown groups! So one of the acts we went out on the road with was Stevie Wonder. And, because we got to be really close friends, he decided to produce a song on us, which became ‘It’s A Shame’!”
While the US Top Five R&B success of ‘It’s A Shame’ did lead to the release of The Spinners’ second album for Motown, 1970’s ‘Second Time Around’ (the follow-up to 1966’s ‘The Original Spinners’), its Stevie Wonder-produced follow-up single - 1971’s ‘We’ll Have It Made’ - fared notably less well than its predecessor. In turn resulting in group eventually leaving Motown and, in 1972, signing to Atlantic Records. Which - in addition to them changing their moniker from ’The Motown Spinners’ to ‘The Detroit Spinners’ for the UK market (to avoid confusion with British folk group The Spinners!) - also saw them replacing then-lead singer G.C. Cameron (who stayed at Motown to pursue a solo career) with new, distinctive-voiced member Philippe Wynn. Who would go on to share lead vocals with Bobbie Smith until his departure from the group in 1977.
‘Well, our contract was up at Motown and we decided we needed to go some place else”, explains Bobbie: “You know, we didn’t feel we was getting the right attention and the right promotion at Motown. We basically felt we was getting lost in the shuffle. So we decided to try another label, and ended up with offers from three companies - Atlantic, Stax, and Avco. And so, because we were friends with Aretha Franklin who was on Atlantic at the time, we called her and asked if she thought it would be a smart move for The Spinners to move over to Atlantic. She said she thought it was a great idea. So we went there - and suddenly we didn’t have all that in-house competition any more! You know, Atlantic didn’t have any groups that were of the same calibre as The Spinners. Plus they did great promotion on us - the way it SHOULD have been done at Motown - and we never looked back!”
Indeed, Atlantic’s first decision regarding The Spinners - to place them with then-red-hot Philly soul producer/writer/arranger Thom Bell - immediately resulted in the group’s first-ever US Number One with what became - due to radio demand - a double-A-side single that paired the crisply upbeat, punchy ‘I‘ll Be Around’ with the sad downtempo ballad ‘How Could I Let You Get Away’: “When we first got to Atlantic we recorded four songs ourselves, and one of them - a good song called ‘Oh Lord, I Wish I Could Sleep’ - was initially gonna be our first single for them”, explains Bobbie: “But, before they released it, Atlantic called us and said ‘Would you guys like to do another session first?’. So we asked who the producer was. Then, when they said ‘Thom Bell‘, we were like ‘Yeah, of COURSE we would!’.”
“So then Thom Bell came to Detroit, we sat around a piano singing the different parts, and he said ‘When I come back you guys are gonna be Number One!’. And, though I was like ’Yeah, sure! We’ve heard THAT before!’, we went into the studio with him, recorded four songs - ‘How Could I Let You Get Away’; “I’ll Be Around’; ‘Could It Be I’m Falling In Love’; and ‘Just You And Me Baby’... And, of those first four songs we did together, three of them became million-sellers!”
With the quintet’s seminal first album with both Atlantic Records and Thom Bell - 1972’s ‘Spinners’ - spawning four bona fide international hit singles, it unquestionably set the tone for one of the most perfect musical marriages of the Seventies. Which saw The Spinners‘ seasoned vocal prowess combine with the classically-trained Bell’s talent for blending soul-group harmonies with orchestral arrangements to create a string of US chart-topping albums (including 1974’s ‘Mighty Love’; 1974’s ‘New And Improved’; 1975’s ‘Pick Of The Litter’) that in turn spawned musically-diverse hit singles - ranging from the sensitive protest-soul of 1973’s ‘Ghetto Child’ (their first UK Top Ten) to the gimmicky pop-funk of 1976’s US R&B Number One ‘The Rubberband Man’.
“I just feel we were very fortunate to have a producer like Thom Bell who enabled us to make good, clean, everlasting music with positive lyrics and nice beats”, acknowledges Bobbie: “Because that meant we became a group across-the-board, who had fans from every walk of life. You know, he’s a fantastic musician, producer and songwriter. And with Linda Creed on board too - who was a great lyricist - together we became a great team! We had lots of fun in the studio; Thom has a great ear; he concentrated on The Spinners’ sound; he was great for our style... And that’s when it all happened big for us!”
Bobbie meanwhile names his personal on-record highlight from that time as ‘Then Came You’, the group’s catchy duet with sophisticated soulstress Dionne Warwick, which gave both The Spinners and Ms. Warwick their first US Pop Number One in 1974: “I guess that one song in particular stands out in my mind because, when we went on tour with Dionne Warwick, it put The Spinners in a whole different class. Because it was she who personally introduced us to the big cabaret circuit - places like Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe... You know, from there we went on to HEADLINE those kinda venues. But, without her, we may never have gotten there! So for us, doing the record with her was our little way of saying ‘Thank you’. What actually happened was, she really wanted Thom Bell to produce an album on her. And he basically said ‘The only way I’d do it with you is if you do a song with the Spinners’. So ‘Then Came You’ was the result! And I guess it’s one of my favourite songs because I had the pleasure of doing the lead with her on it.”
With Philippe Wynn leaving The Spinners in January 1977 to be replaced by new lead vocalist John Edwards, the new line-up suddenly went without a US Top 40 hit for two years. Which in turn prompted them to stop working with Thom Bell and turn to then-successful disco producer Michael Zager. Who, in 1980, out-of-the-blue provided the quintet with two of their biggest-ever international hits, via the disco-soul of the two-song medleys ’Working My Way Back To You / Forgive Me Girl’ (their first UK chart-topper) and ‘Cupid / I’ve Loved You For A Long Time’.
“Well, you know, music CHANGES! So you gotta keep UP with that change!”, retorts Bobbie: “While Thom Bell was a great producer, he was essentially a producer of Seventies-style sweet soul music. So we decided to go with Michael Zager because, at that time, he was a little more current. You know, disco was coming in and so it was starting to affect the sales of our albums - because it was a whole new ballgame, just like rap and hip hop is a whole new ballgame TODAY! And Michael Zager gave us a very big record with ‘Working My Way Back To You’, which was originally done by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. Then after that he did the old Sam Cooke song ‘Cupid’ on us, but gave it a different twist by adding the ’I’ve loved you for a long time’ verse. And, while at first I didn’t personally like the idea of doing a remake of somebody else’s song - all the previous Spinners singles had been original material - once we’d recorded it I found myself walking around the house constantly singing and humming ‘working my way back to you, babe’! And of course it turned out to be one of our biggest hits!”
Unfortunately, it also turned out to be one of The Spinners’ LAST hits. As, despite a regular flow of singles and albums through the Eighties, since ‘Cupid’ hit big in the spring of 1980 the group have to date failed to trouble either the US Pop Top 40 or the US R&B Top 20 again and have scored no further international hits. Nevertheless, the strength of their run of chart hits from 1972 to 1980 continues to provide well for the current members, with the group (who were inducted into The Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999) still a major draw on the oldies and nostalgic concert circuits, despite several line-up changes over the years: “Yeah, we regularly play casinos; in the summertime we do a lotta festivals and fairs; we do a lot of private functions... In fact, we were over there in Wales just three/four months ago. And the fans were so great! The songs they really were into were some of the old Motown stuff like ‘I’ll Always Love You’ and ‘Truly Yours’. So we‘re really hoping to go back over there again soon!”
“You know, line-up-wise the only two original members in the group right now are Henry Fambrough and myself”, adds Bobbie: “Then, of the new members, we have Frank Washington as principal lead singer and Harold ‘Spike’ Bonhart, who sings tenor and lead. Plus, we’ve just picked up a new bass-singer. You know, with us losing Pervis (Jackson) just last year (he sadly died of cancer in August 2008), our new guy hasn’t actually done a live performance with us yet. But he will be doing his first show later this month. So we’re definitely looking forward to that.”
Meanwhile, Spinners fans worldwide can in turn look forward to some new product being released shortly: “Yeah, we already have some songs we’ve recorded, and we plan on going back into the studio soon to complete a whole album”, confirms Bobbie: “So, within around six to eight months, we’re looking forward to having a new CD out! We’re gonna be producing everything ourselves, and possibly even RELEASING it ourselves. Because, whereas at one time the only avenue you had to get your music heard was the radio, today you have a lotta OTHER avenues - like the internet. And we feel that, if a group like The Spinners were to sign with a big label right now, they’d just record the album, throw it out there... And if it happens it HAPPENS, and if it don’t it DON’T! You know, they ain’t gonna PROMOTE it! So we think it would be in our best interests to start our own label, release the record ourselves, and just get someone to DISTRIBUTE it for us.”
While a Spinners’ first Christmas album is also in the pipeline, one celebration the group are sure they WON”T be involved in is Motown’s current 50th Anniversary - despite the fact Motown are releasing an ‘Essential’ compilation of the group’s old recordings for the label this coming May: “No, I doubt we’ll be involved in that”, replies Bobbie matter-of-factly: “Because, though we enjoyed BEING with Motown and we did have a few hits while we were there, the fact is our biggest success didn’t come with MOTOWN! Our biggest success came at ATLANTIC! And, bearing in mind we weren’t invited to Motown’s 25th Anniversary, I’m sure they won’t be having The Spinners involved with their 50th! You know, it wouldn’t be beneficial to their image - they only want people there who were a big success on MOTOWN! But, having said that, I’m perfectly happy for Motown to be putting back out some of the old stuff we did for them. Because we did do some great MUSIC at Motown. The problem was, it didn’t get the right PROMOTION! And a perfect example of that is the fact that, after Stevie Wonder wrote and produced ‘It’s A Shame’ for us, it actually stayed on the shelf for a whole year before it was RELEASED! So if Stevie - Mr. Grammy himself, The Genius - couldn’t get our record out there, what chance was there for us at Motown, period?!”
The album 'The Very Best Of The Detroit Spinners - Are You Ready For Love?' is out now through Rhino UK. The LP 'The Essential Detroit Spinners' arrives May 4 through Motown
Words PETE LEWIS