Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1099

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Detroit Spinner Bobbie Smith R.I.P.

Bobbie Smith (Detroit Spinners)
Bobbie Smith (Detroit Spinners) Detroit Spinners - Bobbie Smith R.I.P. 2nd right Detroit Spinners - Bobbie Smith front right Detroit Spinners - Bobbie Smith back left

Bobbie Smith, the original lead singer of The Spinners, has died due to complications from pneumonia and influenza. He passed away at the weekend in Florida aged 76. The group's management comfirmed his death this week. The statement revealed that Smith was diagnosed with lung cancer late last year.

The group had a 10-year reign as the most successful male soul vocal group of the Seventies. Bobbie sang lead vocals on the group's debut hit "That's What Girls Are Made For." The band were known as the Detroit Spinners here in the UK to avoid confusion with the folk group The Spinners. They had huge success in the 1970s, with big chart hits such as "I'll Be Around," "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," and "Games People Play." Plus classics from the group's successful move into disco; with their 1980 international chart-topper "Working My Way Back To You" / "Forgive Me, Girl" and their 1974 US Number One duet with Dionne Warwick,"Then Came You." Smith sang on them all, sharing lead vocal duties with Philippe Wynne who had joined the group. The five-piece vocal group started as a doo-wop group at High school in the mid 50s, as the Domingoes. They signed to Tri-Phi Records. Berry Gordy's Motown label merged with Tri-Phi in 1965. In 1972, when tenor Wynne came on board the group signed to Atlantic, and their hits rolled in. Wynne left in 1977 and John Edwards joined, but producer Thom Bell left soon after.

The band are still going, the most recent version featuring two original members; Smith and member Henry Fambrough. In February 2009, Blues & Soul assistant editor Pete Lewis spoke to Bobbie Smith about the group's success and the release of "The Very Best Of The Detroit Spinners - Are You Ready For Love?" on Rhino and "The Essential Detroit Spinners," through Motown. Georgia-born Bobbie Smith spoke about the background to their big hit "Are You ready For Love?" He said: 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!"

The Spinners' story began 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 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. 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!" 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 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 a 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.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 groupâs numerous âextra-curricularâ activities that The Spinners finally attained their first major success at Motown - the 1970 transatlantic Top 20 pop hit âItâs A Shameâ. Which - produced and written by Stevie Wonder - has since additionally emerged as one of the most sampled Motown tracks ever by todayâs hip hop generation: âYeah, another way we survived during that time was by putting an act together called âThe Motown Revueâ, in which we imitated all the other Motown acts that had hit records - even The Supremes!â, relates Bobbie with a smile: âPlus - when The Beatles were huge - we also had an act where we called ourselves âThe Brown Beatlesâ! 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 âItâs A Shame.â

While the US Top Five R&B success of âItâs A Shameâ did lead to the release of The Spinnersâ second album for Motown, 1970âs âSecond Time Aroundâ (the follow-up to 1966âs âThe Original Spinnersâ), its Stevie Wonder-produced follow-up single - 1971âs âWeâll Have It Madeâ - fared notably less well than its predecessor. In turn resulting in the group eventually leaving Motown and, in 1972, signing to Atlantic Records. Which - in addition to them changing their moniker from âThe Motown Spinnersâ to âThe Detroit Spinnersâ for the UK market (to avoid confusion with British folk group The Spinners,) They replaced 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. âWell, our contract was up at Motown and we decided we needed to go some place elseâ, explains Bobbie: âYou know, we didnât feel we were 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 didnât have all that in-house competition any more! You know, Atlantic didnât 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!â

Atlantic placed them with Philly soul producer/writer/arranger Thom Bell. âWhen we first got to Atlantic we recorded four songs ourselves, and one of them - a good song called âOh Lord, I Wish I Could Sleepâ - was initially gonna be our first single for themâ, explains Bobbie: âBut, before they released it, Atlantic called us and said âWould you guys like to do another session first?â. So we asked who the producer was. Then, when they said âThom Bellâ, we were like âYeah, of course we would. So then Thom Bell came to Detroit, we sat around a piano singing the different parts, and he said âWhen I come back you guys are gonna be Number One!â. And, though I was like âYeah, sure! Weâve heard that before!â, we went into the studio with him, recorded four songs - âHow Could I Let You Get Awayâ; âIâll Be Aroundâ; âCould It Be Iâm Falling In Loveâ; and âJust You And Me Babyâ... And, of those first four songs we did together, three of them became million-sellers!â

With the quintetâs seminal first album with both Atlantic Records and Thom Bell - 1972âs âSpinnersâ - 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 Spinnersâ seasoned vocal prowess combine with the classically-trained Bellâs talent for blending soul-group harmonies with orchestral arrangements to create a string of US chart-topping albums (including 1974âs âMighty Loveâ; 1974âs âNew And Improvedâ; 1975âs âPick Of The Litterâ) that in turn spawned musically-diverse hit singles - ranging from the sensitive protest-soul of 1973âs âGhetto Childâ (their first UK Top Ten) to the gimmicky pop-funk of 1976âs US R&B Number One âThe Rubberband Manâ. "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 beatsâ, acknowledges Bobbie: âBecause that meant we became a group across-the-board, who had fans from every walk of life. You know, heâs 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 Spinnersâ sound; he was great for our style... And thatâs when it all happened big for us!â

With Philippe Wynne 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 âWorking My Way Back To You / Forgive Me Girlâ (their first UK chart-topper) and âCupid / Iâve Loved You For A Long Timeâ. âWell, you know, music changes. So you gotta keep up with that change. 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 âWorking My Way Back To Youâ, which was originally done by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. Then after that he did the old Sam Cooke song âCupidâ on us, but gave it a different twist by adding the âIâve loved you for a long timeâ verse. And, while at first I didnât personally like the idea of doing a remake of somebody elseâs song - all the previous Spinners singles had been original material - once weâd recorded it I found myself walking around the house constantly singing and humming âworking my way back to you, babeâ! And of course it turned out to be one of our biggest hits!â

Bobbie Smith and the group were inducted into The Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999. * This obituary contains extracts from Pete Lewis's 2009 interview with Bobbie Smith. *

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