Discover more from Listening Sessions
The Spinners' 18-Year-Long Wait for Success
How changing labels and hooking up with Thom Bell turned around the fortunes of the Spinners
Welcome to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
This edition’s essay focuses on the Spinners’ smash debut for Atlantic Records, released in 1973. Containing four hit singles and steered by the late, great Thom Bell, one of the architects of the smooth Philadelphia sound, the album catapulted the Spinners into the elite of soul music. It was a success that was hard-fought and long-awaited. The group got its start in 1954 and spent most of the sixties languishing at Motown, more likely to be working as shipping clerks than in the studio making records. It’s a tale of persistence that I hope you will enjoy.
Coming up next will be a tribute to David Crosby, whose passing on January 19 was acutely felt, with a focus on the final two albums he recorded as a member of the Byrds: Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers. It may be a strange approach to considering Crosby’s incalculable contribution to our cultural life, especially as he spent the last decade recording a torrent of new music and much of it as good as anything he ever did, but it seems to me that the end of his time in the Byrds unlocks some of the mystique of the beloved Croz.
Also in February will be a look at what is quite possibly my favourite ballad album. It’s not an album I suspect many would choose or have even heard but I look forward to sharing it with you.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
If you’re reading this and are not yet a subscriber of ‘Listening Sessions,’ I hope you'll click the button below to subscribe and get each edition delivered straight to your inbox. I publish a long-form essay on music three times a month, every 10 days or so.
If you are a subscriber, share ‘Listening Sessions’ with any music fans in your orbit.
There are overnight sensations and then there are those who glimpse success after years of toil and then there are the Spinners.
When interest began to steadily grow around the B side of their first single on Atlantic Records, released in July 1972: the slick and sexy ‘I’ll Be Around,’ the label began to push it, allowing the A side, the ballad ‘How Could I Let You Get Away,’ to stall at #77 on the Billboard Hot 100. On October 7, ‘I’ll Be Around’ entered the top 40; four weeks later, the top 10 and two week after that, it hit #3. It also topped the Billboard Best Selling Soul Singles chart for five weeks. It sold over a million copies. In its 18th year, the Spinners had finally hit it big.
They were originally called the Domingoes when five high schoolers in Ferndale, Michigan—near Detroit—joined forces in 1954. In the group’s initial configuration were long-time members Billy Henderson and Pervis Jackson as well as Henry Fambrough, who remains with the group to this day. Bobby Smith, the group’s primary lead singer, joined soon afterwards.
In 1961, the Domingoes were re-christened as the Spinners and it was also then that they recorded their first single, working with Harvey Fuqua, who, among other things, founded the doo-wop group the Moonglows, for his small independent label, Tri-Phi. Their debut 45, ‘That’s What Girls Are Made Of,’ written by Fuqua and then-wife Gwen Gordy Fuqua and featuring a young Marvin Gaye on drums, just grazed the Billboard Top 30. Smith took the lead, revealing more than a hint of Sam Cooke in his voice, especially in how he stretched certain syllables. The song was firmly emblematic of an emerging soul sound that was gradually dispatching the shh-boom of doo wop. Two years later, Fuqua’s Tri Phi was bought by Motown along with his roster of artists. The Spinners became part of Hitsville, U.S.A. just as it was becoming the dominate indie soul label of the sixties.
Their second single for Motown, ‘I’ll Always Love You,’ written and produced by Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter, one of several teams working for the label that had the Midas touch, was a moderate hit with its chiming, irresistibly danceable beat and Northern soul harmonic structure. Instead of being the Spinners’ induction into Motown’s roll call of male-group sensations, it proved to be a brief glimpse of the promise of success before the fallow interlude of the late sixties. Instead of making records, the group was more likely to be employed as shipping clerks and assisting other groups as their road managers or chaperones.
Put simply, no one at Motown knew what to do with the group or how to carve a space to distinguish them from label heavyweights like the Temptations, the Four Tops or Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. A hint of what the Spinners could do came thanks to a chance Stevie Wonder had in 1970 to prove his abilities as a producer and make the case he should have control over what and how he recorded.
‘It’s a Shame,’ which Wonder co-wrote (soon-to-be wife Syretta Wright also had a hand in the song), produced and played on (along with Funk Brothers) showcased something different in the Spinners: principally, their unique harmonic blend—sweet and smooth—and when combined with the song’s instantly memorable guitar riff, turned the song into a bona fide hit. Singing lead was G.C. Cameron, who joined the group in 1967. It was the pinnacle of their time in the Motown fold. Aretha Franklin, someone who knew all too well what it felt like to see one’s career languish at a record label ill-suited to bring out one’s potential and how a change of scene could turn things around, mentioned to the group the possibility of them jumping ship to join Atlantic. Once their Motown contract expired, that’s exactly what they did. Cameron stayed with the label and enlisted his cousin, Phillipé Wynne, to take his place, the final piece to complete the group’s classic lineup.
While the Spinners were spinning their wheels in Detroit, Thom Bell, Jamaica-born and Philadelphia-raised, was busy helping to hatch what became known as the Philadelphia sound—applying an orchestrated veneer to soul music—through his work with the Delfonics and then the Stylistics. With Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, whose own work was paralleling Bell’s efforts and whom he had known since they were teenagers, Bell joined forces with them on many of the early milestones of the Philly soul movement, including the breakthrough hit by the O’Jays, ‘Back Stabbers,’ which Bell arranged and featured a guitar part full of Wes Montgomery and George Benson-inspired octaves as well as swirling strings that accentuated the song’s almost existential paranoia.
By the time ‘Back Stabbers’ was climbing the charts, Gamble, Huff and Bell formalized their working relationship through Mighty Three Music Group, a publishing company for the songs they and the songwriters they employed wrote. While Bell contributed to the records Gamble and Huff made for their label, Philadelphia International, their agreement permitted him to also freelance for other artists which is how he came to produce the Spinners for Atlantic and use the vast resources of MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother), the cadre of studio musicians behind the Mighty Three’s productions, to craft the series of recordings that would comprise the Spinners’ debut for Atlantic titled simply Spinners.
Even as it became clear that the first fruits of the Spinners’ work with Bell and MFSB were different from anything they had done previously, there was still an element of surprise as ‘I’ll Be Around’ became one of the top sounds of 1972.
Much of it had to do with the curious decision to relegate the song to the flipside of ‘How Could I Let You Get Away,’ which sounds like a castoff of Bell’s work with the Stylistics, maestros of the methodical seduction of such hits as ‘You Are Everything,’ ‘Betcha By Golly, Wow’ and ‘Stoned in Love With You,’ right down to the guitar part in the instrumental interlude; its timbre—metallic, sitar-like—being one of the signature sounds of the group’s records.
‘I’ll Be Around,’ written by Bell with Phil Hurtt, introduces a different sound, one that could be called the Spinners’ signature sound—a sonic watermark of distinction within the broader principles that guided Bell’s artistic vision. The introduction, anchored by a chorded guitar riff, played by Norman Harris, immediately establishes an aesthetic in which nothing is left to chance in creating a hit recording, the initial burying of the song notwithstanding. Bobby Smith, who sings the lead here, glides through the lyrics. His approach, in synch with the backing by MFSB, is inviting, warm, light and extremely ear-friendly. The interlude Bell wrote, a descending line first played by strings and then by brass with the entire sequence repeated, adds a soothing smoothness as well as the sweetening of the backing offered by the rest of the Spinners with a quartet of female voices—echoing how the Four Tops were often accompanied by the Andantes on their classic Motown sides—including Bell collaborator Linda Creed and the Sigma Sweethearts, named after Sigma Sound Studios, recording headquarters for the Philadelphia sound.
The Spinners’ follow-up single, ‘Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,’ another smash, furthered their magic brew and the coda, in which newest member Wynne takes over from Smith to preach from the pulpit—extemporizing an extremely hip Otis Redding reference—and brings an energy that made it hard to equate the Spinners’ often mellow mellifluousness with milquetoast monotony. The jumped-up groove of ‘One of a Kind (Love Affair),’ their third 45 and released just as Spinners hit stores, reinforces the feel of the group at their best. There’s a lushness that has a drive, a subtle propulsive lift. It’s soulful without a doubt, but there’s more to it than that and it sprang from Thom Bell.
As he explained in an oral history of the Philadelphia sound: “Gamble and Huff were the maestros of soul. Linda Creed and I were the maestros of heart. Gamble and Huff got deep into your soul and you’d never forget it. Our music got deep into your heart.”
Creed, a songwriter with whom Bell teamed to write virtually every hit the Stylistics had, co-wrote ‘Ghetto Child’ with him for Spinners. Situating its social message of how racism and poverty imperils those who bear no responsibility for the society they need to navigate through, it may not hit as hard as a Curtis Mayfield or O’Jays critique but with lyrics like “a child’s reality is paid for by his folks / fancy fairy tales are bought and sold by those / who can well afford time to make believe / childhood dreams can still come true,” ‘Ghetto Child’s point of view is expressed poignantly and poetically.
The lead vocal is split between Smith, Wynne and Henry Fambrough, whose voice is of a darker hue and deeper than Smith or Wynne’s, whose range and sound are both quite similar.
It’s Smith taking the lead on the album opener, ‘Just Can’t Get You Out of My Mind,’ a sentimental slice of soul with a refrain that lingers. He often sang right on the beat. Wynne, who is front and centre on ‘Just You and Me Baby,’ often hung just a little behind it and whose tone was a little more well-rounded than Smith’s. Here on the chorus, with its lock-step groove, is the sound of the Spinners’ harmonizing. As with almost everything with their music, it’s not a broad, wide blend but understated, slowly luring in the listener until by the repeat of the chorus, one may be surprised to hear oneself joining in. Hear as well the French horn-led interlude, a clue to Bell’s classical proclivities.
Yes, the Spinners had a way through their music of releasing pheromones of pleasure. The sound of them gently singing behind Fambrough on ‘We Belong Together’ has an intoxicating invitation—it feels good, it feels right. For the group, all the parts were now in place. That was partly due to Bell, who brought a musical vision that nurtured what the group was best at; it was also partly due to Wynne, who brought an exuberance, a front man’s flair that complemented his groupmates.
At the beginning of 1973, they appeared on Soul!, a pioneering and innovative Black public-affairs show on public television. In a New York TV studio with club seating, the Spinners performed for 25 minutes. Beginning with ‘It’s a Shame,’ and then ‘That’s What Girls Are Made Of,’ the energy starts to peak with the opening of ‘I’ll Be Around.’
The five, dressed in matching three-piece powder blue suits, lapels cut seventies wide, punctuate the song with choreographed moves, a measure of their collective showmanship. A lengthy ‘How Could I Let You Get Away’ has Wynne acknowledging Thom Bell and Atlantic Records. And then there’s the finale, ‘Could It Be I’m Falling in Love.’
Playing behind the Spinners are a tight rhythm section—the strings and brass left in Philadelphia. As they launch into the instrumental break, the five step away from the microphone stands and to an organ playing the line that Bell wrote in his arrangement, they begin to clap on the one and the three, moving from left to right, deeply into the music, living only in this moment of time. There is joy. There is elation. Once Wynne takes over from Smith, he leaves the bandstand to commune with the audience. The rest of the Spinners join him. The credits begin to roll. The group returns to the bandstand, clapping again in time and taking a bow. They then leave, moving in step with the music, the audience turning to face these newly conquering heroes. The Spinners’ time had finally come.