(February 17, 2013) Bobbie Smith, co-founder and long time co-lead singer of the legendary Spinners, has died at age 76 of complications from pneumonia. Smith had been ill for some time after having been diagnosed with cancer last Fall.
Smith was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan and became a fixture on the local music scene with his group mates. He was also the group's original lead singer, and was the voice on the Spinners' first hit, "That's What Girls Are Made For" and shared the lead with Philippe Wynne - and later, John Edwards - on the group's biggest hits in the 1970s, including "I'll Be Around," "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love" and "Games People Play."
The Spinners thought they had hit their first break when they were signed by Motown in the mid-60s, but they toiled in virtual obscurity for years as one of Motown's "forgotten" groups. Many folks around Hitsville, USA knew that the quintet, consisting of Henry Fambrough, Billy Henderson, Smith, Pervis Jackson and G.C. Cameron, was a solid vocal group and an entertaining act. But they were in a stable full of prize winning horses, and getting the attention of the Motown brass was next to impossible. Without that attention, success appeared equally impossible. And that was the case until their good friend, Stevie Wonder, wrote a song for them that was so strong, even Motown's indifference couldn't stop it. In the summer of 1970, around the time the Spinners' Motown contract expired and almost a year after it was recorded, Wonder's "It's a Shame" became an international smash for the Spinners and gave the world a glimpse of a future supergroup.
Interestingly, while the Spinners had not garnered much commercial success during their Motown years, they had earned the interest of a young producer named Thom Bell, who felt that the Spinners' tight harmonies and smooth delivery could be the perfect vehicle for his brand of sophisticated soul music. Along with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Bell was the architect of the "Philadelphia Sound," a new style of orchestral soul music that borrowed as much from the big bands of the 40s and 50s as from the Motown sound of the 60s, all wrapped up in exquisite production that appealed to adults as much as to the teenagers that AM radio targeted.
The result of the first Bell/Spinners collaboration was historic. The Spinners, released in 1973, was not only a bold statement of a new beginning for the group, it became one of the most important soul albums ever. Boasting four top 10 hits, "I'll Be Around," "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love," "One of a Kind" and "Ghetto Child," the disc immediately moved the Spinners to the upper echelon of soul music and established the Philadelphia Sound as the definitive sound of the early 70s. The Spinners, along with the Stylistics, the O'Jays and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, among others, shifted the soul music world's attention from Detroit to Philadelphia, and kept it there for most of the decade.
The Spinners/Bell train continued to roll for another seven albums, resulting in such classic songs as "Mighty Love," "Games People Play," "Sadie," "Then Came You" (with Dionne Warwick), and "I'm Coming Home." In 1979, with the dance craze in full bloom, The Spinners changed direction, teaming with Michael Zager, a moderately successful dance producer whose style was as straightforward and blunt as Bell's was subtle and sophisticated. Their first Zager collaboration, the disappointing Dancin' and Lovin', stalled on the charts for several months until the album's second single, an unlikely dance remake of the Four Seasons' "Working My Way Back to You," hit the radio and zoomed to the top of the charts. This led to a smash remake of Sam Cooke's "Cupid" in 1980.
The group continued recording into the 90s with less success, largely due to uneven material, and became fixtures on the oldies circuit. Illness and death also decimated the act, as John Edwards (Wynne's 1977 replacement), suffered a debilitating stroke in 2000. Henderson died in 2007 and Jackson in 2008, leaving Smith and Fambrough with three newer members.
While the flamboyant Wynne was largely viewed as the "face" of the Spinners, Smith and Fambrough were the rocks of the group, leading the act through good times and difficult times for nearly 60 years. And Smith was an immensely underrated singer whose performances - particularly during the Spinners' heyday - were memorable. The Spinners were undoubtedly one of the greatest vocal groups of the 20th Century and Smith was an irreplaceable part of that success. He will be missed.
by Chris Rizik