A SoulTracks Tribute to The Spinners

Back in 1971, when the Spinners left Motown for Atlantic Records, it wasn't exactly an event that shook the music world.  But why would it?  The Spinners had toiled in virtual obscurity for nearly a decade as one of Motown's "forgotten" groups.  While Motown star groups like the Temptations and Four Tops were headlining shows around the world and were choosing from the top songs of Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield and Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Spinners were recording infrequently and charting even more rarely, working with Motown's second tier producers and catching opening act gigs where they could. 

Back in 1971, when the Spinners left Motown for Atlantic Records, it wasn't exactly an event that shook the music world.  But why would it?  The Spinners had toiled in virtual obscurity for nearly a decade as one of Motown's "forgotten" groups.  While Motown star groups like the Temptations and Four Tops were headlining shows around the world and were choosing from the top songs of Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield and Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Spinners were recording infrequently and charting even more rarely, working with Motown's second tier producers and catching opening act gigs where they could. 

But it didn't start that way. Back in the 1950s, Henry Fambrough, Billy Henderson, Bobby Smith, Pervis Jackson and C.P. Spencer met in school in tiny Ferndale, Michigan, on the northern Detroit border. They bonded around sports and, of course, music, and by their high school days they had gained a bit of notoriety in the suburban enclave. Ultimately their stature grew in the Detroit area, and they were signed by noted soul producer Harvey Fuqua to his Tri-Phi label. They came out of the box with a top 5 R&B hit, "That's What Girls Are Made For." Things seemed to be looking up for the young group, but the merger of Tri-Phi into Berry Gordy's Motown label changed all that. They spent a half decade at Motown just trying to stay onboard, doing odd jobs around the Hitsville USA complex and hoping they'd get another shot. Their careers were in limbo.

Many folks at the label knew that the quintet was a solid vocal group and an entertaining act.  But the guys 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 new lead singer G.C. Cameron (replacing Spencer), 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 both adults and to the teenagers that AM radio targeted.  The success of that sound would ultimately pave the way for a new genre of music - Urban Adult Contemporary -- that would hit its peak over a decade later with artists such as Luther Vandross and Anita Baker. 

With Bell's interest secured, the Spinners readied themselves for a fresh start, signing with Atlantic Records.  However, in a strange twist that would define the group for years to come, G.C. Cameron remained under contract with Motown and was forced to leave the group.  So the Spinners recruited Cameron's cousin, Philippe Wynne, to be their new co-lead singer.  Wynne - a sly, talkative singer who preached, scatted and joked his way through material, turning every song into a dynamic story -- was a perfect contrast to the smooth, understated style of the rest of the group, particularly the other lead singer, Bobby Smith.

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 Sound of Philadelphia 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, with an incredible cadre of songs written mostly by the legendary songwriting team of Bruce Hawes, Joseph Jefferson and Charles Simmons, as well as Bell and his writing partner Linda Creed. Charttoppers "Mighty Love," "Games People Play," "Sadie," "Then Came You" (with Dionne Warwick), "I'm Coming Home" and "Rubberband Man" led some of the decade's finest discs, and the group members became international stars. The Spinners also established themselves as among the most entertaining acts in the world, equally comfortable performing their upbeat show -- a mix of music and comedy -- in small latenight clubs or on prime time television. They toured the world several times over as headliners.

Gravity has a way of catching up with most recording careers, and as the decade wore on, the hits slowed down and the relationship between Bell, the group and the mercurial Wynne began to deteriorate. Wynne ultimately left the act in 1977 to pursue a solo career that never really materialized; he ultimately became a less prominent member of the Parliament/Funkadelic crew.  Sadly, he died in 1984 immediately after performing at a show in Oakland.  The Spinners selected southern soul singer John Edwards to replace Wynne.  If Wynne's style was that of a sly cat, Edwards was that of a tiger, devouring songs with a huge voice and multi-octave range.  Edwards was clearly a talent, but one to whom Thom Bell had trouble adjusting his restrained production style. To further complicate things, by the late 70s, Bell's work with the group was beginning to sound dated and somewhat formulaic, and new hotter beats were emerging on the airwaves.  After the disappointing low charter, From Here to Eternally, Bell felt that he had done all he could with the group, and he and the Spinners parted ways.

As 1979 arrived, the group found itself without a producer and three years removed from their last major hit.  With the disco craze in full swing, the Spinners, with their more traditional sound, appeared anything but relevant.  But they surprised the music industry by putting their fate for the first post-Bell album in the hands of 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', languished 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 similar smash remake of Sam Cooke's "Cupid" in 1980.  While Zager was more workmanlike than dynamic on these songs, they were a success in large part because Edwards was able to unleash his monster voice, something that rarely happened under Bell's heavier production. 

The group continued recording for Atlantic for another five years with multiple producers (and generally weaker songs), but never again scored a major hit.  A couple of additional albums on minor labels in the late 80s and early 90s found the quintet in fine voice but working with uneven material.  Throughout these latter years, the Spinners managed to make even mediocre material sound better than it deserved, and made good songs (such as 1989's sadly ignored "Memories of Allison") downright inspiring.

The Spinners have remained active, touring regularly and occasionally recording. But as the new millennium emerged, the relatively stable group membership became a revolving door due to illness and sudden departures. John Edwards had a heart attack and stroke in 2002, leading the Spinners to go full circle by making an unexpected call to former lead G.C. Cameron after more than 30 years to fill in for Edwards. When it became clear that Edwards could not physically return, former Delfonics member Frank Washington took over the lead vocalist position and Cameron went on to join the Temptations.  Washington was, in turn, replaced by Charleton Washington in 2007. In the mid-00s, Billy Henderson left the group and was replaced by Detroit singer/songwriter Harold Bonhart, who himself was replaced in 2009 by Marvin Taylor.  Henderson died of complications from diabetes on February 2, 2007.  Pervis Jackson followed a year and a half later, dying on August 25, 2008, and was ultimately replaced by Detroit singer and radio personality Jessie Peck. In February 2013, Smith died, leaving Fambrough as the only original member.  The current version of the group consists of Fambrough along with Washington, Peck, Taylor and the newest member, Ronnie "Raheem" Moss.

The Spinners have left a legacy of wonderful music in their six decades together. Their terrific harmonies and stage presence are a joy to experience now as much as ever, and have made them one of the Soul Music's greatest treasures.

by Chris Rizik

 
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