The Spinners were the best-selling male vocal group of the seventies and the biggest, bar the Drifters, in Atlantic’s history. They were also one of the greatest, particularly during their five year golden period at the label between 1972 and 1977. During that time, the Spinners were the very essence of Philly soul, churning out one classic after another. All the more remarkable when it’s considered that the group were eleven years into a recording career at the time and were, to all intents and purposes, considered washed up by their previous label.
Four High School students in Ferndale, a suburb of Detroit, started a group called the Domingoes in 1955. The quartet of tenor Crafman “CP” Spencer, baritone Henry Fambrough, tenor Billy Henderson and bass Pervis Jackson were joined by tenor Bobbie Smith a couple of years later. Smith took over the lion’s share of the lead vocal duties from Spencer and the group redubbed themselves the Spinners after the kind of custom hubcaps that rotate independently from the wheels they are attached to. Spencer left the group shortly after to join the Five Jets, another local vocal act. He would eventually join his former colleagues at Motown in 1966 as a member of the Originals. Spencer was replaced by George Dixon, and it was this quintet that eventually secured a record deal with Harvey Fuqua and Gwen Gordy’s Tri-Phi label in 1961. “That’s What Girls Are Made For” was the first of half a dozen singles that the Spinners recorded for the label and was an immediate success, reaching #27 on the Hot 100 and the top five of the R&B listings. The follow-up recordings fared less well, and the Spinners were still one-hit wonders by the time that Gwen Gordy sold Tri-Phi to her younger brother Berry in 1963.
Berry Gordy retained the services of the group, but for the first year they were little more than odd jobs men around the studios acting as chaperones, drivers, road managers, backing singers and going out on the road as a warm-up act to whichever stars were being pushed that month. Dixon soon tired of this and quit to become a preacher. His replacement was Edgar “Chico” Edwards. The Spinners finally had the opportunity to make a record in the late summer of 1964, and the result was the Micky Stevenson and Ivy Hunter tune “Sweet Thing”. The record didn’t chart, undeservedly so, and the group were back twiddling their thumbs for another six months before the same writers’ “I’ll Always Love You” hit the top forty in the summer of 1965.
“Truly Yours”, the follow-up, took another ten months to appear and, although it made the R&B top twenty, its lack of pop chart success did little to give the group any momentum. Edwards quit the Spinners in 1967 to be replaced by GC Cameron who added a new dimension to the group by giving them an alternate lead vocalist to Smith. The quartet limped along in the background with just three singles issued by Motown between 1967 and 1969, all to little public interest. They were shunted on to the VIP subsidiary in late 1969, but finally got the big hit that they deserved when the Stevie Wonder penned, and GC Cameron led “It’s A Shame” reached #14 on the pop chart in 1970. If they thought that they would have become more of a priority for the company after that, they would have been disappointed when a follow-up single took six months to appear. “We’ll Have It Made”, another Stevie Wonder tune, did make the Hot 100, but the group’s patience had finally snapped. They were all well into their thirties by now, and yet their career seemed to be happening in slow motion. They decided to try their luck elsewhere – all except Cameron who elected to stay with Motown. The wisdom of that decision would soon be called into question as he watched his erstwhile colleagues score hit after hit whilst his solo career left him with a mere five R&B hits between 1971 and 1977, none of which made the pop chart.
The remaining Spinners replaced Cameron with his cousin, Philippe Wynne, who had previously sung with Bootsy Collins’ and James Brown’s groups. The Spinners sealed a deal with Atlantic and found themselves packed off to Thom Bell’s studios in Philadelphia to record some tunes. The Thom Bell and Phil Hurtt composition “I’ll Be Around” was the first to emerge. Bell was clever enough to adopt elements from the sound of their only big hit, namely the insistent guitar hook that was a large part of what made “It’s A Shame” such a memorable song. But rather than simply making a poor copy, he slowed the tempo to a mournful two-chord chime that echoed the vocal lines in the chorus. The song was bathed in the lush but melancholy production that Bell had perfected with his previous work with the Delfonics. With a great chorus and a very moving lyric where Bobbie Smith devotedly and unselfishly offers unconditional friendship to a lover who has left him, the whole thing added up to one of the greatest three minutes in the history of Philly soul. Atlantic, in their infinite wisdom, decided it should be the B side. Fortunately, the nation’s radio stations had other ideas. On the 14th October 1972, “I’ll Be Around” hit the top of the R&B chart and proceeded to stay there for five weeks. It reached #3 on the pop listings and even the flipside, “How Could I Let You Get Away”, made both charts. The Spinners had finally arrived in style, eighteen years after getting together on the back streets of Detroit. Berry Gordy must have been kicking himself.
(This is an edited extract from the forthcoming book Atlantic Singles 1947-77)