The Very Best Of The Spinners

The Spinners

Atlantic, 1993

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Like every other genre of popular music, soul music has its subgenres. Back in the day (the 1960s and ’70s) there were two principal strains: Detroit soul got the ball rolling as Motown Records spun out hit after hit, act after act through the ’60s. As the decade wore on, though, the Motor City’s lock on soul music was increasingly challenged by new sounds coming out of Philadelphia. Philly soul took the heart and vitality of Motown and dialed everything up a notch, often matching lush string arrangements with strong funk underpinnings, crafting a dramatic sonic landscape for singers to inhabit. (Fred Wesley, trombonist of the James Brown band and Parliament-Funkadelic, memorably described Philly soul’s combination of deep grooves and grand orchestration as “putting the bow tie on funk.”)

The Spinners would end up navigating both sounds and both cities. Starting out as the Domingoes in 1954, the group was signed to Tri-Phi Records in 1957 and shortly after changing their name to the Spinners scored a minor hit in 1961 with “That’s What Girls Are Made For” (#5 R&B, #27 Pop). By the time Tri-Phi was absorbed by Motown in 1963, the group had already been through multiple changes to what would turn out to be a steadily evolving lineup. For the rest of the ’60s, though, the group languished on Motown’s second tier, its members mostly relegated to chauffeuring and doing odd jobs in support of bigger-selling Motown acts.

Finally, in 1970 labelmate Stevie Wonder offered to write and produce a single for the Spinners that would also serve as a showcase for his talents at a time when he was negotiating a new contract with Motown (a contract whose grant of creative control led to his run of landmark albums in the ’70s). “It’s A Shame,” produced by and featuring Wonder on piano, bass, drums, and horn arrangement, hit #4 on the R&B charts (#14 Pop). Even that wasn’t enough to convince Motown President Berry Gordy Jr. to put some effort into breaking The Spinners, though, and their lineup shifted again as their Motown contract expired in 1972.

On the advice of no less than Aretha Franklin, The Spinners—now consisting of original members Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson and Billy Henderson, along with newer recruits Bobby Smith and Philippé Wynne—signed with Atlantic Records, where they were matched up with Philly soul producer Thom Bell and his songwriting partner Linda Creed, fresh off a hit with The Stylistics’ memorable “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” Their opening single for The Spinners, “How Could I Let Love Get Away,” was a heavily orchestrated and—in the words of this album’s liner notes—“conventional” ballad that topped the R&B charts, but fizzled on the Pop side. When disc jockeys flipped the single over they got a surprise, though, as B-side “I’ll Be Around” quickly set fingers snapping to its rich melding of r&b flow, dramatic string and vocal arrangements, and Wynne’s heartfelt lead vocal. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Outperforming the initial A-side, the compelling “I’ll Be Around” went all the way to #1 on the R&B chart and #3 on the Pop side, fuel enough to propel the group through much of a decade as one of Philly soul’s premiere hitmakers. Every single one of the tracks on this collection landed in the Top 10 on the R&B charts, with most also reaching the Top 20 on the Pop charts.

With Bell and his stable of songwriters cranking out the tunes and Smith and Wynne providing the bulk of the lead vocals—sometimes trading off mid-song—the group spun out (heh) hit after hit over the next several years. Vibes lit up the infectious melody of “Could It Be I'm Falling in Love” (#1 R&B, #4 Pop), with strings giving it sweep as first Smith and then Wynne worked their magic up front. “One of a Kind (Love Affair)” (#1 R&B, #11 Pop) was anchored by funked-up drums and clavinet as Wynne crooned, while “Ghetto Child” (#4 R&B, #29 Pop), a serious topical number with Fambrough and Wynne featured, added some lyrical heft to the group’s mostly romantic songs.

The group’s next album Mighty Love (1974) delivered a trio of hits—the gospel-funk celebration “I’m Coming Home,” the melancholy ballad “Love Don’t Love Nobody,” and the ebullient title track—that was nonetheless eclipsed by their chart-topping collaboration with Dionne Warwick on “Then Came You,” which hit #1 on the Pop chart in late summer 1974 (#2 R&B). The following year the group scored another trio of charting singles, most notably “They Just Can't Stop It (The Games People Play),” which featured Smith and Jackson and again hit #1 on the R&B charts (#3 Pop).

After the clever, suitably bouncy Creed/Bell composition “The Rubberband Man” scored the group yet another #1 R&B chart hit (#2 Pop) in 1977, the song’s lead vocalist Wynne demanded that the group change its name to Philippé Wynne and the Spinners. When the others refused, Wynne departed, replaced by John Edwards. The Spinners regrouped for two more high-charting singles in 1979-80, the swinging, driving “Working My Way Back To You” (#6 R&B, #2 Pop) and the old-school doo-wop of “Cupid” (#5 R&B, #4 Pop).

While the group continued issuing new albums through the 1980s, scoring a couple of minor hits, their era of dominance had passed and their continuing notoriety rested on the reputation built by the catalog of songs found here, which truly are The Very Best Of The Spinners. As a group, they epitomized the Philly soul sound: dramatic, sophisticated, funky and heartfelt. Like a number of their classic soul vocal group peers, The Spinners have persevered as a performing act covering the classics right up through the present day, with lone surviving original member Henry Fambrough continuing to anchor a mostly younger lineup that aims to keep that classic Philly soul sound alive.

Rating: A-

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