The Complete Atlantic Singles: The Thom Bell Productions 1972-1979

The Spinners

Atlantic, 2023

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


In chapter 3 of my novel Home Was a Dream, aspiring music writer Bernie Green entertains his sister with a lengthy discourse on Philly soul—so of course The Spinners get a mention.

Here’s how I described that distinctive subgenre last time I reviewed The Spinners: “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.’)”

Like any ’60s or ’70s group with more than a handful of hits, The Spinners have had the highlights of their catalog sliced, diced and repackaged in a number of different ways. As suggested by its subtitle, The Complete Atlantic Singles zeroes in on the years they spent collaborating closely with producer / arranger / songwriter Thom Bell. This excludes the group’s early Motown singles, as well as the handful of hits they scored after parting ways with Bell, in favor of a comprehensive two-disc, 43-track overview of their fruitful partnership.

One of the ways The Spinners set themselves apart within the Philly soul universe also occupied by The Stylistics, The O’Jays and others was by alternating the era’s typical harmony-heavy vocal arrangements with throw-arounds where two or three or four members might take a solo turn within a single song, highlighting the power and versatility of their lineup.

Still, the defining characteristic of The Spinners under Bell’s tutelage was groove. You might not hear it so much on the group’s very first single for Atlantic, the somewhat by-the-book ballad “How Could I Let You Get Away,” but once you flipped that single over and heard the immortal opening guitar licks of “I’ll Be Around,” everything changed. The song is a master class in Philly soul, melding melancholy-yet-determined lyrics about standing by for a girl who isn’t quite ready to commit with a deep, rich, finger-snapping groove lit up by a dynamic string arrangement and Bobbie Smith’s intense lead vocal.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Moving directly from “I’ll Be Around” to its ebullient follow-up “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” constitutes one of the great one-two-punches in the history of soul music; if your body isn’t moving by the time these two songs finish, seek medical attention. The rest of disc one of this collection is dotted with moments that should be familiar to anyone who was alive and near a functioning radio in the ’70s: the opening bass notes and conversation between strings and lead vocals on “One Of A Kind (Love Affair)”; the clavinet funking up the dramatic sweep of “Then Came You” (their hit collaboration with Dionne Warwick); or the mighty, mighty groove of “A Mighty Love.”

One of the things that an expansive collection like this allows you to appreciate more fully is how versatile The Spinners were, ranging through the big-band swing of “Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You,” the socially-conscious funk of “Ghetto Child,” the gospel-influenced sway of “I’m Coming Home,” and lush, swoony ballads of devotion like “We Belong Together” or “I Don’t Want To Lose You.” Even when songs weren’t as memorable, The Spinners were always smooth as silk—and then with the help of Bell and his stable of songwriters, they’d happen onto a classic r&b number like “They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play)” that grooves like nobody’s business.

The second disc of this collection is almost inevitably not as memorable as the first, though it has its moments. Among them are: “Love Or Leave,” a snappy r&b number with distinctive synth effects; “The Rubberband Man,” with its goofy flair and deep funk rhythm section; the steady, celebratory “Me And My Music”; and the pulsing rhythms of “If You Wanna Do A Dance (All Night)” and “Are You Ready For Love.” The latter pair point the way toward the swan song for the Bell-Spinners team, the disco-influenced “I Love The Music” and “Don’t Let The Man Get You.”

On the whole, disc two finds Bell and The Spinners chasing after the next hit without delivering anything as dynamic or instantly memorable as “I’ll Be Around” or “Then Came You.” It’s a pleasant ride the whole way; just not quite on the same level as disc one.

The Spinners’ lineup was steady through most of this period, featuring founding members Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough and Pervis Jackson, early addition Bobbie Smith, and newest member Philippé Wynne. In 1977 Wynne left and was replaced by John Edwards. Two years later Bell, who had proved the perfect creative complement for The Spinners for seven hit-filled years, also moved on. 

The Complete Atlantic Singles delivers a comprehensive overview of The Spinners’ golden age, and what it sometimes lacks in concision it makes up for in quality. Within its expansive folds this two-disc collection includes at least a dozen songs that are stone cold classics, and at least a dozen more that any true aficionado of Philly soul needs in their music library.

Rating: B+

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