Weaving Sultry Soul More Than Half A Century
by Otis Stokes
Ihave been a fan of “The Spinners” since I was a teenager, and I wasn’t even aware that they had been around since 1954, the year I was born. The original lineup consisted of Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, C. P. Spencer, and James Edwards and they were called The Domingoes.
Edwards left the group after only a few weeks and was replaced by Bobby Smith, who sang lead on most of The Spinners’ early records and co-lead on many of their biggest Atlantic hits. They didn’t adopt the name “The Spinners,” until 1961 when they were signed to Harvey Fuqua’s Tri-Phi Records. They first hit the charts in August 1961 with “That’s What Girls Are Made For,” peaking at #27. Bobby Smith sang lead vocal on this track, coached by Fuqua.
There were rumors that Fuqua sang lead on some of The Spinners’ early recordings, and was often considered a member of the group, as made evident by the credits on the 1962 Tri-Phi release “She Loves Me So,” backed with “Whistling About You,” and 1963’s “Memories Of You,” backed with “Come On And Answer Me.” The artist credited on both these singles reads: “Harvey (Formerly of the Moonglows and The Spinners).” However, most sources, although respecting Fuqua’s contributions, do not list him as an official member.
James Edwards’ brother, Edgar “Chico” Edwards, replaced Dixon in the group in 1963, at which time Tri-Phi and its entire artist roster was bought out by Fuqua’s brother-in-law, Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records. The Spinners were then assigned to the Motown label.
With the exception of “I’ll Always Love You”, which hit #35 in 1965, success mostly eluded them during the 1960s. After that song, they released one single a year from 1966 to 1969, but none charted on the Billboard Hot 100, and only their 1966 song, “Truly Yours,” hit the Billboard R&B chart, peaking at #16. These songs all featured the lead vocals of Smith.
Not able to earn a decent living as singers, members of The Spinners had to take on other jobs to make ends meet. They were used by Motown as road managers, chaperones, and chauffeurs for other groups, even as shipping clerks.
C. Cameron would replace Edgar “Chico” Edwards in 1967, and the group switched to the Motown-owned V.I.P. imprint. In 1970, after a five-year absence, they hit #14 on the top 40 charts with writer-producer Stevie Wonder’s composition, led by Cameron, “It’s A Shame” (co-written by Syreeta Wright) and again charted the following year with another Wonder song the composer also produced, “We’ll Have It Made,” from the album “2nd Time Around,” once again featuring G.C. Cameron.
Nevertheless, these were their last two singles for V.I.P. Longtime friend Aretha Franklin suggested the group finish out their Motown contract and sign with her label Atlantic Records. After their deal ended they did just that, but contractual obligations prevented Cameron from leaving Motown, so he stayed on there as a solo artist and urged his cousin, singer Phillip Walker (who would later change his name to Philippé Wynne) to join The Spinners in his place as one of the group’s lead singers.
Despite being a recording act for over a decade, The Spinners had never had a top ten record. But master-producer and composer Thom Bell would change all of that. Bell expressed interest in producing the Spinners after Atlantic spent $20,000 on four tracks that the company felt was not worth releasing. Atlantic discouraged Bell from taking on the group claiming they were prepared to release them from their contract. But Bell persisted saying, “I want those Spinners.”
Ironically, after fighting to produce The Spinners, they were not interested in working with Bell at first. Motown had done such a number on them that they wanted nothing to do with another black producer. So Bell, who did not even own a driver’s license, challenged The Spinners with a wager. If Bell produced a number one record for them, they would buy him a Cadillac. If he failed, he would pay each member $10,000. The group agreed, and this bet paved the way for a run of hits that would overshadow Bell’s productions of the Delfonics and The Stylistics.
The Spinners would garner five top 100 singles, and two top 10 singles from their first Atlantic album, “Spinners,” in 1972, with their first million-seller led by Smith, “I’ll Be Around,” remaining at #1 for five weeks on the Billboard R&B chart, and peaking at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. “I’ll Be Around,” was initially released as the B-side of the group’s first single, “How Could I Let You Get Away.” Radio deejays, however, soon opted for the B-side, which led to Atlantic flipping the single over and the song became an unexpected hit.
The 1973 follow-up single, “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” led by Smith and the dynamic vocals of Philippé Wynne, went to #1 on the R&B chart and was another million-seller, while peaking at #3 on the Hot 100. “One Of A Kind (Love Affair),” led solely by Wynne, would become the group’s third consecutive #1 R&B single and gold record.
After the success of their debut album, Thom Bell had discovered a hit-making formula that would focus on the unique vocal stylings of Wynne, and the group’s 1974 follow-up album, “Mighty Love,” would feature his lead vocals on three Top 20 pop hits: “I’m Coming Home,” “Love Don’t Love Nobody,” and the heavily ad-libbed “Mighty Love.”
Although Bobbie Smith and Philippé Wynne rotated lead vocals during the first half of the song, Wynne took over completely for the final two and a half minutes showcasing his exceptional ability to ad-lib. “Mighty Love – Pt.1” became another hit for the group, holding the number one spot on the U.S. R&B Singles chart for two weeks.
However, their biggest hit of the year was a collaboration with Dionne Warwick, “Then Came You” (led by Smith, Warwick, and Wynne), which hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming each act’s first chart-topping “Pop” hit.
Over the next two years, The Spinners only hit the Billboard Hot 100 top ten twice with “They Just Can’t Stop It (The Games People Play),” peaking at #5 and “The Rubberband Man,” rising to #2. For reasons unknown, Philippé Wynne left the group in January 1977 and was replaced by John Edwards.
Though this version of the group had minor hits from 1977-79, they failed to hit the pop Top 40 for three years and parted ways with Thom Bell. The group did have a brief resurgence at the dawning of the new decade, scoring two big hits in 1980 with Michael Zager medleys of “Working My Way Back to You”/”Forgive Me, Girl,” #2 on the Hot 100, and #1 in the UK, and “Cupid”/”I’ve Loved You for a Long Time,” #4 Hot 100 and #4 in the UK. Those records represented the last time the group would crack the top ten on the charts.
Meanwhile, Wynne had tried to launch a solo career after his departure from The Spinners releasing his first album on Cotillion Records entitled “Starting All Over,” which yielded no hits. He eventually joined forces with George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, making a very unlikely pairing that surprisingly produced a #1 R&B single, “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” in 1979. Wynne would record and release two more solo LP’s, “Wynne Jammin,’” (1980) on Uncle Jam Records, and the self-titled, “Philippé Wynne,” (1984) on Sugarhill Records, neither project achieving any commercial success.
Unfortunately, on July 13, 1984, while performing at Ivey’s nightclub in Oakland, California, Wynne suffered a heart attack and died the following morning. To most Spinners fans, the defining years as a recording act were during the Philippé Wynne-led years, which produced the majority of the classic Spinners hits. And although the group had other hit records not featuring Wynne’s voice, his voice was so unique and distinctive, that it’s hard to argue the point that his lead vocals are more identified with the group’s sound than any of the others.
Surviving original member Henry Famborough makes just that argument in a 2014 interview when he stated, “Bobby Smith was always our major lead singer for all those years. Had always been… Always will be.” Famborough’s assertion is probably based on the fact that Smith was a member of the group for most of the 60 years they have been in existence, while Wynne only spent five years with the group.
After many years of touring, The Spinners are still big draws on the oldies and nostalgia concert circuits, playing the music that made them famous. Passing years and failing health has decimated the original members of the hit-making group, losing early member C.P. Spencer to a heart attack on October 20, 2004, with Billy Henderson dying of complications from diabetes on February 2, 2007, at the age of 67. Original member Pervis Jackson, who was still touring as a member of the group, died of cancer on August 18, 2008, while George Dixon, died in 1994. The group lost another member from their early days, when Edgar “Chico” Edwards died on December 3, 2011. And finally, mainstay lead singer Bobby Smith died on March 16, 2013, leaving only Henry Fambrough remaining from the original lineup.
Fambrough, along with current touring members of The Spinners, Charlton Washington, Jessie Peck, Marvin Taylor and Ronnie Moss, are keeping the soulful tradition alive performing all of the great hits in clubs and theaters around the world. Thankfully, The Spinners are once again among the 15 nominees for the 2016 class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, albeit their third nomination. And with their contribution to pop and R&B music, they deserve to be enshrined. For whatever reason they have been passed over before, we hope the voting members get it right and let the third time be the charm.