Standing the Test of Time
June 15, 2017
Although originally from Detroit, there are few groups which better define the Philly soul sound than The Spinners. But it seems almost incredible now, almost 50 years later, that a group which was a product of the Motor City would not be obvious Motown superstars. To understand how The Spinners got away, it's necessary to see where Motown was at that pivotal point in their history, the years when the 1970s were bringing changes to their musical destiny.
Having conquered racial divides by appealing to a wide demographic, Motown had established itself with a variety of now iconic vocal groups that combined deft vocals, smooth choreography and remarkable stage presence (and naturally included some fabulous attire). Groups like The Temptations, Four Tops, The Supremes and many more were riding high as the 1960s came to an end.
But there were changes in the offing. Marvin Gaye was moving toward political commentary with his album What's Going On, something carefully avoided during the turbulent 60s. And the label itself was now adding filmmaking to its profile, ultimately leading to a departure from Detroit to California by 1972.
The Spinners were with the label for a decade and scored a few hits along the way, notably "It's a Shame," which put them on the charts in 1970 for the first time in a few years. But despite their Detroit roots, it was hard for The Spinners to find their own identity on a label so rife with talent. When released from Motown in 1971, The
Spinners found their future in 1972 signing with Atlantic Records. Atlantic, well-known as a welcoming home for R&B acts of the era, had already snagged another famous Detroit performer, Aretha Franklin, and proved a perfect landing spot for The Spinners, a place where the talented group could find their own identity. Franklin herself had pitched the idea of the move to Atlantic, and the next decade would prove that decision well-founded.
For the next several years, after connecting with Philadelphia songwriter, arranger and producer Thom Bell, The Spinners began cranking out a non-stop onslaught of hit records featuring their three primary singers: Bobbie Smith, Harvey Fambrough and Phillipe Wynne. With someone now firmly in their corner and no longer relegated to also-ran status on a loaded slate of vocal groups, The Spinners blossomed.
But "I'll Be Around," their first big hit with Atlantic (and their first hit to crack the Top 10) was a surprise on a couple of fronts, a story which demonstrates the power of DJs during that era.
"Originally the single was going to be 'How Could I Let You Get Away,'" Fambrough told whatzup in a 2014 interview, "and 'I'll Be Around' was the b-side of the single. But a DJ in Buffalo, New York decided to play 'I'll Be Around' because he liked the song so much, and it just took off from there."
For the next few years, The Spinners were a ubiquitous presence on Top 40 radio with songs prominently featuring both Smith and Wynne on vocals. "Mighty Love," "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," and "One of a Kind (Love Affair)" allowed both singers to shine, but, just as happened years earlier with the Temptations, questions about who was the lead singer led to changes to the lineup, with Wynne deciding to seek success as a solo performer in 1977.
Replacing Wynne with John Edwards, the group continued to thrive, and Edwards voice was quickly established with the hits like "Cupid" and "Rubberband Man," and by this time The Spinners had already earned a star on Hollywood Boulevard, cementing their enduring legacy. While their relationship with Bell ended by the late 70s and hits were harder to come by as the 80s wore on, The Spinners remain one of the beloved and iconic groups of the era.
In his 2014 with whatzup, Fambrough looked back on their history and his place as the only surviving member.
"Bobbie just died last March  so it's been important for me to be able to carry on what we all started together in 1954. We lost Billy [Henderson], and we lost Pervis. We lost Philippé [Wynne] in 1984, and even though he wasn't with the group anymore, he was still a brother. And then we lost Bobbie last year. So I'm the last one, and I wanted to get the group back together so it was important to replace him with the same kind of guy. We wanted people with good character, who didn't do drugs or any of those things. Once we found the right person, we hit the road again. We don't go like we did in the 70s, but we're on the road about 60 percent of the time."
Joining Fambrough on stage these days are four singers who have helped to keep The Spinners' legacy alive: Charlton Washington, Jessie Robert Peck, Marvin Taylor and Ronnie Moss. The smooth moves remain, with Fambrough proving himself still agile at the age of 79. And of course, the suits are still on point. But it's the music which keeps audiences coming back for more, and those songs will endure long after the band is gone.
In fact, that was a promise that Fambrough made to Bobbie Smith before his death four years ago. With the other members gone and only Fambrough and Smith left to carry the baton, Fambrough said in 2014 that continuing to keep The Spinners alive after the others had passed was a vow among brothers.
"Bobbie and I had dinner together a couple of weeks before he passed, and the last thing he told me was 'I don't know what's going to happen with me and everything that's going on, but I want you to promise to keep everything going.' And that's what I'm doing."