The Spinners - Biography



By Lee Hildebrand

 

           The Spinners have gone through five different lead singers since their inception in 1954. Two charter members died in recent years. Yet the Detroit singing group has persevered and remains a popular touring attraction.

 

            Their chart history runs from 1961 through 1995, but it was during a briefer period, from 1972 to '77, that they enjoyed their greatest popularity, scoring a total of 14 entries in the Top 10 of Billboard's R&B chart, five of them also placing in the pop Top 10. Six -- "I'll Be Around" (1972), "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love" (1972),"One of a Kind (Love Affair)" (1973), "Mighty Love" (1974), "They Just Can't Stop It (Games People Play)" (1975), and "The Rubberband Man" (1976) -- rose to No. 1 R&B. All were produced and arranged by Thom Bell for Atlantic Records, and all featured the unique lead vocals of Philippe Wynne.

 

            The group had only three Top 10 R&B charters prior to Wynne's recruitment in 1972 and only two following his departure five years later. The bespectacled vocalist was The Spinners' spark plug, an inspired, spontaneous stylist who developed a highly distinctive approach, inspired by Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Billy Stewart, that was rife with gospel yodels, melismatic warbles, and sputtering scats. If Wynne sang like a man possessed, he matched his buoyant improvisations with an effervescent stage manner that found him skipping trough the aisles or standing still with arms outstretched, hands waving, fingers wiggling.

 

            Pervis Jackson, Billy Henderson, and Henry Fambrough began singing together while in elementary school in Ferndale, Michigan. In 1955, while students at Ferndale High, they were joined by James Edwards and C.P Spencer and became known as The Domingoes. Edwards was soon replaced by Bobbie Smith and Spencer by George Dixon.  At an early engagement at the Idlewild Resort outside Detroit, the Domingoes shared a bill with the Four Aims. The dance routines of that group, later known as the Four Tops, greatly influenced The Domingoes.

 

            To avoid confusion with The Flamingos and The Dominoes, The Domingoes changed their name around 1961. At Smith's suggestion, they borrowed the slag term "spinners" used for chrome hubcaps on hot rods and Cadillacs. 

 

            During their formative years -- and as part of their stage act ever since -- The Spinners specialized in imitating other groups. The Moonglows, lead by Harvey Fuqua, were their favorite. In 1961, after Fuqua had disbanded The Moonglows and moved to Detroit to start his own record company with wife Gwen Gordy, he took The Spinners under his wing. That year, the group cut its first single, "That's What Girls Are Made For," a ballad penned by Fuqua and Gordy, for the couple's Tri-Phi label. The song, on which Smith's breathy lead tenor sounded so much like Fuqua's that many have mistakenly assumed it to be that of the former Moonglow, became a No. 7 R&, No. 27 pop hit and sent The Spinners on the road playing major theaters across the country, including the Uptown in Philadelphia, where the pianist in the house band was Thom Bell. 

 

            After the release of five more singles on Tri-Phi, none of which received much notice, the label was swallowed up in 1964 by Gwen Gordy's brother Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motown Records, where The Spinners became lost in the shuffle. They were not a high priority for the company, which gave them nonmusical assignments such as road managing The Supremes, The Marvalettes, and Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, picking up the Jackson 5 at the airport, and taking inventory in the stockroom. Only two singles --1965's No. 8 R&B, No. 35 pop "I'll Always Love You"(written and produced by William "Mickey" Stevenson and Ivy Hunter) on the Motown label and 1970s's No. 4 R&B, No. 14 pop "It's a Shame" (produced and co-written by Stevie Wonder) on the company's V.I.P. label -- made the R&B Top 10 during the group's tenure at Motown. The featured vocalist on "It's a Shame" was G.C. Cameron, who'd joined the group in 1967, replacing Edgar "Chico" Edwards, who had earlier replaced Dixon. When The Spinners finally left Motown, Cameron opted to stay with the company as a solo artist, (None of his solo sides for Motown were particularly successful, although his minor 1975 hit "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" became a major hit 16 years later for Boyz II Men.). 

 

            Cameron recommended a friend to the group. Born Philip Walker in Cincinnati on April 3, 1941, Philippe Wynne had sung around Ohio in the late '60s with the Pacesteeers, a band that included brothers Bootsy and Catfish Collins,and in Europe in the early '70s was a Liberian band called the Afro Kings. Back home in the U.S. in 1971, he briefly studied theology at a college in Texas.  Wynne was emotionally troubled, however, and was homeless for a period. When he joined The Spinners in 1972, he had no decent clothes to wear and was, according to Billy Henderson,"broke and crazy." 

 

            Aretha Franklin recommended The Spinners to Atlantic Records, which placed them in the creative hands of producer-arranger-songwriter Thom Bell.  Born in Kingston, Jamaica but raised in Philadelphia, Bell has produced hits for such artists as The Delfonics and Stylistics, as well as arranged records produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff for Jerry Butler, The Intruders, Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes, The O'Jays, Billy Paul, and others. Atlantic offered to let Bell produce any artist on the company's roster.  He could have picked Franklin, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, or Wilson Pickett, but he instead chose The Spinners because they had been such underdogs as Motown and could especially benefit from his help.

            With Wynne's alternately joyous and tortured leads and Bell's jazz-imbued arrangements, which often utilized a pounding tom-tom drum beat inspired by Howard Grimes and Al Jackson Jr.'s work with Al Green and given as fresh twist by ace Philadelphia session drummer Earl Young, The Spinners gave Atlantic an unbroken five-year string of hits.  Besides the six aforementioned R&B chart-toppers, they included the No. 4 R&B, No. 29 pop "Ghetto Child" (1973), the No. 3 R&B, No. 18 pop "I'm Coming Home" (1974), the No. 2 R&B, No. 1 pop "Then Came You" (a 1974 duet with Dionne Warwick), the No. 4 R&B, No. 15 pop "Love Don't Love Nobody" ((1974), the No. 7 R&B, No. 37 pop "Living a Little, Laughing a Little" (1975), No.7 R&B, No. 54 pop "Sadie," the No. 11 R&B, No. 36 pop "Wake Up Susan" (1976), and the No. 5 R&B, No. 43 pop "You're Throwing a Good Love Away." Five of the group's Atlantic albums made the pop Top 20: Spinners (1973) peaked at No. 14, Mighty Love (1974) at No. 16, New and Improved (1974) at No. 9, Pick of the Litter (1975) at No. 8, and Spinners Live! (1976) at No. 20. 

 

            Wynne walked away from The Spinners in January 1977 and began a solo career that proved commercially disappointing. Only two of his solo singles made it into Top 40 of Billboard's R&B chart -- "Hats Off to Mama" (1977-Cotillion) at No. 17 and "Wait 'Til Tomorrow/Bye Bye Love" (1983-Fantasy) -- although he was featured on the No. 1 R&B hit "(Not Just) Knee Deep" (1979-Warner Bros.) by Funkadelic, with whom he toured for a period.  On July 13, 1984, while performing "Love Don’t Love Nobody" at a club in Oakland, California, Wynne grabbed his chest, keeled over, and died of a massive heart attack. Pall bearers at his funeral included G.C. Cameron.

 

            Prior to Wynne's departure from The Spinners, John Edwards filled in for him on several occasions when psychological problems prevented him from making gigs. Edwards, who as a child in his native St. Louis had seen Sam Cooke singing with the Soul Stirrers at a gospel concert, patterned his vocal approach after Cooke's. He had recorded for the Twin Stacks, Weis, Bell, Aware (for  which he cut the No. 8 R&B hit "Careful Man" in 1974), and Cotillion labels before formally replacing Wynne in The Spinners in 1977. Attempts by producer Bell to repeat the success of the Wynne-led group were commercial failures, but a 1979-80 association with producer Michael Zager took The Spinners back to the upper reaches of the charts with the medleys "Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me, Girl" (No. 5 R&B, No. 2 pop) and "Cupid/I've Love You for a Long Time" (No. 5 R&B, No. 2 pop). There were no further substantial hits for The Spinners, and they were let go by the company after a 1985 album on the Mirage subsidiary label. The group reemerged in 1989 with a little-noticed album on Volt and again teamed up with Warwick the following year for an Arista single titled "I Don't Need Another Love," which stalled at No 84 R&B. The group's final chart entry came in 1995 with the  No. 37 R&B , No. 39 pop "I'll Be Around," on which Rappin' 4-Tay rapped over the original track of their  same-titled 1972 hit.

 

            Edwards left the group in 2000 due to illness. Cameron took his place for two years before leaving to join The Temptations. Lead vocal chores in The Spinners were then offered to Philadelphia vocalist Frank Washington, formerly of The Futures and Delfonics. Billy Henderson, who was fired in 2004 over a financial dispute with the group's management, died from complications of diabetes in 2007. Bass singer Pervis Jackson died of cancer in 2008. Henry Fambrough and Bobbie Smith continue to tour with The Spinners

 

            Among various collections of Spinners' hits on CD are the two-disc A One of A Kind Love Affair: The Anthology (1991- Atlantic), the single disc The Very Best of The Spinners (1993-Atlantic), and the double disc The Definitive Soul Collection (2006-Atlantic).

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