Something Else! Featured Artist: The Spinners

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The Spinners, though finalists for the 2012 class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, came up short. It was one of the only times something like that’s happened for the greatest soul group of the early 1970s.

After all, the Spinners once posted a staggering four No. 1 R&B hits in less than 18 months: “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “One Of A Kind (Love Affair)” and “Mighty Love” — all from 1972’s Spinners. The 1974 follow-up Mighty Love featured three Top 20 hits, and the Spinners would go on to hit the Top 10 two more times over the next two years before beginning to fade.

Since, they’ve been recognized as major influences by David Bowie, Elvis Costello and Elton John, and were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999. Original members Henry Fambrough (who sang the famous “12:45” line in “Games People Play”) and Robert “Bobby” Smith (“I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “Then Came You” with Dionne Warwick) remain with the group, though singer Philippé Wynne (“One of a Kind,” “The Rubberband Man”) died of a heart attack while performing back in 1984. Original singer G.C. Cameron (“It’s a Shame”) also returned to the fold for a time in the 2000s, but he has since departed.

Throughout all the changes, their legacy has lived on. The hope, of course, is that they’ll be considered for the 2013 Rock Hall ballot. Here’s are at least five reasons why …

“THE RUBBERBAND MAN” (HAPPINESS IS BEING WITH THE SPINNERS, 1976): Formed in 1961, the Spinners went on to become one of the best and most successful singing outfits of 1970s. Brandishing a polished presence grafted of honey-kissed harmonies, classy grooves and melt-in-your mouth melodies, the Detroit, Michigan, group spawned catchy songs bleeding with heart and soul.

By the time “The Rubberband Man” swept the airwaves, reaching No. 2 on the national charts in the early fall of 1976, the Spinners had already racked up a dozen Top 40 hit singles to their name, with tunes like “It’s A Shame,” “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” “One Of A Kind Love Affair,” “Ghetto Child” and “Then Came You” (featuring Dionne Warwick) being all but a brief list of such gold-studded achievements.

But returning to “The Rubberband Man”: Is it funk or disco? A little bit of both, that’s for sure, but no matter which way you slice it, it’s a super fun song. Crafted of bouncy rhythms, cheerful choruses, a boogie-based jam and a hook so sharp it pokes right through the record, “The Rubberband Man” actually produces a sound similar to that of a stretching rubberband.

Whenever I hear “The Rubberband Man,” it reminds me of my first semester of my sophomore year in high school. During lunch hour, seated in a grassy knoll located by the tennis courts, I would play my blinding yellow transistor radio and this tune was in constant rotation. Whenever it came on, a bunch of fellow students would start dancing and singing along with the bubblegummy type lyrics. Although I have few fond recollections of high school, “The Rubberband Man” produces pleasant memories, as it was a nice diversion to the boring and often hostile environment I was then subjected to. — Beverly Paterson

“I’LL BE AROUND” (SPINNERS, 1972): From the first chunky guitar chords, the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around” is a different kind of a song about getting dumped, and still loving her anyway, and thinking to yourself — and then saying out loud — that you’ll wait for as long as it takes for her to return, since there’s always a chance, no matter how remote, that these things work out in the end. A lean bass signature enters next, then the soaring strings required of any soul effort of the period, and some sly conga work by Larry Washington. Bobby Smith cries then winks — “now it’s up to me, to bow out gracefully,” he sings, though you somehow know from the start that he won’t — in a performance as nuanced as the brilliant arrangement.

It’s Philly Soul, personified — even if the group started out as four high school students in Michigan. Thank producer Thom Bell, who fashioned a two-chord burst of mournful resolve on “I’ll Be Around” that neatly echoes the chorus’ vocal lines. The Spinners, who had named themselves after a hubcap on Smith’s 1951 Crown Victoria, were on their way. “I’ll Be Around” led to a run of subsequent hits — but Bell and the group hit a creative vista, to me ears, with 1972’s Spinners. Practically its own greatest hits package, this Atlantic recording is home to “I’ll Be Around,” as well as “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “Ghetto Child,” “How Could I Let You Get Away” (actually, the flip side to “I’ll Be Around”) and “One of a Kind (Love Affair).”

Bell brings the same kind of lush sophistication to this project that marked celebrated earlier work with the Stylistics and Delfonics — think, “La La Means I Love You” and “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” — but with an updated street-level vibe. He then mixes in orchestral elements of the big band sound of the previous decade, making for a fluttering, hypnotic effect that was faster than a standard ballad but a beat slower than a dance song. The result: Three-minutes bursts of exquisite soul glory like “I’ll Be Around,” which eventually spent five weeks at No. 1 on the R&B chart, the Spinners’ first, and reaching No. 3 on the pop hit parade, as well. — Nick DeRiso

“WORKING MY WAY BACK TO YOU/FORGIVE ME GIRL” (DANCIN’ AND LOVIN,’ 1979): During the time that my little kid self grew into a rock fan, I learned about a lot of R&B music through listening osmosis: the radio was still generous enough to mix genres and then there we always those crazy K-Tel albums. Sure, I bought it for the hard rockin’ Thin Lizzy song, put up with “Disco Duck” and other smarm, but was showered with the gifts of Stevie Wonder, The Chi-Lites, and Tower of Power.

The funny thing is that I didn’t realize this at the time. Years later I’d hear a song like “Working My Way Back To You” and it seemed incredibly familiar, even if I wasn’t the biggest R&B fan in general, or fan of the Spinners in particular. There was even a tiny remembrance of hand-held transistor radio days with shadows of the original Four Seasons version, rattling out of that tinny, plastic-encased speaker.

Delivery methods aside, it’s obvious to me that this music embedded itself in my musical root systems. The harmonies are just glorious and still have the power to resonate even after all these years. — Mark Saleski

“IT’S A SHAME” (SECOND TIME AROUND, 1970): Today, the Spinners are considered one of the best 1970s soul groups, but “Spinners 1.0” began with 1970’s “It’s A Shame,” a Stevie Wonder-penned tune that kicked off their career. While Wonder’s composition brought the group early success, they didn’t hit their stride until they departed Motown and signed with Atlantic Records. However, this classic track, with G.C. Cameron on lead vocals, did create interest in the group and gave them their first crossover hit.

Originally formed in the late 1950s as a doo-wop act, the Spinners signed with Motown in 1965 and decided to move in an R&B direction. However, the label paid little attention to the singers. Their big break came in the form of labelmate Stevie Wonder, who co-wrote “It’s A Shame” with Syreeta Wright and Lee Garrett. The Spinners recorded the song for their debut LP Second Time Around, which was released on a short-lived Motown spinoff label V.I.P. Backed by Motown’s stellar backing band the Funk Brothers, the singers demonstrated their knack for tight harmonies, while Cameron displayed his extensive vocal range.

Wonder’s words concern a love affair gone wrong, with the narrator chastising his girlfriend for cheating on him. The song immediately begins with the memorable chorus: “It’s a shame, the way you mess around with your man.” While the other singers harmonize in the background (recalling their doo-wop roots), Cameron effortlessly handles the frequent chord changes, particularly in the lines “I’m sitting all alone, by the telephone, waiting for your call, when you don’t call at all.” But then he reaches his impressive falsetto range on the verses “Why do you use me, try to confuse me? How can you stand to be so cruel?” It’s an emotional performance, one that befits the song’s tale of heartbreak. Despite the lyrics’ pleading, desperate tone, the Funk Brothers provide an upbeat instrumental counterpart. The thumping beat pulsates throughout the track, as does the distinctively ringing guitar riff that emphasizes the catchy melody.

Wonder’s knack for writing memorable chord changes and meaningful lyrics gave the Spinners a bona fide hit, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart and No. 14 on the Hot 100. Despite this success, Motown still failed to invest in the band, and ultimately dropped the group from the label in 1972. In addition, Cameron chose to remain with Motown, so the Spinners recruited new lead singer Phillipe Wynne before signing with Atlantic. Thus began Spinners 2.0, when they recorded an impressive array of quality hit songs. But “It’s A Shame” remains one of their best tracks, their first crossover single, and the only hit featuring Cameron on lead vocals. — Kit O’Toole

“COULD IT BE I’M FALLING IN LOVE” (SPINNERS, 1972: An R&B chart topper in February, 1973 and No. 4 on the U.S. pop charts, “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” made sure that this group wouldn’t be a one-hit wonder (from “I’ll Be Around”). Thom Bell’s usual hallmarks — especially the light string and horn arrangements, as well as additional, female background vocalists — are present, but there’s this guitar-bass-drums rhythm element to it that pulls it toward Al Green territory, too: Philadelphia meets Memphis. Phillippe Wynne was the dominant lead vocalist during the classic Spinners period, but it’s Bobby Smith who steps up and handles the chores this time, except when Wynne takes over during the fade out. Smith’s softy soulful croon is just right for this song.

The strong melody and timeless love song lyrics by the Steals brothers makes this an attractive tune no matter who handles it, but the Spinners’ original take on “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” is a classic slice of early ’70s R&B. — S. Victor Aaron

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