Philly Soul was a very popular musical genre throughout most of the 1970s, and one of the most popular groups of that era was the Spinners. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were the most popular producers of the Philly Soul sound, and they even started their own Philadelphia International label to release music by their acts, but another producer, Thom Bell, also has lots of success with this sweet soul sound and the Spinners were his personal pet project.
Even though they get pigeonholed as a Philly Soul act, the Spinners were actually from Detroit and recorded for many years on the Motown label. In fact, in the UK they recorded as the Detroit Spinners because there was a folk band in Liverpool also using the same name. Throughout much of the 1960s, the Spinners toiled away at Motown, releasing some very good music, but they never received the promotion that top-tier Motown acts like The Temptations and The Four Tops enjoyed and their records never became huge hits.
And then a funny thing happened. Label mate Stevie Wonder had written a new song, “It’s a Shame,” for the Spinners to record. But it wasn’t until 1970, a full year after they recorded it, and just when the group’s Motown contract was about to expire, that the song became a big hit. By that time, the Spinners were clearly frustrated with Motown and had jumped ship to Atlantic Records, where Thom Bell embraced them. The first result of their work together, the self-titled Spinners album in 1973, one of the greatest soul albums ever made. As a teenager I originally bought it on 8-track tape a few months after it came out. I later wore out copies on cassette, vinyl, and now CD. Obviously, I cherished this album greatly growing up, but decades later, these songs still sound sweet and magical. The hit singles “I’ll Be Around”, “One of a Kind (Love Affair)”, “Ghetto Child”, and “Could it Be I’m Falling in Love” are the most obvious gems on there, but dig deeper and the quality of the songs does not diminish. “We Belong Together,” “Just You and Me Baby”, and “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (a tune also recorded by Wilson Pickett, Doris Duke, Johnny Adams, Wet Willie, Keb’ Mo’ and others) are just a few more of the tasty gems on this classic album.
The follow-up album to Spinners, Mighty Love, was another seamless masterpiece, nearly as good a collection as the first Atlantic album. Songs like “Since I Been Gone” and “I’m Coming Home”, although not hit singles, ranked up there with some of their strongest material. Singers Philippe Wynne and Bobby Smith (they alternated lead vocals on various songs) were both in fine form, their superlative vocals elevating each song to a soulful high. During the rest of the decade, the Spinners continued to release strong albums — most notably Pick of the Litter and New & Improved — fortified with hit singles such as “Games People Play”, “Then Came You” (a duet with Dionne Warwick), “Sadie”, and “Rubberband Man.” Their output slackened towards the end of the decade after Wynne left the band in 1978 to pursue a solo career, and by the mid-80s the Spinners had all but vanished from the charts. But during that impressive run in the 70s they gave us some sensational music to savor.
Some people dismiss the Spinners as just another lightweight Top Forty act, complaining that their albums were “over produced” and too syrupy, a criticism stemming from Thom Bell’s frequent use of brass and string sections. Other critics point to the fact the Spinners didn’t write their own material, and the lyrical content of the songs lacked the social dynamic found in music by 70s soul artists such as the O’Jays, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations. But all that sniping is missing the point. Bell’s production gloss doesn’t take away from the magic of the music. Get past the hit singles and listen to those albums, ya’ll! The Spinners recorded solid albums that lacked the usual filler associated with pop acts of that period. Even if they didn’t write the songs themselves, their heartfelt interpretation of these compositions was nothing short of breathtaking. This is music that floats above the mediocre scrum of pop, songs that stick in your head, and make you smile. And that’s a good thing.