When The Spinners left Motown Records after nearly a decade, the vocal group had never scored a Top 10 Pop hit. They’d come this close in 1970 with the irresistible, Stevie Wonder-penned “It’s a Shame” (No. 14) – one of many fine tracks recorded for Berry Gordy’s empire that, for one reason or another, never crossed The Spinners over to major stardom. That all changed when Thom Bell – the multi-hyphenate musician, producer, songwriter, arranger and conductor – declared that he wished to produce the group at its new home of Atlantic Records. The Spinners made their long-playing debut on Atlantic in early 1973 with the self-titled Spinners. The album contained not one but four major hits – including two Top 5 Pop entries and three R&B chart-toppers. Now, this American soul classic has received a definitive reissue from Cherry Red’s Big Break Records label.
By the time he opted to produce The Spinners, Thom Bell’s hitmaking magic had already been well-established, notably with The Delfonics and The Stylistics. Bell was as prolific as he was gifted; in the year of Spinners’ release alone, he spearheaded luminous productions by Ronnie Dyson, New York City, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Johnny Mathis and the aforementioned Stylistics. But Spinners marked a fork in the road for Bell, too. He explains in Christian John Wikane’s compelling liner notes for this reissue: “It was a change. It was a hard edge but with a soft center…I’d been getting hits more than anybody else with the soft stuff. If I kept going with the soft stuff, then the originator starts to sound like the imitator.” (Bell’s engaging, articulate and enthusiastic voice shines through loud and clear as it drives the narrative of Wikane’s fine essay.) Nobody could accuse Thom Bell of sounding like an imitator, however, as he blended inspirations from the likes of Burt Bacharach and Don Costa into his own sophisticated Philadelphia soul melodies awash in rich strings, punchy horns and unexpected chords.
With Spinners, Bell built on the sound of his plush productions for The Stylistics by adding a funkier touch, brought to life by the superb musicianship of the core MFSB house band at Sigma Sound Studios. Orchestrator-conductor Bell, on piano, led the illustrious group including Bobby Eli, Roland Chambers, and Norman Harris (guitars), Ronnie Baker (bass), Earl Young (drums), Larry Washington (congas/percussion), Jack Faith (saxophone/flute), Vince Montana (vibes/marimbas), The Sweethearts of Sigma (background vocals) and Don Renaldo’s strings.
As evidenced on the ten songs that comprised Spinners, Bell brought gifts beyond his incisive, melodic songwriting and prowess for lush, stylish arrangements: he knew exactly how to arrange for the group’s five individual voices: tenors Billy Henderson, Bobbie Smith and Phillipe Wynne, baritone Henry Fambrough and bassist Pervis Jackson. In fact, Bell had been familiar with the Spinners’ sound since their earliest days, and he vividly remembered the impact their 1961 Tri-Phi Records single “That’s What Girls Are Made For” had on him. Four-fifths of the group (Smith, Jackson, Fambrough and Henderson) was still intact, and Bell intuited how to write to each singer’s strengths, not to mention how to make each singer stand out as a soloist.
By now, everybody knows the four diverse smash hit singles on Spinners: R&B chart-toppers and pop hits “I’ll Be Around” (“the same three lousy chords over and over again,” jokes co-writer Bell in the notes upon accepting the dare from a friend to write a simpler song), Melvin and Mervin Steals’ sweet “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” and Joseph B. Jefferson’s “One of a Kind (Love Affair),” as well as Bell and Linda Creed’s socially-conscious R&B Top 5 /Pop Top 30 “Ghetto Child.” The vocal “casting” on all tracks was impeccable, with “Could It Be…” establishing the tradition of having Bobbie start off the song and Philippe take over with his own distinctive flair. The creamy female background vocals also contributed mightily to the Spinners sound.
The album’s remaining tracks are just as exquisitely crafted. Songwriter Vinnie Barrett (co-writer with Bobby Eli of such memorable tunes as “Sideshow” and “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”) contributed the smooth yet urgent opener “Just Can’t Get You out of My Mind,” gilded by Bell’s driving strings, while tunesmith Yvette Davis was tapped by Bell for the majestically silky “Just You and Me Baby,” the wistfully romantic “We Belong Together,” and yearning “How Can I Let You Get Away.” The latter originally adorned the A-side of the Spinners’ debut Atlantic single with “I’ll Be Around” on the flipside. Though DJs realized the infectious appeal of the B-side, “How Could I Let You Get Away” is nonetheless a gorgeous, rueful and reflective slice of harmony soul. Bruce Hawes wrote the slow burner “I Could Never (Repay Your Love).” The album’s biggest departure, “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You,” found Bell arranging in a big-band bag, trading swirling strings for brash brass. He had played organ on Wilson Pickett’s version (also on Atlantic Records) as produced by his friends Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but the song had also been a part of the Spinners’ onstage act. It stands out on Spinners as a cool, hip, “old school” change of pace.
Spinners would be the first of the group’s five consecutive gold records and three consecutive R&B chart-toppers. With each successive effort, Bell, his core musicians and the versatile quintet of singers would continue to deliver the finest, funkiest Philadelphia soul. BBR has expanded Spinners with a full complement of eight bonus tracks. Four of these are the tracks produced by Jimmy Roach at Atlantic prior to Bell’s involvement with the group; though the vocals are naturally peerless, the productions lack the frisson and excitement of Bell’s work. This quartet of songs first was collected on Rhino’s 1995 reissue of The Spinners’ second Atlantic album, Mighty Love. The Roach productions are joined by the single edit of “I’ll Be Around,” Mike Maurro’s previously unreleased remix of the same song, and Tom Moulton’s remixes of “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” and “One of a Kind (Love Affair).” These extended remixes place a welcome spotlight on the songs’ distinctive orchestral backdrops. Reissue producer Wayne A. Dickson has remastered.
Spinners remains a remarkable entrée into the catalogue of these world-class vocalists (and, as of this writing, nominees for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and to the timeless music of Thom Bell. You can order BBR’s deluxe reissue (housed in a Super Jewel Box) at the links below!
Spinners, Spinners (Atlantic SD-7256, 1973 – reissued Big Break WCDBBRX0321, 2015) (Amazon U.S.)
- Just Can’t Get You Out of My Mind
- Just You and Me Baby
- Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You
- I Could Never (Repay Your Love)
- I’ll Be Around
- One of a Kind (Love Affair)
- We Belong Together
- Ghetto Child
- How Could I Let You Get Away
- Could It Be I’m Falling in Love
- (Oh Lord) I Wish I Could Sleep
- I Just Gotta Make It Happen
- Big Man
- You Sure Are Nasty
- I’ll Be Around (Mike Maurro Mix)
- Could It Be I’m Falling in Love (A Tom Moulton Mix)
- One of a Kind (Love Affair) (A Tom Moulton Mix)
- I’ll Be Around (Single Version)
Tracks 11-14 included on Mighty Love, Rhino R2 71586, 1995
Track 15 previously unreleased
Tracks 16-17 from Philly Re-Grooved 3: Tom Moulton Remixes – More from the Master, Harmless, 2013
Track 18 from Atlantic single 45-2904-B, 1972