It is hard to believe that “I’ll Be Around” was a B-side song. It reached number 3 on the charts when it was released in 1972, and it put the Spinners on the pop and soul music map. That song seemed to be everywhere, and it quickly became a standard for impressionable high-schoolers (like me) looking to fall in love.
It also seemed that the Spinners were a new group just cutting their teeth in the record business. It turns out that it had been around since the 1950s. And as a fortunate audience will discover this Saturday at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, the Spinners are still around, including their longtime lead singer, Bobby Smith.
“We always planned to be in it for the long haul, that’s what we were shooting for in the beginning,” said Mr. Smith, who calls Orlando home. “But you never know. You just can’t ever quit when you’re doing something you love to do. We’ve given it our best shot. We still are giving it our best shot. Of course, once you get there you have to remain there. We feel our success and our longetivity is due to being just as professional offstage as onstage.”
Though the Spinners are often associated with the “Philly soul” sound, the band initially got together outside Detroit. In 1954, a group of friends at Ferndale High School began to sing together, calling themselves the Domingoes. After a few weeks, one member of the group dropped out, which opened the door for Mr. Smith to drop in. He and the other original members—Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, and C.P. Spencer—had common interests in music and as teenagers enjoyed listening to the same groups.
“The Drifters, the Clovers, the Moonglows, Four Seasons, the Hi-Lows—all those guys inspired us,” Mr. Smith recalled. “We also listened to them a lot because at the time we had no original material, so we depended on performing their songs at dances and neighborhood events.”
Many listeners who have enjoyed the Spinners’ music over the years might not know how they got their name. Now it can be told. According to Mr. Smith, “I grew up loving two things, cars and music. Back in the late ’50s, there were already too many groups like that, such as the Flamingos and Dominoes. We needed to distinguish ourselves. In those days, we liked to customize our cars. One of the things we did was add on these great big Cadillac chrome hubcaps that were called spinners. I suggested that, the rest of the guys went along, and that has been our name for almost 50 years. You’ll still see some spinners today on cars.”
As the Spinners, the group performed regularly during the ensuing years in and around Detroit, but they were not necessarily a part of the emerging Motown scene. It wasn’t until 1961 that they scored their first hit, “That’s What Girls Are Made For,” with Mr. Smith on lead vocals. “Love (I’m So Glad) I Found You,” again with Mr. Smith singing the lead, was a more modest hit, and subsequent singles for the Tri-Phi record label didn’t make a dent on the charts. Berry Gordy acquired the label—and with it Junior Walker along with the Spinners—for his Motown company.
Even with the powerful Gordy and his songwriters behind them, the Spinners didn’t soar to major popularity in the 1960s. Their debut at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1964 was successful, but in 1965 only one number, “I’ll Always Love You,” got as high as number 35 on the charts. Things got so low for the band members that they sometimes had to double as road managers and even chauffeurs for other Motown acts.
“We always felt like we got lost in the shuffle because Motown had a lot of talented acts,” Mr. Smith said. “Our two biggest concerns were that we were getting leftover material to record and that we weren’t being promoted. When we did “It’s a Shame” with Stevie Wonder, that record wasn’t released until a year after we recorded it. Even with Stevie Wonder involved, it sat on a shelf at Motown.”
When “It’s a Shame,” written and produced by Stevie Wonder, was released in 1970, after a five-year absence on the charts, a Spinners song jumped to number 14. “We’ll Have It Made,” the follow-up by Wonder, was also a hit. Aretha Franklin, then working with the producer (and East Hampton resident) Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, suggested to the Spinners that they go to that label for their next contract.
“When our Motown contract was up we went to Atlantic, which didn’t have all those acts like us and so they really focused on the Spinners and their songwriters were fully on board,” Mr. Smith said. “We connected with Thom Bell, a great writer, producer, and arranger, and he was devoted to developing the Spinners sound.”
“Thanks to him, Ahmet Ertegun and the others at Atlantic, we had a string of hits, and here we are.” Among those hits were “I’ll Be Around” and “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” in 1972, “Mighty Love” and “Then Came You” (with Dionne Warwick, and their first number 1 hit) in ’74, and “The Rubberband Man” in ’76.
Two original members, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Fambrough, remain along with Mr. Smith, and the Spinners are an active touring group, though Mr. Smith said that they try to put some limits on their engagements. “We try to set our schedule shows on the weekends so we can be home during the week,” he said. “We don’t like long, long engagements. The exception is a casino. We just played Universal Studios, we do that about six times a year. That’s easy because it’s right here in Orlando. I can’t remember the last time we were up on Long Island, and we’re really looking forward to it.”
After more than 50 years, is it still fun? “Every time we hit the stage, it’s fun,” Mr. Smith emphasized. “What has changed is that being away from home and families is tougher these days. Now, having said that, when I’m home for a straight week or two, I start to feel lost. I’m chomping at the bit to get up on stage and sing for an audience and they are all smiling and singing along. Our shows are based on the hits because that is what people want to hear. That’s fine, because we still love singing them.”