The five-man group, long noted for its strong harmonics, emotive lead singing, and imaginative choreography, learned early on that it takes more than pure talent to sustain success. “We realized,” explains bass singer Pervis Jackson, “that show business is exactly what it says: a business.” A reputation for being punctual and cooperative and maintaining a class, clean-cut image has, according to member Billy Henderson, contributed greatly to the Spinners’ amazing longevity in the music business.
It’s appropriate, then, that the Spinners’ debut album for the Volt label should be titled Down to Business. Produced by F.L. Pittman, whose previous credits include Dorothy Moore and another great Detroit group, the Dramatics, the record showcases the Spinners singing strongly melodic uptempo numbers and romantic ballads enveloped in a thoroughly modern musical setting yet in the classic soul style that has made them a household name. That the group has one of the fullest harmonic blends in the business is evidenced throughout.
Pervis Jackson, Billy Henderson, and Henry Fambrough formed the group, then known as the Domingoes, while in elementary school. They performed their first professional engagement at the Idlewild Resort outside Detroit singing a cappella on a bill with the Four Ames. The Ames, later known as the Four Tops, were an immediate inspiration to the teenaged singers. “They were dancing then,” remembers Fambrough. “That’s when we first thought of putting routines to our act.”
Because their name was often confused with those of the Flamingoes and the Dominoes, the Domingoes decided to change it. Bobbie Smith, who had just joined, supplied the new name. “I’m a car buff,” he explains. “Back in the Fifties, all the kids had the hot rod cars with big wide skirts and great big Cadillac hubcaps that they called ‘spinners.’”
During their early stages, the singers specialized in imitating other popular groups of the period. Their favorite was the Moonglows, led by Harvey Fuqua. It was perhaps ironic that, in 1961, after Fuqua had disbanded the Moonglows and moved to Detroit to start his own record company with wife Gwen Gordy Fuqua, he would take the Spinners under his wing. That year, the group cut its first single, the plaintive “That’s What Girls Are Made For,” for the Fuquas’ Tri-Phi label. An immediate smash, it sent the Spinners on the road playing major theaters across America, including the Uptown in Philadelphia where the house band included a pianist named Thom Bell.
“When we hit the road with that record, we pretty much had our act together,” recalls Smith. “At the Apollo Theater, if they don’t like you, they’ll boo you off the stage. That was our first engagement, and we were doing things like ‘How High the Moon,’ ‘Over the Rainbow,’ and a lot of close-harmony things. The people loved us.”
Motown swallowed up Tri-Phi in 1964, and the Spinners’ records began appearing on the company’s Motown and V.I.P. labels. Hits were sporadic—only “I’ll Always Love You” in 1965 and the Stevie Wonder-produced “It’s a Shame” in 1970—but the Spinners sustained themselves with a versatile stage act that featured imitations of other groups, including the Beatles.
Their luck changed drastically in 1972, when Aretha Franklin recommended them to Atlantic Records. Then Philippe Wynne was added to the lineup. With his unique, warbling tenor voice leading and material supplied by Thom Bell, who’d become one of the most in-demand producer-arrangers in the business, the Spinners found themselves on a nonstop streak at Atlantic Records between 1972 and 1976. Twelve gold records and six Grammy nominations resulted. Their huge hits included “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “One of a Kind (Love Affair),” “Sadie,” “Ghetto Child,” “Mighty Love,” “Then Came You” (with Dionne Warwick), “I’m Coming Home,” “Love Don’t Love Nobody,” “Games People Play,” and “The Rubber-band Man.” (Bell also referred them to Buddy Allen, who’s managed the group for the last 17 years.)
Wynne left in 1977 and was replaced by John Edwards, who had filled in briefly two years earlier when Wynne was ill. “There were always problems that came with replacing a guy,” Henderson states, “but that’s why we’ve been together so long, ’cause we’ve always thought ‘Spinners.’ We were the Spinners way before Philippe, and as you see, we’re still the Spinners now.”
Edwards’s urgent, Sam Cooke-inspired style proved ideally suited to the pattern Wynne had set with the group. As a child in St. Louis, his mother had taken him to a gospel concert to see the Soul Stirrers featuring Cooke. “Of all the male vocalists I’ve heard in my lifetime,” Edwards says, “I cannot recall one who had not only the type of silkiness in his voice that Sam had but also the kind of control and versatility that he had.”
With Edwards, who’d cut a series of little-known but deeply soulful singles for the Weis, Twin Stacks, Aware, and Cotillion labels before joining the Spinners, the group enjoyed three more smashes while at Atlantic, all medleys produced by Michael Zager: “Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me, Girl,” “Cupid/I’ve Loved You for a Long Time,” and “Yesterday Once More/Nothing Remains the Same.”
Since leaving Atlantic three years ago, the Spinners have continued to tour steadily and contributed songs to several motion picture soundtracks, including the recent box-office hit, Twins. They’re much sought after for appearances in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and this year were part of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Concert Tour.
Now, with a new label and producer, the Spinners are entering a new phase in their illustrious career. And, as always, they’re Down to Business.