The Spinners The Complete Atlantic Singles

The Spinners’ Atlantic Singles Were Their Peak

Recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees the Spinners made some great Philly-style soul with producer Thom Bell but are still defined by a single song.

The Complete Atlantic Singles - The Thom Bell Productions
The Spinners
Real Gone Music
4 August 2023

The Spinners were from Detroit but never really found themselves until they hooked up with a man from Philly. How could an act that came up right under Motown’s nose escape the attention of the Detroit soul giant? The Spinners didn’t, exactly. The vocal quintet spent some time on the label, even issuing two albums, but generally were neglected. “It’s a Shame”, produced and co-written by Stevie Wonder, is the only lasting legacy of their Motown stint.

In 1972, a trifecta of crucial breaks went the Spinners’ way. With help from their friend Aretha Franklin, they signed to Atlantic Records. Then, because their current lead vocalist was still under contract to Motown, they brought in Philippé Wynne to replace him. Third, and most crucially, they hooked up with producer Thom Bell, the Philly connection.

Bell was an early associate of producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and he arranged and produced hits by the Delfonics, the Stylistics, the O’Jays, and others. As the story goes, Atlantic gave Bell the pick of their R&B roster to work with, and he chose the Spinners. He promised them success, and he delivered.

Bell ended up working with the Spinners more than with anyone else. Between 1973 and 1979, they made eight albums together. Those albums yielded no fewer than 21 singles, with B-sides included, and are featured on The Complete Atlantic Singles – The Thom Bell Productions, the release of which coincides with the Spinners’ 2023 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Bell already had a sound: smooth-yet-vibrant, buttery, lushly-orchestrated soul. The Spinners, with their velvety tones and warm harmonies, fit snugly within it. MFSB, the redoubtable house band at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, provided solid rhythms, clean guitar lines, and subtle Latin percussion. The female vocal trio, the Sweethearts of Sigma, underscored the catchy choruses and the hits started coming.

No one could rightly accuse a Spinners song of having a “mean” groove. That was neither theirs nor Bell’s style. Instead, tracks like “Mighty Love”, “One of a Kind Love Affair”, and the smash Dionne Warwick collaboration “Then Came You” have a joyous pulse that is nonetheless danceable. The real secret, though, is the hint of melancholy running through nearly everything. This crucial dynamic means that even a track like the self-explanatory “Ghetto Child” is strangely uplifting; a lyric like “Life ain’t so easy / When you’re a ghetto child” can be life-affirming without coming across as trite as smarmy. The guileless voices, sympathetic strings, and patient, intelligent arrangements work together to create this nearly magical effect. When Bell is referred to as a genius, this is why.

This thoughtful, authentic approach is evident in the ballads, which comprise about half of The Complete Atlantic Singles – The Thom Bell Productions. When the introductory single “How Could I Let You Get Away” breaks into the chorus, it is difficult not to swoon—not so much at the sentiment but at the breathtaking way it is delivered, with voices and music rife with regret. In Bell’s and the Spinners’ hands, even a simple message like “We Belong Together” comes off like a hymn. The sublime, almost subliminal “It takes a fool to learn” refrain of “Love Don’t Love Nobody” renders that song every bit as heartwrenching as Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ better-known “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” from the same era. On the B-side, “Part II” fades back just in time for Philippé Wynne’s Isaac Hayes-style monologue, followed by the enthusiastic ad-libbing which he became famous for.

Though various band members sang lead or shared vocals on different tracks, Wynne was the de facto leader. His rich, unmistakable tenor helmed many of the Spinners’ best and best-known songs. He could preach as he does in the second part of “Mighty Love”, but also tone it down and give nuanced performances as on “Sadie”, a lovely ode to motherdom.

Ironically, Wynne’s standout performances helped lead to the end of the Bell/Spinners era, an ending that was perhaps as inevitable as it was clichéd. Aware that he was the most charismatic band member, Wynne became egotistical about hits and left to go solo in late 1976, replaced by the boisterous John Edwards. At the same time, the Bell/Spinners collaboration was suffering from diminishing returns. Bell sourced most of the Spinners’ material from various songwriting teams, and from 1976 on, things were just not as fresh. That leaves almost half of the chronologically-sequenced The Complete Atlantic Singles – The Thom Bell Productions to go. The hit “Rubberband Man” is good, silly fun, and “If You Wanna Do a Dance” and “Once You Fall In Love” are credibly funky if not exactly mean. More typical of this latter material, though, are tracks like the tepid, lyrically asinine “I’m Tired of Giving”. Post-Bell, The Spinners remained on Atlantic and even had a couple more hits, but their sound descended into era-specific disco.

Some of the edits are different, but every song on The Complete Atlantic Singles – The Thom Bell Productions save one was included on one of the Spinners’ studio albums. While these are out of print, that is about to be remedied with a comprehensive box set. Furthermore, most of the best singles have been anthologized. Is this collection, then, really necessary? Ultimately, the answer to that question comes in the form of the Spinners’ best-known song.

It is incredible that “I’ll Be Around” was originally the B-side to the band’s first Atlantic single. So wholly does it embody everything great about the Spinners and Bell’s collaboration, so definitively does it answer the question, “What was the big deal, anyway”, it almost renders everything that came after it superfluous. Like the O’Jays’ “Love Train” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September”, it has become so iconic not because it has been overplayed; rather, it is played so often because it is so great. “I’ll Be Around” is not just the best Spinners single or one of the best singles of the 1970s. It is one of the greatest American pop singles of all time. Even in the hands of someone as skilled as Thom Bell, that is not an easy act to follow. As The Complete Atlantic Singles – The Thom Bell Productions shows, they gave it a pretty good go.  

RATING 7 / 10