Gary James' Interview With Bobbie Smith Of
They're a Motown group that experienced the American Dream! Together since 1957, they've enjoyed 38 R&B and 29 Pop chart hits, acquiring 12 Gold records in the process. They have 6 Grammy nominations, been awarded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Award for their contribution to R&B music, performed for Presidents and received a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. You know their songs: "Rubberband Man", "One Of A Kind (Love Affair)", "I'll Be Around", "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love", "Working My Way Back To You", "Then Came You" and the list goes on and on. We are talking of course about The Spinners.
Bobbie Smith, one of the original members of The Spinners spoke with us about his group.
Q - You just performed here in Syracuse, N.Y. at the New York State Fair. What'd you think of that place?
A - I thought it was great. Great audience. New York is one of our towns, like Syracuse, New York City, New York has always been great to The Spinners. We thought it was fantastic.
Q - You guys have been as busy as you've ever been. Would that be correct?
A - Well, not quite, because we used to go out on the road and stay maybe a month at a time, weeks at a time. Now, we really like to work weekends and be home during the week. So, we try to make our schedule so we work on the weekends, unless it's Atlantic City or Vegas. If we get something like that for a week or so, that's fine, but we prefer being home and working on the weekends.
Q - How many records have The Spinners sold? Do you have any idea?
A - Oh, I have no idea. That's kind of hard to pin-point. All I can say is, we have about 13 or 14 Gold records. We've got 5 Gold albums and about 8 Gold singles. Although I found, and it's a shame, Motown was supposed to be Gold Records too. At that time, I don't think Motown certified their records Gold. But then I found out later that two songs possibly went Gold too.
Q - How important of a role did Top 40 radio play in the success of The Spinners?
A - Well, Top 40 plays a big part in an artist's career really, because Top 40 is considered Pop radio. Every Black artist that I know is shooting for a Pop record, because you reach a broad audience. I don't know exactly what it's like for the new artists, but during The Spinners era when we had all the hits, being a Black artists, your record had to become a hit R&B before the Pop stations would pick it up. So, we've been fortunate enough that our records went across the board. Just as big Pop as they did R&B. So, that's very important to an artist 'cause you reach a broader audience and matter of fact, "Workin' My Way Back To You" went Pop and had to cross over to R&B.
Q - According to Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia of Rock, Motown Records never considered The Spinners as a major act. But then, they didn't give you the hit songs, did they?
A - No. Well, I look at it like this, when we were a Motown, Motown had a lot of groups on the same caliber as The Spinners and you had so many Motown groups that had hit records, like The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye. They had artists with hit records until...you know, radio stations can't play but so many records from one record company plus Motown had a staff of writers and they had a choice of producing or writing with any artist they choose, so quite naturally they wanted to do a record on The Supremes or Marvin Gaye or somebody that already had a big hit. So, when The Spinners had a few hits at Motown, you have to follow it right up. When we were at Motown and we had a hit, we wouldn't get another record released for another year. So now you're playing catch-up. You're like starting all over again. When you get a hit, you gotta keep popping 'em out there, you know. And so, we felt like we got lost in the shuffle at Motown. It was like going to college and coming out an "A" student.
Q - And Aretha Franklin told you to sign with Atlantic Records?
A - Well what happened: we had contracts with three different labels. I know one of 'em was Atlantic and I think one was Stax Records and I don't remember the other one. But we were skeptical of signing with anybody at that time. But, the fact that we knew Atlantic and Atlantic didn't have a lot of groups on the same caliber as The Spinners, we asked Aretha her advice. Did she think it would be a good move for The Spinners to come over and sign with Atlantic? She thought it would be a great idea and so that's the one we took...Atlantic.
Q - Producer Thom Bell had a better understanding of what The Spinners should record?
A - Well, I think at Motown, people were just throwing material at you. But when we went to Atlantic, Thom Bell was concentrating on The Spinners and their voices and our sound. So, with Tom Bell's style and The Spinners style, it was like a perfect marriage. He was a great producer and had great songs. It was all American songs and they all had positive messages. It just clicked.
Q - Who taught you guys the dance steps you did and still do?
A - Well, when we started, groups like The Spinners were very popular, but they all danced and sang. In the beginning, I did some of the choreography and then once we became famous and had those hits, we were with Charlie Atkins, who was one of the best in the business. He was a part of a dance team, Honey And Cole. So we worked with him a lot. And we had a young lady in Detroit from the Ziggy Johnson Dance Studio, Diane Blanche, who we worked with quite a bit too. Those were the two people we worked with mostly, after we got the hits.
Q - How did they know everybody in the group could dance? Did anybody have two left feet?
A - (laughs) Well, everybody can't dance the same, but you know, you put it together as a group and they're in step and in time, as time goes by you learn to finesse. That's what we learned from Charlie Atkins, the finesse. You're always supposed to dance on your on your toes, not on your heels. After awhile, it comes naturally. So, The Spinners have always been a group known for singing and dancing. Our name is The Spinners, which is not meant to be that way. That ain't why we named The Spinners, but it all matched and so we're still doing it today.
Q - I was going to ask you about your name. Is it because that's what records do...spin? Is that why you're The Spinners, or is it because of the dance steps you do?
A - No. That's why I say people probably think because we do a lot of dancing and spinning, that's how we got the name Spinners. That's totally wrong. The way we got the name Spinners: in the beginning we called ourselves The Domingoes. But back then, in the '50s, '60s, you had The Flamingoes, The Dominoes. It was too close to other groups. So we decided we needed to come up with a different name, so everybody was supposed to come up with a different name. So, I came up with the name The Spinners. All my life I loved cars. I've always been a car freak...still am. I have a collection of cars. But back in the '50s, like what the kids are doing to cars today, they're using spinners. You see what I mean? But back in the '50s they used to freak the cars off. That's what they called it. They would round off the front, the hood or change the grille. They would lower 'em in the back. They called 'em bubble skirts and in the front they would have these big chrome hub caps. Cadillac hubcaps, and they called 'em spinners. So that's how we got the name...from a hubcap. (laughs) And there was a Rap group came out with a Rap song not long ago called "Ridin' Spinners".
Q - When you were starting, there was a Folk group in England called The Spinners.
A - Right.
Q - So, in England you were billed as The Motown Spinners and later The Detroit Spinners.
A - Right.
Q - Why didn't someone just buy the name Spinners outright from this British group?
A - Well, they lived in Liverpool, England and I think they were a Folk group. When they came to the United States, they had to call themselves The Liverpool Spinners and in England we were known as The Detroit Spinners. Matter of fact, we have a couple of albums that say The Detroit Spinners, but in the States we're known as The Spinners. But that's to separate us and that's why it's like that.
Q - Harvey Fuqua. He produced you.
A - Oh, yeah. Harvey Fuqua was a member of The Moonglows. One of the lead singers of The Moonglows. He came to Detroit to be the A&R man for a little, small label called Anna Records, which was Berry Gordy's sister. He and Gwen Gordy, who is Berry Gordy's sister, started a new label called Tri-Fi Records and Harvey Fuqua became The Spinners' first manager. Our first release was called "That's What Girls Are Made For" and that was on the Tri-Fi label and it was a big hit across the country. Marvin Gaye was playing drums on that song. When Harvey came to Detroit, he brought a group with him called Harvey And The New Moonglows and they stayed in Detroit for awhile and then they left, but Marvin Gaye stayed in Detroit. He played drums on our first and I think he played drums on our second. Then, he became a big star at Motown. But Harvey Fuqua was The Spinners first manager.
Q - He knew a lot about management, did he?
A - Well, he did a good job for us. That was like the first manager we had. We was youngsters, so we didn't know that much about the business, but he taught us a lot about the business. The record label failed because of finance. After the first record, "That's What Girls Are For", that was a big hit, they couldn't come up with another hit, so financially they merged with Motown and that's how we got to Motown. But Harvey taught us a lot and put us on the right track in the beginning, in show business. He taught us about the pitfalls and what you're going to run into out there and we worked on putting harmonies together. The Spinners for a long time didn't have a hit record. We worked off our act. When The Beatles were really big, we came up with this idea to do a skit and call ourselves The Brown Beatles. We had guitars made out of wood and a drum set and we would do the song "I Saw Her Standing There". We'd have on wigs and shake our heads and all that stuff. That act went over really big. Billy, the heavy set guy with us, was on drums. In Detroit he was called the name Ringo Starr. The act was so great until we got the hit record "It's A Shame". I don't know if you're familiar with Murry The K.
Q - I am.
A - Well, he used to have these big shows at the Brooklyn Paramount. After we got the hit record "It's A Shame", he had us on the show. So, at rehearsal he wanted to know why we didn't bring the Beatle props to do The Beatles. We figured, hey, we got a hit record now, we don't need to do that. (laughs) He said "Well, wait a minute. That's why I hired you, for the Beatles act." And after that we went on to do imitations, a thing we called The Motown Revue, where we would imitate a lot of Motown acts like The Temptations, The Supremes, The Marvelettes, The Contours. And that went over really big. On our 'live' album, we got a part called "Superstar Medley" and that's after we had hits. We'd start out with Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual' and we'd go into The Marvelettes' "Don't Mess With Bill" and we would do The Inkspots and then we'd do Louie Armstrong's "Hello Dolly" and then we'd end it with Elvis Presley's "You Ain't Nothing But A Hound Dog". And that went over really big. And that's on our 'live' album today.
Q - Did you ever meet Elvis or The Beatles?
A - No, never did. But I was a big fan of theirs. I think The Beatles were some of the greatest writers of all time.
Q - Did you ever meet Frank Sinatra?
A - No. To me, he's one of the great singers too.
Q - The Spinners have been around since 1957?
A - Yeah, around that time. When we started, and I guess other groups too, were thinking Pop wise. When you don't have hit records, you have to do other people's records. We would take like the Hi-Los and The Freshman and listen to their records and try to put our harmony together like on their songs. You know how great they were back in the '60s. And when Harvey came in with his knowledge, it just like put us over the top of what we were trying to do.