Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Spinners: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part IX

The Spinners, best known for their string of smooth R&B hits throughout the early 1970s, were actually a Motown act for the entire decade of the 1960s. The group dates back to 1954, when Henry Fambrough and four other dudes began singing together just outside Detroit; Fambrough, incredibly enough, is still with the touring Spinners today. He's 77, and has been a Spinner for more than 50 years.

The Spinners reached the Top Forty just twice in the 1960s: with "That's What Girls Are Made Of" in 1961, and "I'll Always Love You" in 1966. They had a bit of a breakthrough in 1970, when the Stevie Wonder-written and -produced "It's a Shame" became their first Top Twenty hit (funny how Stevie keeps coming up in these essays).

Three things changed for the Spinners in 1972:  Obviously not a priority for Motown, they jumped to Atlantic at the recommendation of Aretha Franklin. At Atlantic, they were paired with the producer Thom Bell. And Philippe Wynne joined the group, becoming the de facto lead singer.

For the next five years, the Spinners were the most successful R&B vocal group in the nation, both in terms of hits and in terms of cultural impact. Ironically, for a former Motown group that had its roots in Detroit, they helped define the Philly Soul sound, and they had five Top Ten hits, including the Number One smash "Then Came You," with Dionne Warwick.

Wynne left the group in 1977 for a solo career (to be managed by Alan Thicke!), and with the Philly sound fading in popularity, that was pretty much it for the Spinners. They did manage a couple of Top Five hits in 1980 with medleys of older R&B songs, and they have continued as a touring act to this very day. But for all intents and purposes, the Spinners' Hall of Fame case rests on that 1972-76 peak.

It was an impressive stretch, but not really Hall-worthy, in my opinion. For one thing, the Spinners weren't all that involved in creating their own records: They didn't write or produce at all, at least not any of their hits. When that's the case, you need more of a catalog than what the Spinners had. With all due respect to Henry Fambrough, I vote NO for the Spinners. I was always more of a Stylistics man, anyway.


6 comments:

  1. Sadly, I concur, and I say that as somebody who's been a fan for over 40 years. But your analysis gets at something I have recently noticed. The Hall seems to prefer creators over interpreters, unless those interpreters are women (Linda Ronstadt for one, and even Aretha Franklin, who wrote only a fraction of her hits, IIRC).

    Or am I wrong about that?

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  2. Elvis would be the obvious male counterexample, although you can't imagine a Hall of Fame without Elvis. The other obvious exception is vocal groups: The Supremes, the Temptations, the Platters, the Drifters, etc.

    It's an interesting question, one I was hoping to delve into at some point in this series, although I haven't managed to do so yet. My sense is that there's a dividing line, where earlier artists weren't really expected to write their own material, but we really need to honor the records of, say, the Shirelles, so they get in. As time went on and the Beatles-Dylan revolution happened, with artists providing more of their own material, it became a black mark to rely on outside writers and producers. Thus we have no Three Dog Night, no Fifth Dimension, no Johnny Rivers (all of whom I'd vote for).

    My position is that the primary criterion here is the quality of the recorded material. Three Dog Night made a lot of great records, and I would prefer to judge them on that work rather than downgrade them for having the good sense to record songs by people who weren't in the group, people like Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson.

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  3. Thank you for your very interesting series. I just wrote an article about your HOF votes on my music blog that you can find HERE

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  4. "For the next five years, the Spinners were the most successful R&B vocal group in the nation, both in terms of hits and in terms of cultural impact."
    and
    "For one thing, the Spinners weren't all that involved in creating their own records: They didn't write or produce at all, at least not any of their hits."
    Who cares if they wrote their own hits? The great Stylistics didn't either. Only thing that matters is how good those records are. For 5 years the Spinners were as solid as R&B vocal groups got.
    Your last paragraph in your comment above kind of sums up how strange your No vote is. Three Dog Night, who I'd support for the Hall, also didn't write their hits. But you would vote for them.
    If the Spinners are nominated again in the future, please rethink your position.

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  5. My feeling is that though we are for the most part voting on the quality of the records, everything counts. I think the Spinners' chart run puts them in the conversation, and if they had very much else going for them, that would help their case. If Phillippe Wynne had written and produced all those great hits, even though that's not really what I'm focused on, that would help their case. But he didn't.

    As far as Three Dog Night goes, yes, they didn't write songs either. But:

    a) Their chart run, with nine Top Five hits and three Number Ones, was more impressive than the Spinners'.

    b) While they didn't write, they found classic songs by little-known (at the time) writers like Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson and Paul Williams. That impresses me a lot.

    c) Three Dog Night, with three singers and four other musicians, made pretty much all the sounds on their record, as opposed to the Spinners, who were purely a vocal group. They deserve more credit for the quality of the songs they recorded than the Spinners do.

    d) Three Dog Night was more distinctive, as a white rock band with three lead singers, which had never been done before (at least at this level of success). The Spinners were a great R&B vocal group, but there was nothing very original about them.

    None of those things by itself would make the difference, but added up, to me, they push Three Dog Night well ahead of the Spinners.

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  6. You do know the difference in vocal groups between the "lead singer", i.e., the highest tenor vocal, like Phillip Wynne was, and the person singing lead, like Bobby Smith, who actually sang the lead on most of the Spinners' hits that we love? Most people don't. Most experts don't. I didn't even know about that until someone steeped in the Spinners came over to my message board and started posting about it. Check it out. It's true.

    As to their importance, well, Elton John used them, Dionne Warwick collaborated with them, David Bowie and Elvis Costello praise them, Costello even joined John Hiatt in covering "Living A Little, Laughing A Little", they loved them so much, they're heavily sampled (rap being one of the prominent genres of today), and if you compare their 17 top 40 hits to the 10 top 40 hits of the Stylistics, I'm sorry to say but you'll have a harder time picking a better group to represent Thom Bell's production. That doesn't even get into all the acts who have covered their songs. And can you see your way to Luther Vandross without the Spinners? Maybe?

    As for not writing their own hits, are you going to kick out the inducted O'Jays? No? If not, please cut the Spinners the same slack you'd cut the O'Jays on that issue.

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