After striking out throughout the '60s, including an unsuccessful stint with Motown Records (who never really promoted them properly), The Spinners regrouped by adding (co) lead singer Philippe Wynne and hooking up with producer Thom Bell (who oversaw the sound and wrote some of the songs), after which they proceeded to dominate the r&b and pop charts in the mid-70s. Like Earth, Wind, & Fire, the only other '70s soul group who approached their level of consistent success, The Spinners were unique in that they crafted albums rather than just singles, though in both cases the singles generally provided the highlights of their albums. Spinners, the group's first album with Wynne and Bell, was where the group came into their own, and it contains several of their signature songs, which embodied what came to be known as the "Philly soul" sound. That sound often centered around a lightly funky rhythm, lush string arrangements, symphonic horns, the occasional guitar lick here and there, harmonies that could melt butter, and the smoothly laid-back and/or gritty gospel-based lead vocals of Robert "Bobby" Smith (who sang most of their biggest hits), Wynne, and Henry Fambrough. "Just Can't Get You Out Of My Mind" starts the album off with an effortlessly singable winner that's uplifting despite its sad lyrics, which I often find is the case with this group (and great music in general). Perhaps "Just You And Me Baby" merely offers pleasant ear candy, but it sure sounds good, as does the later "How Could I Let You Get Away," which is all about those aforementioned harmonies. Elsewhere, their jazzy take on Wilson Pickett's "Don't Let The Green Grass Fool You" delivers fine big band fun whose lightheartedness leads into the heavier "I Could Never (Repay Your Love)," a 7-minute Wynne showcase. Sure, it's overly long and not especially exciting, but singers such as Luther Vandross based their whole career on ballads such as this, and it provides a fine platform for a superior singer. Although "We Belong Together" is perhaps a tad too syrupy, it too has a pleasant chorus, and there's simply no denying classic tracks such as "I'll Be Around," "One Of A Kind (Love Affair)," "Ghetto Child," and "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love." I love "I'll Be Around" right from its first percussive note and lonely guitar chord; the chorus is killer, the strings and horns strike just the right balance, and who among us can't relate to the blindly devotional sad sack lyrics (delivered with effortless charm by Smith)? "One Of A Kind (Love Affair)," with its catchy harmonized chorus, is another seemingly effortless delight, while "Ghetto Child" matches typically sumptuous music to socially conscious lyrics. Which brings us to "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love," arguably the band's finest hour (along with "I'll Be Around") as it's simply a perfect soul pop song and a stone cold "Philly soul" classic that ends the album on an upbeat high. All in all, the album has a lightness of tone and an overall fluffiness that prevents me from placing it among the upper pantheon of soul albums, but Spinners is a consistently enjoyable collection of sumptuously addictive melodies and performances that placed the group among the crème de la crème of their limited but seductive style, which may have fallen out of popular fashion (why??) but which still sounds great today.
Mighty Love (Atlantic '74, Rhino ’95) Rating: B+
This was more of the same but not quite as classic as Spinners, though Mighty Love was far from a sophomore slump (I consider Spinners their true debut since the group only hit their stride once Wynne and Bell came on board, joining Smith, Fambrough, Billy Henderson, and Pervis Jackson). The key with the group is in the vocal hooks; Bell and his ace studio band MFSB (unlike Earth, Wind, & Fire, The Spinners were exclusively a vocal group) always supply an impeccably lush and layered sound, and the difference between a good and a great Spinners song depends on how memorable the vocal hook is. There’s no all-time classic like “I’ll Be Around” or “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” here, but this album had several lesser successes (the title cut, "Love Don't Love Nobody," and "I'm Coming Home" all dented the Billboard charts), my favorites of which come at the beginning and end of this concise 8-song album (though the reissue tacks on four inessential bonus tracks). Although “I’m Coming Home” and “Love Has Gone Away” are lightly funky and energetic, most of this similarly themed (song titles: “He’ll Never Love You Like I Do,” “Love Has Gone Away,” “Love Don’t Love Nobody,” “Mighty Love”) album is ballad-heavy, with “I'm Glad You Walked Into My Life” and “He'll Never Love You Like I Do” settling for being pretty ear candy, though again both sound plenty pleasurable while playing. Actually, the aforementioned vocal hooks are there, but they’re more subtle and less easily graspable than on “Since I Been Gone,” on which Wynne’s sense of hurt shines through despite the sprightly singable chorus, and “Ain't No Price On Happiness,” a feel good ballad on which the beat picks up for another catchy chorus. Much like the previous album’s "I Could Never (Repay Your Love)," “Love Don’t Love Nobody” is a 7-minute showcase for Wynne the sophisticated crooner (the backing harmonies also hit the spot), and the song itself is every bit as good as its clever title. Arguably saving the best for last, the title track provides an uplifting finale, as, amid a sea of strings and some roll with the punches philosophizing, a mighty love wins out after some of the previous heartache, thereby both thematically wrapping up the album in a nice bow tie and providing the album with its signature song. Again, unlike Spinners there are few if any truly great songs here, but Mighty Love works extremely well as an album of good to very good songs, as The Spinners continued their winning ways in only slightly less impressive fashion.
Pick Of The Litter (Atlantic '75, Rhino ’95) Rating: B+
The Spinners were a very consistent group in the mid-70s, so Pick Of The Litter, their fourth album after 1974's New And Improved (best known for containing the hit Dionne Warwick duet "Then Came You"), was another strong album that perhaps lacks obvious highlights (aside from the monster hit "They Just Can't Stop It (The Games People Play)") but which works well as a cohesive whole. Maybe it's just me, but the album seems to tell the story of a troubled relationship that ends up resolving itself satisfactorily; at times Bell and the group's assorted hired-hands songwriters resort to corny, sentimental love ballad sloganeering, but by and large the lyrics on The Spinners' albums are thought provoking and resolutely adult, and this album is no exception. Vocally, Smith ("You Made A Promise To Me" - note: she didn't keep it) and Fambrough ("Just As Long As We Have Love") take the spotlight along with guests such as Dionne Warwick again (also "Just As Long As We Have Love") and Barbara Ingram (who provides the seductive answering vocals on "They Just Can't Stop It (The Games People Play)"). As per usual, the album contains a string of strong ballads, my favorite being "Sweet Love Of Mine," a wondrous vocal showcase (with Smith on lead vocals again), but some needed variety comes in the form of more upbeat fare such as "Love Or Leave" (which is admittedly over-long) and "All That Glitters 'Aint Gold," both of which feature distorted guitars (!!), while "Honest I Do" delivers another effortless mid-tempo groove along with one of their by-now customary singable choruses. As per usual, the big hit is the best song here, and is one of the very best in the entire Spinners catalogue (its melody was subtly ripped off by Ray Parker Jr. for his own hit "You Can't Change That"), but Pick Of The Litter is rock solid if not especially exciting all the way through. Among their original studio albums I'd still call Spinners (a minor classic at the very least) their pick of the litter, but this album is a reasonably close second, but really, their very best albums, the ones where their sweetly luxurious sound is accompanied by consistently catchy melodies, are their "greatest hits" packages.
The Very Best Of The Spinners (Rhino '93) Rating: A
Along with the equally formidable production team of Gamble and Huff (The O'Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, etc.), producer/songwriter/arranger Thom Bell, with help from the mighty MFSB Orchestra and lyricist Linda Creed, dominated the r&b and pop charts in the early to mid-70s with the lush, intoxicating sounds of “Philly soul.” Though he did some great work with The Stylistics and The Delfonics, among others, it could be argued that he most consistently hit his target with The Spinners. As previously noted, though I heartily recommend all of the band’s prime mid-70s albums (Spinners through Pick Of The Litter), those of you who want nothing but the best should head right here, as The Very Best Of The Spinners is a no-risk disc containing many of the best soft soul hits of the ‘70s. Sure, I could quibble about certain omissions (“Just Can’t Get You Out Of My Mind” and “Sweet Love Of Mine,” for example), and several of these single versions (“Mighty Love, Pt. 1,” "They Just Can't Stop It (The Games People Play)," “Love Don’t Love Nobody”) are noticeably edited from their full-length album versions, but how can you really argue against an album that strings together such enduring songs as “I'll Be Around,” “Could It Be I'm Falling in Love,” “One of a Kind (Love Affair),” “Then Came You,” "They Just Can't Stop It (The Games People Play)," and “Rubberband Man” back to back to back? This album even includes their most successful Motown song, "It's A Shame" (from 1970), and classic hits from their more hit-and-miss later albums, including their fresh disco updates of oldies medleys “Working My Way Back To You/Forgive Me, Girl” and “Cupid/I've Loved You for a Long Time,” which brought them further chart success even after Wynne left the group in 1977 for a solo career (his replacement John Edwards sang lead on those songs). At their best, the MFSB Orchestra’s detailed, lush music meshed perfectly with the group's accomplished lead vocals and lilting harmonies, creating luxuriant easy listening pleasures that still sound oh so right today. Simply put, this 16-track, single cd retrospective hits most of the obvious high points; those who want to dig deeper should check out the individual albums or the also excellent 2-cd compilation One of a Kind Love Affair — The Anthology.
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