The Spinners: Celebrating 20 Years…
By David Nathan
February 1976, in person interview in Los Angeles
The Spinners have racked up their second decade in the music biz and that's a long gig, man, in anybody's lingo. David Nathan talked to group member Pervis Jackson — and baked the birthday cake……
Currently celebrating their illustrious 20th year in the music business are a group of gentlemen who, in the last couple of years, have placed themselves very firmly on top of the musical world with their combination of soul and talent. There can be few people around who are unaware of the tremendous impact that The Spinners have made since they first joined Atlantic Records back in 1972 and began a relationship with mastermind Thom Bell which has seen them consistently score on the pop and r&b charts not only within the States but in many countries around the world.
Certainly after their relatively silent years at Motown, the group have emerged as heavyweights and their sheer professionalism — something that they've obviously perfected over the two decades — earmarks the team as likely to be around for a long, long time. We got the opportunity to talk with Spinner Pervis, during the group's short stay in Los Angeles which began with Atlantic Records' gala party to celebrate the group's anniversary as well as the re-signing to the company and culminated in a standing-room-only knockout concert at The Forum in Inglewood.
Pervis recalled warmly the very beginnings of the group back in the mid-fifties: "Well, as I remember, I was around at Billy [Fambrough]'s house in Detroit and we were watching television. There was a programme in Detroit then on Channel 7 called "Saturday Night", hosted by Ed McKenzie and they always had a lot of professional talent. But there was also an amateur spot which lasted for some five minutes, with the winner judged on the audience applause. We noticed that a group nearly always won — back then, groups were the big thing. So we decided to get together and win a trophy!
"We needed a baritone voice for the group — which back then consisted of Bobby, Billy and myself — and I knew Henry lived three doors down. He used to go to church every Sunday with a guitar, so I figured that he'd be the right guy. So I approached him with the idea and he agreed — and I came to find out that he only took the guitar to church and couldn't play a lick!"
Even back then, The Spinners were winners and needless to say, they went on the show and won a trophy in double quick time! That opened the doors for the group to start working locally and Pervis recalled vividly that their first regular gig was in the Royal Oak township "at a place called the Glen Lodge Bar. The Mayor of the township owned the club so, although we weren't all of age, we had no problem working in there."
Not too long after the group had expanded to five with the addition of Chico Edwards and were pacted with Motown. "I guess it was around 1966 that we got G. C. Cameron in — he replaced Chico, who had decided to go his own way. We met G.C. actually through Dennis Edwards of The Temptations. As soon as we heard him, we knew he was the right guy for us and he stayed until 1971 when he decided to go out on his own. That was when Philippe joined us.
"In fact, he'd been in Germany for a couple of years and came back home — over there, he'd been the vocalist with a group called The Afro-Kings. Well, he was on his way back to Cincinatti and he happened to be really close friends with the Cameron family. He'd heard that one of the family was sick in hospital in Detroit and stopped by to see him when another member of the family told him that we were looking for a new singer as G.C. had decided to leave.
"The funny thing was that Philippe had more or less decided to quit singing then and he'd never been with a group but he decided to come along to the audition. Right away, as soon as we heard him singing "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" we decided he was the one. I guess that was at the latter part of '71 after we'd left Motown."
Reflecting on those days, Pervis says they were hard "but you learn that when times are hard, you buckle down and get to it! That's why we're able to deal with what's happening to us now. But we learnt a lot from then. We used to spend a lot of time in Motown's artist development department because back then, we didn't work a great deal.
"We worked with Harvey Fuqua, [choreographer] Cholly Atkins, a lady named Mrs. Maxine Powell, and Mr. Maurice King, who is now The Spinners' musical conductor and director. I must say, at this point, that as far as we're concerned, he is the very best and he's actually been travelling with us for four years now — since we joined Atlantic."
During their time with Motown, the group got the opportunity to work with one of the legends of our time, Mr. Stevie Wonder. "Yes, we used to travel a good deal with Stevie and he took an interest in the group — the result of which was "It's A Shame". But back then, we used to get to work with a lot of new producers because most of the really hot guys were working with the hot acts!"
No sooner had the guys linked their names to a recording pact with Atlantic in 1973 than they too were hot! "We'd had offers from a few companies — Stax, Avco, CBS — but we decided to opt for Atlantic. One of the reasons was certainly that one of our closest and dearest friends was already with the company. Aretha (Franklin) had in fact really helped us through — she put us on her show for nearly a whole year whilst we were between contracts and believe me, that really helped us out!"
Originally, it was intended that another ex-Motowner, Jimmy Roach, was going to produce the first four sides on the group — three of which, incidentally, had been written by Philippe Wynn — but fate had it another way when Atlantic asked if the group would object to working with another producer. The 'other producer' turned out to be Thom Bell, who had already notched up smash after smash with The Delfonics, The Stylistics and numerous other acts who had profited from the magical Bell touch.
Apparently, Thom had scanned a list of artists submitted by Atlantic and plumped for the very last name on the page stating that he'd remembered The Spinners from his earlier years as piano player at Philadelphia's Uptown Theater. "What happened then was that Thom came to Detroit and Billy and I picked him up at the airport. He said at the time that he was 'scared of us'. Meaning, I guess, that he remembered what we'd sounded like back then. Well, we started out by rehearsing with him — he had us each sing any song of our choice and he went away with a tape of our individual voices, telling us that he thought we were going to be the No. 1 group! Well, you know how it is — people are always making those kind of promises and statements so we took it with a pinch of salt! But the man turned out to be right on target!"
That, of course, is somewhat of an understatement because the very first four sides that Mr. Bell cut on The Spinners yielded two gold records and Pervis recollected how initially, "How Could I Let You Get Away" had taken off with DJs. all across the country later flipping it to "I'll Be Around" giving the group a double-sided hit with their first Atlantic release. "What Thom did was put down the rhythm tracks in Philly and we recorded our vocals in Detroit. But, since then, of course we've recorded down there. To be honest with you, none of us had any idea that things would work out the way they have. It's just been really fantastic. Working with Thom is really an experience, too. He's truly a genius — he knows what he wants to hear and he gets it. The man is a producer's producer, a true musician. And, as importantly, he's a fine human being — really great to work with."
Since the Spinners-Thom Bell-Atlantic combination began — and we should make mention of the group's hard-working manager, Mr. Buddy Allen at this juncture — they've scored hit after hit and Pervis stated that with each gold record "we've wanted just one more! It's like always having something to shoot for. Before, we were full of hopes and dreams and now, all those things have become reality — it's a strange feeling. But we still have a good deal that we want to achieve. There's movies, television — trips overseas. We're preparing to go to the Far East and back to Europe, of course. That's one thing that really stands out in my mind — the warmth of people over there. But there is still so much ahead for us — we just want to do as much as possible. We want to maintain our consistency as far as our recording career is concerned and if we're extremely lucky we just might catch a Grammy one day! As you may know, we performed at last year's and we felt very proud just to be nominated. But winning one would be really something too!"
Possibly, The Spinners will come out with a Grammy winner from their next album. "We've begun working on our next sessions — Thom brought us some thirty or thirty-five songs to go through. We should start recording some time in March — which will be our first studio sessions since we did "Pick Of The Litter" and "New & Improved". "Yes, we did those at the same time because originally, it was supposed to be a double album made of all those tracks. But then, we had the "Live" album as a double instead." No doubt, several smash hits will emerge from those upcoming sessions but meanwhile, The Spinners continue to thrill audiences everywhere with their fantastic 'live' performances.
They still include their renowned impersonations — Pervis noting that they've now added The Mills Brothers to that segment, which presently incorporates Spinners' take-offs on The Supremes, The Marvelettes, Tom Jones and Elvis Presley amongst others. "We'll also be adding a special tribute to Duke Ellington in the very near future — in fact, Mr. King, our conductor, is currently working on that and we should have it ready for our March Ist opening at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey." That particular venue is an example of some of the places that The Spinners play these days — they've played several dates at Las Vegas' hotels but they continue to do concerts on a regular basis — "we're probably on the road for about 80% of the year".
As Pervis sees it, the group will just continue to grow and be successful — "I can never see a time coming when we'll just stop, although as we get older, I guess we'll slow down somewhat. But we are in this business to stay, there's no doubt about that!"
Although the group are unquestionably very much into their music, they are nevertheless aware of what's happening around them and, symptomatic of their concern for everyone, they just started their own special Spinners scholarship fund which will enable one underprivileged young person to go through college for four years, with The Spinners footing the bill. "We feel that it's a way of saying thank you to the people for all they've done to put us where we are."