Henry Fambrough says he could never think about being without the Spinners


By Steve Newton

The last time the Spinners were in Vancouver was way back in the sixties, when they came through here with the Marvin Gaye Revue. But lovers of the group’s unmistakable brand of funky R&B still have a chance to catch the spirit of the near-legendary vocal quintet at the Plazazz Showroom in the International Plaza Hotel.

They began a two-week engagement at the luxurious North Shore venues last Monday, and will be displaying their soulful dance steps and what baritone Henry Fambrough calls “happy love music” right on through to the end of the month.

The Spinners were formed in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan over 25 years ago by Fambrough, tenors Bobby Smith and Billy Henderson, and bass Pervis Jackson. After signing with Tri-Phi Records in 1961 they recorded their first single, “That’s What Girls are Made For”, and when Tri-Phi merged with Motown in ’64 they had their first hit with “Sweet Thing”.

In 1972 the Spinners, at the urging of Aretha Franklin, left Motown for Atlantic Records, and with the help of producer Thom Bell recorded a string of hits that included “Then Came You”, “The Rubberband Man”, and “One Of a Kind (Love Affair).” St. Louis-born John Edwards, who during the early ’70s had recorded several regional R&B hits, became an unofficial member of the Spinners in 1975, filling in for ill members on tour in January of 1977 to become the fifth full-time Spinner.

During their lengthy career the Spinners have received several Grammy nominations, the NAACP Image Award (for “Then Came You”), and the inscribing of their name on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

I contacted Spinner Henry Fambrough at the Playboy Club in Atlantic City last week, and gleaned a few insights into one of North America’s longest-lasting vocal groups.

Who were you listening to and being influenced by before forming the Spinners?

Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows. Back in that era groups were the main attraction, and they were one of our favourites, them and the Hi-Lo’s. The Hi-Lo’s were jazz singers; there were four of them. We used to listen to them a lot also.

Along the way, just music itself influences us because we love it so much. We love just about every form of music that you can mention. Talking for myself, I listen to just about everything–spirituals, jazz, you know. Sometimes classical music is very relaxing.

How do you think the R&B scene has changed in the 25 years the Spinners have been together?

It’s up and changed two or three times. I noticed that when we first started out most of the groups and singers were just using the rhythms and one or two horns. Then it came into the sixties when they started using horns and organ and strings. And after that Motown–we were with Motown for a little while–had an altogether different sound.

Going into the seventies the disco thing came into view, and now you go into the eighties and you’ve got another music change, which is going all the way back to the early sixties and latter part of the fifties, only with updated instrumentation.

This is why you have a lot of remakes now that have been so popular. They go back and get those songs that were recorded in the early sixties and shape them into what is happening today. That goes to show you that the music goes around in a circle. Like in the future they might start dropping some of these horns and strings and just go with the rhythm again. You never know.

Black music goes right along with the rest of it now. Sometimes you can’t tell them apart. Back in the early sixties and latter part of the fifties there was a big difference in pop music and Black R&B. You could tell right away. But now, the way the young mind has been used together here in the eighties, it’s hard to tell them apart.

What about the Spinners themselves. Have they changed much over the years?

We haven’t changed style-wise; we still have the same basic harmony. The only thing that maybe has changed from the olden days up to now is the instrumentation of the music we do. In the early days we didn’t have a lot of string and things, but now we use strings and a wide variety of instruments in our recording.

It all depends on the producer, whatever he wants to use to enhance the song he is producing at the time. You have to have a producer who will stay up with what is changing, ’cause if you’re not current, you’re not selling records.

Why don’t the Spinners write more of their own songs?

We write a little bit, but we’re not into it to the point where we have produced our own album yet. We’re not that heavy into writing because writing is a full-time job. You have to do a lot of research and you have to pick and choose. It’s a twenty-four-hour job because most writers, they are always thinking.

We’re on the road about 85 percent of the year, and being on the road and performing all the time, our minds are not geared to producing and writing. I guess we could do it if we just buckled ourselves down, but right now we’re not in that direction.

How does all that traveling affect your personal life?

Oh not at all, not at all. My personal life is fantastic. I have a career wife, and I have a little girl. I’m not at home like I would like to be but her being a career lady, she is busy also.

Do you do your own choreography?

We do sometimes, and when we have show tunes like “Fascinating Rhythm” and things like that we have Charlie Atkins, out of Las Vegas, to do things for us. And Billy has a son who is a very good dancer, so he teaches us a lot of the up-to-date dances.

Has your dancing changed much over the years?

Dancing has changed a lot since the time we first started out, but our choreography hasn’t changed much because space-dancing pretty much stays the same. When you come to stuff like Soul Train dancing, or American Bandstand, those kinds of dancing will change from year to year.

How did you get the name Spinners?

Well our first name was Domingos, but when we would go on the stage announcers would just glance at our name and get it mixed up with so many others. So we sat down and got everybody to make up some names. Bobby is the one who thought of the name Spinners because he likes cars–in fact he’s a collector–and back at the time the Cadillac has some beautiful hubcaps. They were beautiful man, and everybody was trying to get them to put on their cars. And they were called spinners, so everybody just kind of fell into that name.

What’s it like singing with the same people for a quarter of a century?

It’s fantastic! When we first started out we made a lot of mistakes, but one thing that we did was make a bond between ourselves that we were going to stick with it regardless of what happens. If we made it good, and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t make it together. But we did; over the years it just turned into a good marriage.

I hope we can be like the Mills Brothers and just sing as long as we can. ‘Cause it’s part of us now, you know. It’s like my right arm. I could never think I would be without it.


To hear the full audio of my 1983 interview with Henry Fambrough of the Spinners subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 275 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

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…with hundreds more to come

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