“The singer is the star: my job is to create the music.”
Thom Bell (Spinners’ producer and the greatest record man of the 1970s. Also possibly the wisest.)
One of the principal themes of this blog has been the promotion of the idea–or, if you will, the obvious but too often neglected truth–that rock and roll was principally a singer’s music. The rock division of the crit-illuminati who sprang up in the late sixties and whose members have dominated the conversation ever since has generally been willing to promote writers, producers, instrumentalists and even session players at the expense of singers (unless, of course, the singers can qualify on one of the other counts, in which case they become true “creators” and therefore, cool again).
Part of this is understandable. In the collaborative, often “assembly line” nature of music making, singers have often been easily (if lazily) relegated to the similarly maligned and misunderstood role of actors in the movie business. They’re out front. They’re obvious. They’re most likely to be noticed and/or adored by the uncritical masses. And, hey, aren’t they really just breathing in time or something?
We all know the drill..
Now, there’s nobody walking the earth, today or ever, who appreciates the other kinds of genius that found their voices in rock and roll–James Jamerson and Hal Blaine very specifically included–than yours truly.
But without the singers none of us would have ever had the chance to celebrate the rest.
Singers sell the records. Singers set the styles.
And singers move the mountains.
I doubt any singer got less credit for moving more mountains than Bobby Smith, the principal lead of an aggregation variously called The Detroit Spinners, The Spinners and just….Spinners, for more than five decades.
Even within his own group he was often seen as taking second place to the more heavily publicized Philippe Wynne (a co-equal genius who nonetheless often received credit for Smith’s vocals even in the liner notes of the group’s actual albums) and Jonathan Edwards (a powerhouse of the group’s last really popular period).
The others were great singers and dynamic showmen. But it was Smith who took the majority of leads on the group’s great hits, Smith who produced more of their defining moments than anyone else and Smith who held the center in the seventies, when Spinners were the greatest vocal group of the last decade when the human voice still trumped the machines and that distinction actually meant something.
Time came for Bobby Smith on March 16. Well, for his body anyway.
It will never come for this: