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Spinners singer Bobbie Smith dead at 76

By Todd Leopold, CNN
March 22, 2013 -- Updated 1323 GMT (2123 HKT)
The Spinners in 1977. Clockwise, from left: Pervis Jackson, Billy Henderson, Jonathan Edwards, Bobbie Smith and Henry Fambrough.
The Spinners in 1977. Clockwise, from left: Pervis Jackson, Billy Henderson, Jonathan Edwards, Bobbie Smith and Henry Fambrough.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bobbie Smith, sang lead on many Spinners hits, died Saturday
  • Smith's vocals top "I'll Be Around," "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love"
  • Spinners have been called "the greatest soul group of the early '70s"
  • Group formed in Detroit area in '50s; many members stayed for decades

(CNN) -- Bobbie Smith, who as a member of the Spinners sang lead on such hits as "I'll Be Around" and "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," has died. He was 76.

Smith died Saturday of complications of pneumonia and the H1N1 flu virus, according to a statement from Nat Burgess, the Spinners' manager.

The Spinners were one of the longest-lived bands in pop music, with the core of the group having formed in the 1950s. Three members of the group -- Smith, Willy Henderson and Pervis Jackson -- met in a Detroit-area high school, and were later joined by Henry Fambrough and C.P. Spencer.

It was Smith who came up with the name, he told Gary James of classicbands.com.

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"All my life I loved cars," he said. People "would round off the front, the hood or change the grille. They would lower 'em in the back. They called 'em bubble skirts and in the front they would have these big chrome hub caps. Cadillac hubcaps, and they called 'em spinners. So that's how we got the name ... from a hubcap."

The group was signed to a small local label, Tri-Phi, by R&B legend Harvey Fuqua and his soon-to-be wife, Gwen Gordy. Tri-Phi was later taken over by Motown, owned by Gordy's brother, Berry.

An early hit, "That's What Girls Are Made For," featured Smith on lead vocals.

But the Spinners never found their niche at Motown, often working around the office while other male vocal groups on the label -- including the Four Tops, the Temptations and the Miracles -- went on to major success.

"When we were at Motown and we had a hit, we wouldn't get another record released for another year. So now you're playing catch-up," Smith told James. "When you get a hit, you gotta keep popping 'em out there, you know. And so, we felt like we got lost in the shuffle at Motown."

Musicians knew who they were, though, thanks to the group's showmanship. In the liner notes to "The Chrome Collection," a 2003 boxed set, David Bowie credits the group with the best show he ever saw.

Even a Stevie Wonder-produced 1970 hit, "It's a Shame," didn't help the group at Motown, which had by then assigned them to a minor subsidiary called VIP. The label let them go not long after.

Thanks to advice from fan Aretha Franklin, the Spinners soon got another chance, with Atlantic Records. More importantly, in Thom Bell they had a producer who catered to their musical strengths. Bell was also responsible for arranging or producing a huge number of songs at the Philadelphia International label, owned by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

"His way of producing was top of the line," Henderson told CNN in 2003. (Henderson died in 2007.) "With Bell, everything was designed for us."

For the next several years, it was hit after hit: "I'll be Around," "One of a Kind (Love Affair)," "Then Came You" (with Dionne Warwick), "The Rubberband Man," and "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love." Smith split the lead vocal duties with Philippe Wynne.

"We had always been promised (by Motown) that, 'This is your year,' " Henderson recalled. Atlantic "moved us into a new circle."

Critics agreed.

"The Spinners were the greatest soul group of the early '70s, creating a body of work that defined the lush, seductive sound of Philly soul," wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine on Allmusic.com.

Despite occasional changes, the band was remarkably long-lived. After Wynne left the band in 1977 (he died in 1984), various combinations of Smith, Henderson, Jackson, Fambrough and "It's a Shame" vocalist G.C. Cameron toured with the Spinners into the early 2000s.

Overall, the band had seven top 10 singles and five gold albums. The Spinners were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999 and have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Smith was diagnosed with lung cancer last November, according to the statement. Among his final requests was "to make people aware of his cancer, so as to once again bring to the forefront the many dangers of smoking."

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