Over the weekend the R&B world lost yet another vital voice--Bobbie Smith, the lead singer of the 1970s group the Spinners. The band scored an impressive number of hits, often anchored by Smith's distinctive vocals: "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," "One of a Kind (Love Affair)," "Then Came You" (a duet with Dionne Warwick), and "Games People Play," just to name a few. Few songs encapsulate the Spinners' knack for recording R&B songs with widespread appeal like "I'll Be Around," a hit that succeeds in large part due to Smith's lead vocal.
Originally from Detroit, Michigan, original members Smith, Pervis Jackson, George W. Dixon, Billy Henderson, and Henry Fambrough first met in high school in 1957. They subsequently formed a doo-wop group, the Domingoes, and four years later attracted the attention of producer Harvey Fuqua, who signed them to his Tri-Phi label. A couple years later Motown purchased the small company, thus making the now-Spinners official Motown artists. However, other than the 1970 hit "It's A Shame," the group simply did not fit in. The Spinners gained new life two years later, when they signed with Atlantic (and underwent personnel changes). Under producer Thom Bell's guidance, the group entered their most fruitful period, with Smith often leading the band in vocals. This new era kicked off with the 1972 hit "I'll be Around."
Bell, a top producer/songwriter, played an instrumental role in the rise of the Philly Sound. He worked as an arranger for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia International Records label, and experienced success penning the Delfonics' hits "La La Means I Love You" and "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)." By 1972 he was paired with the Spinners, and had co-authored a song entitled "I'll Be Around." The song's arrangement is laid back and deceptively simple, but a close listen reveals the intricate inter-workings of the horns, strings, drums, guitars, bass, and, of course, the Spinners' harmonies.
The track begins with an elegant guitar riff, followed by bongos. As the other instruments gradually enter the picture, Smith's clear voice resounds, narrating the end of a love affair."This is our fork in the road / Love's last episode / There's nowhere to go," he croons. He gracefully accepts apparent defeat through the lines "You made your choice / Now it's up to me to bow out gracefully." Yet he clearly carries a torch for her; this hopeful change in tone is signaled by Smith's higher-pitched singing of "But baby!" The refrain allows the other four to join in, blending perfectly on the title phrase.
As the strings and horns reach a crescendo in the instrumental break, the Philly Sound rings through. The lush, romantic arrangement typifies the genre that Bell helped create. In addition, the percussion integrates bongos to lend "I'll be Around" a slightly Latin feel. All of these elements add up to a song that still sounds distinctive, a soul track that is a true original.
Smith's role in the Spinners cannot be overestimated. His voice had a malleable quality that allowed him to dramatize the situation, to completely assume the protagonist's role with just his singing. He never "oversang" or tried to impress listeners with his range on every single note. Instead, Smith understood that sometimes soul means artful restraint--in other words, let the words do the work, not just vocal technique. Smith will be missed, but his recordings with the Spinners will remain legendary.