I’ve not taken a look at the US R&B charts from 50 years ago this week for some time & this time around I need look no further than the Top 3 of the Cash Box R&B Top 60 of November 4th 1972 for my selections. All three were also included in the Top 10 of the US Pop chart for this week – big hits then, you probably know them.
The Spinners, five friends from Ferndale, Michigan, got together in 1954. Almost a decade later the group was taken to Tamla Motown by their label boss Harvey Fuqua where, despite making some fine records, found that there was only space for one five man vocal group on the label & that would be the Temptations. They neither established their individuality nor achieved commercial success & were even working as roadies, chauffeurs & chaperones for other acts before Stevie Wonder handed the group “It’s A Shame”, not only their biggest hit but also one of their final 45s for the label. There were nine different producers employed on the 1970 album “Second Time Around”, their contract was not renewed & they moved on. G.C. Cameron, the lead on “It’s A Shame” chose to stay & his cousin Phillipe Wynne stepped in to join Bobby Smith & Henry Fambrough as one of three lead vocalists. No offence to G.C. but this turned out to be a smart Spinner move.
With the raised profile & goodwill from their 1970 Atlantic were waiting to sign the group. They were matched with producer Thom Bell whose work at Sigma Sound Studio, along with Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, was making the Sound of Philadelphia a very big thing. Atlantic, hoping to catch the wave of Bell’s slow heartbreak hits with the Delfonics & the Stylistics, released “How Could I Let You Get Away” as their first single but it was the uptempo b-side that caught the ear & “I’ll Be Around” hit the #1 spot on the R&B chart this week in 1972. The Spinners were as sharp & contemporary as their album, released in 1973, which produced three Gold records, four Top 10 R&B 45s. They they were, as you can see from the live clip, ready for success. With Bobby & Phillipe’s distinctive leads backed by great harmonies, slick dance moves & Thom Bell’s talent as a writer/producer they became one of the most celebrated vocal groups of the decade. .
Bill Withers was in his 30s before he recorded his debut album. There had been 9 years service in the US Navy before settling in Los Angeles, working a day job at Boeing to finance his demo tapes. “Just As I Am” (1971), produced by Booker T Jones (off of the M.G.s), included the single “Ain’t No Sunshine”, a crossover to the Pop chart million seller. Booker T had called on his friends to play on the record & for the follow-up Bill brought in the L.A. musicians who had played on his demos. Ray Jackson (keyboards/arrangements), Benorce Blackmon (guitar), Melvin Dunlap (bass) & drummer James Gadson’ all previously members of Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band, shared a production credit on “Still Bill” (1972) & joined him on the road when Bill started his new full-time musician’s job.
This new unit made “Still Bill” a better record than the debut, adding a very cool in-the-pocket groove to mature, emotionally expressive songs that certainly connected to the record-buying public & earned Bill a place at Soul’s top table. “Lean On Me”, you know it, was a Platinum #1 Pop hit & now the smooth, insistent, resistance is useless, sinuous funk of “Use Me” was #2 on the R&B charts. “Live At Carnegie Hall” (1973) showed an accord between a great band enhancing the sincerity & geniality of a great singer that was life-affirming. A later move to a major record company proved to be less to Bill’s taste. The records are still warm & individual, there were still hits, but a production gloss moved him away from his original sound & the company often rejected tracks while making inappropriate suggestions for material & he stepped away from recording. For the rest of his life Bill Withers remained a grounded, wise, humble & gracious man. He had written songs that endured for the ages. “Ain’t No Sunshine” has been covered more than 350 times, “Lean On Me” & “Just the Two of Us” both more than 100, I’m guessing the regular royalty cheques from these classics helped him along the way.
Curtis Mayfield was just 16 when his group the Impressions had their first hit in 1958. In his hometown Chicago, as part of the talent gathered by Carl Davis at Okeh Records, he integrated his Gospel & Doo Wop roots into commercial Soul with rare songwriting skill. In 1961 the rather perfect “Gypsy Woman” was a big hit for the Impressions. Like many young black men Curtis had a developing awareness of the issues facing his race in the 1960s & this was reflected in lyrics expressing his concerns & aspirations. 1964’s “Keep On Pushing” & the following year’s “People Get Ready” were written as anthems & adopted by the Civil Rights movement. He was also navigating his way around the business of music & in 1968 he started his label Curtom with an album release by the Impressions & a firm eye on his own solo career.
On “Curtis” (1970) he revelled in his new artistic freedom. Songs like “Move On Up”, “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” & “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going to Go” were lyrically more profound while the upbeat rhythms, strings & brass of Chicago Soul were stretched by his understanding of the new progressive sounds of Black American music. The record was an artistic breakthrough & a commercial success. “Shaft” (1971) was not the first significant contribution to Black cinema but its box-office success & that of Isaac Hayes’ score really started something, a new wave of “blaxploitation” movies all with their own funky soundtrack. By the end of the decade most major black artists had entered the field but few achieved the standard set by Curtis Mayfield’s “Super Fly”” (1972) (I’m thinking Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”). Youngblood Priest was no “black private dick”, he was a cocaine dealer looking for one last big score. Curtis’ new gritty realism suited the neo-noir story as did the expanded musical palette & ambition of himself & arranger Johnny Pate. “Freddie’s Dead”,appears in the movie as an instrumental but when released, with lyrics, ahead of the film, it was gold records & Grammy nominations all round.They, the 45 & the album, are landmark records. 50 years ago this week “Freddie’s Dead” stood at #3 on the R&B chart.
Well, that’s some Top 3, a Golden Age of Soul or what? The Spinners, Bill Withers & Curtis Mayfield all made records that abide after half a century. Next time I’ll dig a little deeper, hit the lower reaches of the Top 60 where there are some pretty good records too. I’ll end with a live performance of “Freddie’s Dead”, stripped of the orchestral brass & string atmospherics, driven by the bass of Joseph “Lucky” Scott, the percussion of “Master” Henry Gibson, a man I don’t know on wah-wah guitar & the authentic star power of Curtis Mayfield. “Hey, hey. Love, love. Yeah, yeah”.