Get On Up Get On Down (Soul January 30th 1971)

The artist celebrating his first #1 record on the Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations 50 years ago this week was 53 years old, had made his recording debut more than 20 years before, his experiences reaching back to the days of Black minstrelsy, touring the Southern states in travelling tent shows. Rufus Thomas was a legend in his home city Memphis, his show “Hoot & Holler” (“We’re feeling gay though we ain’t got a dollar, Rufus is here, so hoot and holler.”) on WDIA, the city’s premier African-American radio station, played the latest, hippest R&B, in 1953 his record “Bear Claw” was the first hit for Sun Records & he was involved with the Stax organisation when it was still called Satellite. It was his 17 year old daughter Carla who had that label’s first hit & Rufus, who had seen it all, was a mentor to the singers & musicians attracted to 926 E McLemore Ave.

Rufus Thomas at home in Memphis wearing his outfit from the Watt Stax  concert 1973 Stock Photo - Alamy

Here in the UK Rufus was known for his biggest record before “Push & Pull”. 1963’s “Walking the Dog” was covered on the Rolling Stones’ debut LP & included in the set of every teenage band moving from Mersey Beat to Mod R&B. There were 4 “Dog” tracks & then his records had less impact though I have to include here 1968’s outstanding “The Memphis Train”, used in Jim Jarmusch’s appreciation of the city “Mystery Train”. Booker T & the M.G.s propel the song like only they can, the Memphis Horns do their thing & producer Steve Cropper’s guitar stings like a bee. It was another dance record that put Rufus back on the chart when “Do the Funky Chicken”, his only hit this side of the Atlantic, dropped in 1969. His energetic, entertaining encouragements to get on up & get on down backed by hard-edged Funk were back in style & “The World’s Oldest Teenager” entered the most successful period of his long career.

Rufus Thomas - Modus House of Soul

“(Do The) Push & Pull” had first been recorded for the album “Rufus Thomas Live: Doing the Push & Pull at P.J.’s” (L.A.’s first discotheque, corner of Santa Monica Blvd & North Crescent Heights Blvd, you know it). The single version, backed by the Isaac Hayes Band featuring the chiming guitar of Michael Toles, packs a little more pace & punch. Apart from the odd clunker the album “Did You Heard Me” finds Rufus & the band on fine form & further instructions for “The Breakdown” & to “Do the Funky Penguin” made the R&B Top 20. There were more singles, more dances, the Funky Robot, the Funky Bird & the Double Bump. Rufus still D.J.’d in Memphis, always positive & exuberant, never drab or dreary, he was recognised as a great entertainer. There’s a boulevard in Memphis, a park in Poretta, Italy named for him & all those great records where, if you don’t know how to do it he’ll show you how to walk the Dog, the Chicken or whatever.

The Spinners - Classic Motown

At #36, rising from 47, on this week’s chart “We’ll Have It Made” was the Spinners’ follow-up to “It’s A Shame”, a Top 20 Pop hit & a return to the R&B chart after a four year absence. Since signing for Tamla Motown in 1963 the Spinners had found that there was only room for one five man vocal group on the label. A “Best of…” collection of their years in Detroit is very good but they neither established their individuality nor achieved commercial success & they were even working as roadies, chauffeurs & chaperones for other acts. “We’ll Have It Made” was, like “It’s A Shame”, written by Stevie Wonder & his wife Syreeta though while Stevie was in the studio for these tracks eight other producers were involved in the 1970 album “Second Time Around”. This was to be the Spinners’ final single for TM, knowing that Atlantic Records were waiting in the wings their contract was not renewed & they moved on.

The Spinners Vintage Concert Poster from Honolulu International Center, Dec  30, 1973 at Wolfgang's

It was not as easy as that, G.C Cameron had taken the lead on these two songs & he remained at Motown to be replaced by his cousin Philippe Wynne who joined Bobby Smith & Henry Fambrough as one of three lead vocalists. There was a deal of goodwill towards the group & when Atlantic matched the Spinners with producer Thom Bell over in Philadelphia he was able to highlight their individuality & unleash their potential. The first collaboration in 1973 produced three Gold records, four Top 10 R&B 45s & the Spinners were on the way to becoming one of US’s biggest groups of the decade. Here in the UK they were first known as the Motown Spinners then the Detroit Spinners to avoid confusion with a cable-knit jumpered Folk quartet with the same name. None of us were ever confused.

Gary Byrd - Presenting The Gary Byrd Experience | Discogs

On the lower reaches of the chart, at #58 was a young radio DJ who after reading his poem “Every Brother Ain’t A Brother” on his overnight show for WWRL-AM in New York & was encouraged by listeners to commit it to vinyl. It’s a cautionary rhyme that “Everything Black just ain’t Black & baby, that’s a fact”, not as militant as the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron but still positive & a reminder that there was plenty of spoken-word flow around before it was called Rap. The Gary Byrd Experience released an album & their 1973 45 “Soul Travelin'” is a review of the early 1970s Soul scene that you would be better served listening to than reading this.

Gary hooked up with Stevie Wonder & his lyrics for “Village Ghetto Land” “Black Man” were featured on “Songs in the Key of Life” (1976). It was in 1983thatthe Experience returned with “The Crown”, an almost 11 minutes long reinforcement of Black potential & positivity, recorded with & released by Stevie Wonder. One that got away in the US but deservedly hit the UK Top 10. Now Imhotep Gary Byrd he has 50 years of broadcasting experience, his Afrocentric talk career has always been of the moment & significant.

My last R&B review ended with a live, joyous performance by Billy Preston & I’d like to make that a thing. In 1972 an idea for a benefit concert by Stax Records affiliated to the Watts Summer Festival in Los Angeles blossomed into “Wattstax”, 112,000 people paying just $1 each to attend the Coliseum. At 6.26 pm Rufus Thomas, avuncular, in a natty pink shorts-suit, cape & white boots combo appeared to perform his current hits. The packed, excited, sharp-dressed crowd spilled out from the bleachers (is that the word?) on to the infield. There was no pushing & shoving, no Crips & Bloods brouhaha, just the beautiful Black people of Southern Los Angeles feeling the need to do the Funky Chicken & why the heck not!

Hey, Y’all Prepare Yourself (The Spinners)

The Spinners, a 5 piece vocal group from the Detroit suburbs, was formed by school friends in the mid-1950s. There were some personnel changes before their first record, “That’s What Girls Are Made For”, was a US Top 40 hit in 1961. Through the next decade they were in the Tamla Motown orbit which made the sound of Detroit a wonder of 1960s popular music. In 1972 a change of record label & a move to the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia produced immediate success, a string of hit singles, 5 consecutive gold LPs & being chosen as the opening turn at the 1975 Grammy Awards ceremony.

 

 

Holy Moly ! How great is that ? The Detroit Spinners, as they were known in the UK to avoid confusion with a cable-knit sweatered folk group, made their early records, Sam Cooke-influenced pop R&B, with Harvey Fuqua’s Tri-Phi label. Harvey’s  lead vocal on The Moonglows’ Doo Wop classic “Ten Commandments of Love” is something to hear. He ran his labels with his wife Gwen, sister of Berry Gordy, the founder of Tamla Motown. When the couple moved across to the more successful branch of the family business they took their acts along too. The Spinners were never able to break into the Motown A-team. Their 1965 Top 40 hit “I’ll Always Love You” is a Funk Brothers’ formula floor-filler (so it’s a cracker) but they never received the Temptations treatment, working with a number of  staff producers, playing down the bill on the star-studded Motortown Revues. The 2nd of their Detroit LPs, on the subsidiary VIP label, included the first track that Stevie Wonder produced for another act. “It’s A Shame” was a Top 20 hit in the US & the UK  raising the group’s profile just as their contract was ending &  life after Motown was being considered.

 

The Spinners transferred to Atlantic in 1972. 4 of the group, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, Billy Henderson & lead vocal Bobby Smith had been around from the very beginning. They had adapted to the many changes of style & fashion in African-American vocal groups, were a consummate, smooth professional act. After a decade of sporadic success they were about to find their place in the spotlight & they were ready to make the most of it. Thom Bell had set the benchmark for sweet, symphonic soul with the Delfonics. Together with producer/songwriters Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff his arrangements for the horns & strings of the Sigma Studios house band MFSB made Philadelphia a new hit factory for the new decade. With his associate Linda Creed, Bell established the Stylistics at the forefront of the city’s lush but still funky proto-Disco sound. Hooking him up with the Spinners was a very smart move.

 

 

G.C. Cameron, the lead on “It’s A Shame”, stayed with Motown as a solo act. He recommended his cousin Philippe Wynne as his replacement. Phil is the guy taking the Grammys to church on “Mighty Love”, his urgent, individual voice lifted the Spinners to another level, his ebullient stage presence gave the group a distinctive edge that they had perhaps lacked. Thom Bell’s studio craft, using Wynne & Bobby Smith on lead, ensured that after the success of the “Spinners” LP & “I’ll Be Around”, the group’s 1st million selling single, the world-class pop-soul kept on coming. When “I’ll Be…” was nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Group Performance it was alongside “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (The Temptations), “I’ll Take You There” (Staples Singers), another Philly hit “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (Harold Melvin/Blue Notes) & “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Gladys Knight/Pips). The O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” didn’t even make the list ! The Golden Age of American Soul music was not over yet.

 

It’s a strain to select just 3 highlights from the Spinners’ winners. “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love”, you know that one. The rather sublime “Love Don’t Love Nobody” was recently highlighted on The Blue Moment, Richard Williams’ fine blog. On a live version of  “How Could I Let You Get Away” Phillipe sings impressions of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding & Al Green, perfect soul-cabaret. At the 3 day festival in Kinshasa, Zaire, held to promote the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle (see the movie “Soul Power”) the band tore the place up. Bell hooked them up with Dionne Warwick & “Then Came You” became their only US #1. You know where to find all of these. The live clips are fine, the guys dance up a storm & do the thing they had been doing for 20 years. However capable the backing band, it’s tough to match the shimmering gloss of the studio versions.

 

 

“Wake Up Susan” was not the biggest hit but is a personal favourite. It’s an uptempo, sweet 3.22 minutes, a Friday, 5 to 5, the weekend starts here, crackerjack that never misses. In 1977 Phillipe left the group for a solo career. “Starting All Over” is a self-produced LP, his own songs with Philly’s & New York’s finest musicians, which failed to find an audience. He hooked up & toured with Funkadelic which seemed unlikely but Wynne had sung with Bootsy Collins back in the day. He sang on “(Not Just) Knee Deep” & George Clinton produced the “Wynne Jammin'” (1980). The voice is still a lovely thing but even the best songs still serve as a reminder of just how good the Spinners were. Unfortunately Philippe suffered a heart attack onstage in 1984 & a great talent was lost at just 43 years old. This is him in full P-Funk flow…

 

 

Of course the Spinners kept on keeping on with replacement John Edwards. They stuck with Thom Bell until 1979, their version of “Are You Ready For Love”, recorded by Elton John on a visit to Sigma Sound, is a disco-tastic delight. The group’s biggest later hits were crossover revivals of old hits by the 4 Seasons & Sam Cooke. Those 4 life-long Spinners remained with the group for 50 years. Billy Henderson left in 2004 when he had asked his lawyers to investigate their financial affairs. Both Pervis Jackson & Bobby Smith, a consummate singer & frontman, were members until they passed away in 2008 & 2013 respectively. Now Henry Fambrough remains as the keeper of the flame. The Spinners remained a popular & welcome live act, a great show with oldies that were truly golden from that time when they were one of a kind.