The Spinners: From Schoolboys to the Soul Train CruiseLegendary R&B Group Keeps Promise to Late Member
You know their songs by heart. But as high school classmates, The Spinners never thought they’d achieve — and even surpass — the legendary status of the Artists they idolized.
Catapulted by a singing contest that earned them scholarships to a local music school, the singers eventually found themselves performing at the historic Idlewild resort, signing a deal with Tri-Phi Records, and embarking on a whirlwind tour before the U.S. Army called one of them, Henry Fambrough, to duty. Two years later, the group reassembled, and the chart-topping hits kept rolling in.
The Spinners’ 2015 return to the Soul Train Cruise honors a promise Henry made to late lead singer Bobby Smith, with whom he last performed on the 2013 cruise.
“We imagined and dreamed we could have this great, long career, but we didn’t think it would come true,” Henry Fambrough starts out modestly. “We would sit around and rehearse and talk and listen and watch and read about other artists, and that’s what kept our spirits up. We wanted to emulate our idols.”
Since then, The Spinners have gone on to surpass every single one of their idols, with more hits and a longer career than anyone they ever looked up to. Their songs topped the charts and became R&B classics that generations have come to know by heart. “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love?” “Working My Way Back to You,” “Then Came You,” “Rubberband Man,” “Games People Play,” “Cupid…” every concert Henry performs plays like a greatest-hits album from start to finish.
“We were in high school when we first started,” Henry recalls. “We would do different engagements on the weekend, starting out real slow, and then we got kind of serious about it and did some USO shows.” But the real turning point came when the young Spinners entered a weekly singing contest. They easily won and received scholarships to a local music school. Not long after graduation, they traveled to the nearby Idlewild resort to perform at the historic African American lakeside vacation community. “We were too young to go into the nightclub to watch a show,” he adds, “but we could still hear one of the other groups, and they had the greatest sound. We found out that the group was the Four Ames, who later changed their name to The Four Tops. And they really inspired us to keep on going.”
Great music and tremendous talent drove The Spinners to stardom. But Henry is quick to give credit to the many people behind the scenes who helped along the way. “Our first manager, Harvey Fuqua [of The Moonglows], started a record company called Tri-Phi Records along with Gwen Gordy (Berry Gordy’s sister). He’s the one who taught us how to sing properly, about harmony, how to get our voices in the right sequence, and [he] is responsible for The Spinners sound that you still hear today.”
With their signature sound firmly in place, The Spinners recorded their first single, “That’s What Girls Are Made For” (written by Fuqua and Gordy). It raced up the R&B charts to no. 5 in 1961 and sent the boys on a whirlwind tour. Upon returning home, Fambrough was drafted into the U.S. Army for two years, but The Spinners were loyal and waited patiently for him. “We were like brothers,” he explains, “who grew up in the same neighborhood and made a pact to ride this thing until we can’t ride it no more.” When Henry completed his tour of duty, the group picked up where they left off but, this time, at Motown Records, which had merged with Tri-Phi. In no time, The Spinners were back on top.
Their triumphant return to the charts began in 1965 with the Top 10 R&B smash “I’ll Always Love You,” followed the next year by the Top 20 “Truly Yours.” And then came the ’70s, when The Spinners reigned over the charts with a long list of hits: “It’s a Shame,” “We’ll Have It Made,” “I’ll Be Around,” “How Could I Let You Get Away,” “One of a Kind (Love Affair),” “Ghetto Child,” “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love?” “Then Came You,” “Mighty Love,” “Love Don’t Love Nobody,” “Games People Play,” “Sadie,” “Living a Little, Laughing a Little,” “Wake Up, Susan,” “Rubberband Man,” “You’re Throwing a Good Love Away,” “Heaven on Earth (So Fine),” “If You Wanna Do a Dance,” “Are You Ready for Love,” “Working My Way Back to You,” “Now That You’re Mine Again” and their version of Sam Cooke’s “Cupid.”
At about the same time, a new television show called “Soul Train” had started up and invited the group to perform. “Soul Train was our second home,” recalls Henry. “We would go do 'Soul Train' and watch the kids dance and take questions from them and just enjoy ourselves. Every time we did 'Soul Train,' it was like coming home. Don Cornelius was such a great guy, and we love him. We would get there a couple of hours before show time and spend an hour talking with him, just shooting the breeze.”
“As a fan of R&B music, it meant everything,” he continues. “We were so proud of him because we knew what he went through to make the show a hit. I think just about everybody who performed on the show felt that way.”
When the Soul Train Cruise launched, The Spinners were a natural fit. Their performance on the February 2013 voyage was an especially important concert, marking the last time Fambrough and Bobby Smith were together. Henry remembers the trip fondly. “He had a chance to go onstage with us, and it was the last time we were together. He came out and did the show, and he was so happy. We had a midnight dinner together and spent a couple hours just talking and looking at the waves, enjoying the sea and dinner. He said to me, ‘Whatever happens, keeps this going, don’t stop this.’”
And so The Spinners decided to return to the Soul Train Cruise for the 2015 trip. “We are very good friends with every Artist who will be on the ship,” says Henry, with anticipation, “especially Gladys — what a sweetheart. We used to do shows with her.”
“We’ve known Harold [and the Blue Notes] since 1961, when they came out dancing at the Apollo Theater in tuxes and hats. We know everybody! It will be great to be on the Soul Train Cruise with them, and I’m quite sure that the ship is going to be rocking.”
“I will see the other concerts,” he adds, “be down right in the front row. It’s a beautiful thing when you are onstage and look in the audience and see your peers. It’s lovely,” he muses wistfully. “It’s gonna be off the charts — everybody come on and enjoy yourself!”
Meet Henry Fambrough on Soul Train Cruise! Review the remaining cabins and book your cabin on The Hippest Trip at Sea!
-- By Jolyn Matsumuro
Passionate about music and passionate about cruising. Put 'em together and I'm in heaven -- you can catch up with me on a themed cruise and, especially, on an Entertainment Cruise!