Classic Tracks: The Spinners "Mighty Love"

May 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson


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“It was like a factory,” Murray says. “We would do a rhythm section day, 10 to 6; we would never go much more than eight hours cutting tracks. It might take a couple of days to get your basics on everything for an album.”

Once the tracks were down, the vocal group would come in, with the lead vocal put on first and then backing vocals. Another day might find a small horn section added in the morning and strings in the afternoon. Typically, the string section included eight violins, two violas and one cello (with four mics—two on the violin section, one each for violas and cello), doubled. “The string players didn’t use headphones back then,” Murray recalls. “They used a little speaker [for reference], and when they doubled the strings we flipped them out of phase so it would cancel out the speaker noise. So those strings would be out of phase—maybe that contributed to the sound of those records; I don’t know. Around that time, Thom started experimenting with bigger string sections.”

Mixing was on the Electrodyne with the engineer and producer(s) riding the faders. “I loved manual mixing in those days,” Murray says. “It was like a performance; very exciting and also very satisfying when you got it right.”

Murray says admiringly of producer Bell, “I’ve never seen anyone else quite like him. Gamble and Huff had a big production machine, and they used a lot of people, a lot of arrangers, writers. Thom Bell was a one-man operation. He co-wrote a lot of the songs, played the keyboards, wrote all of the arrangements, sang backgrounds and told the singers exactly what to sing. He did everything. And he was a real ‘up’ guy, very energetic. He comes into the room, and it’s electric. That was quite an experience for me. I’ve worked with a lot of people through the years, and he’s definitely up there with the best—genius category. He was amazing.”

It helped that Bell and Gamble & Huff had a spectacular group of musicians to work with. Though (still) not as well known as Motown’s players, they were every bit as good. On The Spinners’ “Mighty Love,” a tune written by “Philly Sound” favorites Joseph Jefferson, Bruce Hawes and Charles Simmons, the studio band was comprised of the usual Sigma suspects: drummer Earl Young, bassist Ronnie Baker, Bell on keys, Larry Washington on congas, Vince Montana on vibes and, on guitars, Murray says, “Norman Harris would always play the [Gibson] L5-type guitar part—he’d play the melody and chords—Bobby Eli would play the backbeat rhythmic part and Roland Chambers would play anything that had to do with little fuzz lines or wah-wah; more effect-y parts. This band could play anything so tracking was always fairly easy.”

Unlike most of The Spinners’ Atlantic hits, which feature either Phillipe Wynne or Bobbie Smith on lead vocals, “Mighty Love” has the two alternating on lead tenor, until about the midway point in the 5-minute song when Wynne takes over and ad-libs over the “out” for more than two minutes—not uncommon for soul tunes in this era when dance numbers were beginning to stretch out (in anticipation of the imminent arrival of disco, perhaps). “Thom usually told everyone exactly what to sing, but he didn’t do that with Philippe, at least not on that song. That incredible ad-lib thing at the end was a first take—he just went in there and did it. That was an amazing thing to be in the same room for.” The backing vocal session included both lead singers; group vocalists Jackson, Henderson and Fambrough; and four women backups: Linda Creed (Bell’s frequent co-writer), Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Yvette Benton.

Asked how involved The Spinners were with other phases of their music’s creation or production in that era, Murray replies, “Not much at all. It was totally the ‘Thom Bell Show.’ The group wouldn’t come in until it was their vocal session. That was the way Thom liked to work.”

With its big main riff dominated by stirring strings and horns, its bright vocals and optimistic message, “Mighty Love” was firmly from the classic Philadelphia soul mold, and the song soared to Number One on the Billboard Soul Singles chart (and got as high as Number 20 on the “Hot 100” Pop Singles chart) in the winter of 1974. Actually, the “hit” was an edit of the album track—dubbed “Mighty Love, Pt. 1,” the song faded at about the 3:15 mark, eliminating Wynne’s long ad-lib section. (The B-side of the single was “Pt. 2.”) The Mighty Love album peaked at Number 16 on the Billboard Albums chart and produced two other smash singles: “Coming Home” (written by Bell and Linda Creed) and “Love Don’t Love Nobody” (by Jefferson and Simmons). Bell also won the Grammy for Producer of the Year at the 1975 ceremonies. That year, Bell moved to Seattle and Murray relocated to Los Angeles. “I would go up to Seattle and he’d bring in the Philly musicians and we’d do Spinners albums [at Kaye-Smith Studios] and other groups. He did the Elton John EP [The Thom Bell Sessions, cut in 1977] up there. We’d still go do the string and horn arrangements back in Philly and then he’d mix mostly in Seattle. We also did some recording and mixing in L.A., too.”

As for The Spinners, they had a couple more big hits before Wynne left the group in early 1977 (replaced by John Edwards), and their association with Bell ended two years after that. Still, they continued to turn out hits into the early ’80s and nurtured a huge following in England. There has been tremendous turnover within the group in the years since then, but The Spinners have managed to thrive on the oldies/nostalgia circuit. Bobbie Smith and Henry Fambrough are the sole remaining original members.

“We got spoiled with every song being a hit for Gamble, Huff and Bell,” Murray says today of that golden time. “I look back on it now and I can’t believe I was a part of it!”

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