Classic Tracks: The Spinners "Mighty Love"

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


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Philadelphia was certainly hoppin’ in the early ’70s, thanks in large part to the music scene that revolved around owner/engineer Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios. Tarsia’s roots actually go back to the Philly teen-pop of late-’50s/early ’60s acts like Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker, but by the time he opened Sigma on North 12th Street in August 1968, there was an exciting new brand of Philadelphia soul music taking root: The songwriting/production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, as well as producer/arranger Thom Bell, started churning out an incredible parade of hits, most of them recorded at Sigma by Tarsia. Acts associated with those producers—such as Jerry Butler, Wilson Pickett, The Delfonics, The Stylistics, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and The O’Jays—made Sigma one of the top recording studios in the country and helped Philadelphia surpass Detroit (still reeling from the relocation of Motown to L.A. in the early ’70s) as the nation’s soul music headquarters.

And then there were The Spinners, who were, ironically, from Detroit; their roots go back to the mid-’50s when a group of friends formed a vocal group called The Domingoes. By 1961, a core foursome of tenors Bobbie Smith and Billy Henderson, baritone Henry Fambrough and bass Pervis Jackson (plus tenor George Dixon, whose spot changed a few times) had solidified into a unit called The Spinners, and they enjoyed a couple of minor hits for Harvey Fuqua’s Tri-Phi Records label, which was later bought out by Motown’s Berry Gordy. The Spinners did not fare well at Motown, and by the late ’60s, the group had mostly been reduced to menial tasks with the company. In 1970, however, The Spinners moved to a new Motown imprint called V.I.P. Records and made it into the Top 20 with a Stevie Wonder–written/produced tune called “It’s a Shame.”

At the suggestion of Aretha Franklin, The Spinners left the Motown stable and signed with Atlantic Records in early 1972. Along the way, they brought in Philippe Wynne to be their new co-lead tenor (along with Smith) and went to Philadelphia to see if Thom Bell could work his magic with the group at Sigma Sound. It worked. With Bell choosing the songs, writing the arrangements and handling the production, and Tarsia engineering, The Spinners had their first million-selling single with “I’ll Be Around,” followed by hits “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “One of a Kind (Love Affair)” and “Ghetto Child.”

This month’s “Classic Track,” “Mighty Love,” was another Bell triumph for The Spinners. It was recorded at Sigma in 1973 by engineer Don Murray, who had been Tarsia’s assistant beginning in 1970, but had graduated to helming Bell sessions while Tarsia devoted most of his time to working on Gamble & Huff productions. “When I first started at Sigma, I had to come up to speed pretty fast because my background was in music, not engineering,” says Murray, whose four-decade, multiple Grammy-winning career has included hundreds of albums in different genres. “I knew the studio from working there [as a musician]. On my first day at work, I was assisting Joe on a big Gamble & Huff rhythm section. There was no such thing as a training period. I was setting up the studio and running the tape machine from day one. It was great watching Joe and learning from him—he’s a brilliant engineer.

“The first two years I was assisting and doing a lot of smaller sessions that didn’t bring in as much money,” Murray continues. “But they were hard sessions because a lot of them were direct-to-2-track—a gospel choir with a rhythm section would come in and rent the studio for three hours and they wanted to walk out with a mix, so it was live to 2-track or live-to-mono. I really learned quickly working on those types of sessions.”

Murray describes Sigma’s main recording room as “good-sized, but not huge; big enough for what we were doing. It had a high ceiling and it sounded really good. It had that old-style acoustic tile all over the walls and linoleum floors.” At the time, Sigma’s control room was equipped with a custom 32-input Electrodyne console and a Scully 16-track recorder. The engineers mainly used outboard API and Orban EQs. A 40x6x12-foot echo chamber was situated right next to the control room, and Tarsia pioneered mixing a chamber signal with a mono EMT plate to create stereo reverbs. (“Then stereo plates came in,” Murray notes.) For microphones, the workhorses at Sigma were multiple Neumann U87s used on everything from vocals to strings. Additionally, Tarsia and Murray employed RCA 77s on brass, vibes and B-3 Leslies; an Altec “salt shaker” on snare; an RCA BK5 on the kick; and AKG 451s on toms and guitar amps.

Typically, both Bell and Gamble & Huff sessions would be broken into different days of emphasis. Day one (and sometimes two) would be capturing the “rhythm section” live in the studio; rather than just rhythm guitar, bass and drums, it usually included three guitarists, a keyboardist and percussionists playing congas and vibes or marimba.

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