The last Spinner: Keeping the iconic doo-wop group alive

The Spinners have been playing their hits for more than 50 years, and Henry Fambrough has been there through it all

It’s been more than 50 years and 12 gold records since the Spinners first harmonized on a basketball court in Ferndale, Michigan. And while four of the five original members have passed on and they haven’t had a hit on the charts since 1983, the iconic doo-wop group’s still singing and stepping – although more for nostalgic seniors than squealing teens.

Henry Fambrough is the last born-and-bred Spinner, now performing alongside guys who grew up on his music. He’s survived it all, from years without success, to the heat of stardom, to the dreaded abyss on the other side. Fambrough spoke with America Tonight about how, through the death of friends and changing times, the Spinners have managed to keep on singing about love, hope and happy endings. 

“I am 75 years old. 75 years old and still kicking,” Fambrough said, chuckling. “Not kicking that high, but I'm kicking.”

They were in their early teens when the Spinners started singing together, a cappella on the hot asphalt of the basketball court, where all the guys hung out in the summer. They gave themselves the name The Domingos, but tired of it being misheard (the Dominoes? Jr. Flippos?), they came up with the Spinners, inspired by a Cadillac hubcap.

Like rappers today, groups were the big thing back then, explained Fambrough. And the high schoolers knew that was what they wanted to do.

“We made a pact with each other that we were going to take this and make a career out of it,” he said. “…If we make it, we make it. If we don’t, we don’t, but we’d give it a big try.”

“We just shook hands and prayed together,” he added. “Say the Lord’s Prayer together, and we still do that today before we go on stage.”

The first hit

Seated, left to right: Dick Clark and Harvey Fuqua

The young men got their first manager – Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows. He and his partner Gwen Gordy (sister of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy) wrote them a song, “That’s What Girls Are Made For,” which they released in 1961. After it cracked the Top 40, American Bandstand with Dick Clark called.

“We was like awestruck, because at the time American Bandstand was the biggest thing with the dance parties and all that,” Fambrough said. “We was like, 'Oh, my god.' I mean, things was happening so fast.”

Motown college

Then things slowed down. Fambrough was drafted into the Army in 1961, and on his return two years later, the Spinners signed up under Motown Records. They didn’t have any big hits for the next six years, and Fambrough ended up working as a chauffeur for the label boss’ mom. But he describes it as “a very good college.”

“They taught you how to use the microphone,” he said about Motown. “…They taught the ladies how to be ladies on stage, and they taught the guys how to be guys offstage and onstage. And they taught you everything.”

Stevie's gift

The Spinners also made some luminous friends in Motown: the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and importantly, Stevie Wonder, who wrote them the song, “It’s a Shame.” It came out in 1970 and was an instant hit.

“The good man upstairs was looking out for us. It caused everything to happen for us,” said Fambrough. “Happened for a reason at the time, and the timing was very good.” 

The first Atlantic record

Their contract with Motown ran out, and the Spinners were touring on a hit with their buddy Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul recommended her own label, Atlantic Records, and songwriter extraordinaire Thom Bell asked to produce them.

“And I understand that [general manager of Atlantic Records] Jerry Greenburg said, ‘The Spinners? Are you sure you want to do it?'” said Fambrough. "'How about Aretha Franklin? How about all the other artists?’ And Thom said, 'No, I want the Spinners.’” 

Bell recorded each of them singing on tape, and returned to Detroit a few months later, remembered Fambrough, with four songs.

“Now out of those four songs, two of them were million-sellers out, out the door when we recorded them, off the same album,” said Fambrough of "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love?" and "I'll Be Around." “Like I said, somebody was looking out for us, OK? Somebody was looking out for the Spinners, thank God.”

Building a business

In the 1970s, the Spinners were traveling the world, doing an average of two shows a night, said Fambrough. They guys made their own bylaws. Rule No. 1: any drugs and you’re out of the group.

“We didn’t allow partying,” Fambrough said. “I mean, you’d get together and have some fun, like innocent fun. We’d stop by the lounge coming back from the evening engagement, have a couple drinks, go to your room and go to sleep.”

“Entertainment is 75 percent business and 25 percent entertainment,” he added. “…If you don’t take care of your business, this is why you have a lot of one-hit wonders out there… A lot of people out there can sing, but if you’re going to into show business, you have to look at it as a business.” 

Wall of fame

The Spinners became the second black group to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, after the Mills Brothers.

“You see – one, two, three, four, five, six Grammy nominations,” said Fambrough, giving a tour of his wall of awards and achievements. “So that’s something that got away from us. Twelve milion-sellers. About every album that we touched at that time.”


Then time took its toll on the Spinners. Original member Pervis Jackson died of cancer in 2008. And last year, Fambrough was having dinner after the closing night of a Soul Train cruise with lead singer Bobby Smith.

“I remember the last thing he said to me when he left, he said, ‘I don't know what's going to happen,’ he said, ‘but whatever you do, man, keep this going.’ I say, ‘You don't have to worry about me, Bird,’ I said, ‘You're going to be there too, man.’ He said, ‘OK, talk to you later.’ That's the last time I talked to him.”

Becoming a Spinner

After Smith died, Marvin Taylor took over his role. “Be Bobby, so to speak, and charm the audience like Bobby charmed them,” said Taylor about his mission. “And let him know it’s alright down here.”

“I grew up listening to the Spinners music and I can remember when ‘It’s a Shame’ came out, and I said, ‘Who is that?’ And they were saying, ‘the Spinners,’” Taylor remembered. “I was just blown, blown away, and I was a major Spinner fan ever since. And I was so proud when, fast forward 30 years later, I became a Spinner.” 

Very large shoes

Jessie Peck does the bass parts. “I fill in the very large shoes of Pervis Jackson, and have a wonderful time doing it,” he said. “It’s a dream come true.”

“The first concert I ever saw was a Spinners concert,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Ma, dad, I’m going to do what they’re doing for a living.’ Didn’t know I would be in the group one day.”

Learning the steps

For their dance moves, the Spinners were instructed by the legendary Cholly Atkins, who trained everyone from Marvin Gaye to Diana Ross, and helped shape the moves of disco, breakdancing, reggae, ska and northern soul.

“He came in and taught us things we never saw on stage before,” said Fambrough. “It’s the type of dance to song that would never grow old.”

“You will never see another act do the Spinners routine either,” he added. “Because it’s not that easy. It’s not easy to do. That’s why we like it.”

Loyal fans

Last month, the Spinners performed at a dance party hosted by AARP, an interest group for seniors, and the crowd went wild.

“We go back almost 40 years being fans,” said Marie Schliffe, one of the attendees. “We miss the originals, but the new ones come along and they’re great and make a great sound.”

“Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter,” said Yolanda Allison, a longtime Spinners fan. “I mean, they could put four new people in there, it’s still the Spinners, still the Spinners. Still the same music that goes and goes.” 

It's the same

And that’s the sense that Fambrough gets, too.

“We walk out and there’s nothing, it’s the same, it’s no different,” he said. “You get the same ovation and the same excitement. And I see it in the audience’s faces, and I watch them and it’s the same, it’s the same. They accepted them. I have accepted them. And we we’re moving on. We’re moving on.” 

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