Skip to main content

Spinners singer Bobbie Smith dead at 76

By Todd Leopold, CNN
updated 9:23 AM EDT, Fri March 22, 2013
The Spinners in 1977. Clockwise, from left: Pervis Jackson, Billy Henderson, Jonathan Edwards, Bobbie Smith and Henry Fambrough.
The Spinners in 1977. Clockwise, from left: Pervis Jackson, Billy Henderson, Jonathan Edwards, Bobbie Smith and Henry Fambrough.
  • Bobbie Smith, sang lead on many Spinners hits, died Saturday
  • Smith's vocals top "I'll Be Around," "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love"
  • Spinners have been called "the greatest soul group of the early '70s"
  • Group formed in Detroit area in '50s; many members stayed for decades

(CNN) -- Bobbie Smith, who as a member of the Spinners sang lead on such hits as "I'll Be Around" and "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," has died. He was 76.

Smith died Saturday of complications of pneumonia and the H1N1 flu virus, according to a statement from Nat Burgess, the Spinners' manager.

The Spinners were one of the longest-lived bands in pop music, with the core of the group having formed in the 1950s. Three members of the group -- Smith, Willy Henderson and Pervis Jackson -- met in a Detroit-area high school, and were later joined by Henry Fambrough and C.P. Spencer.

It was Smith who came up with the name, he told Gary James of

Click through to see people who passed away in 2013. Click through to see people who passed away in 2013.
People we lost in 2013
Photos: People we lost in 2013 Photos: People we lost in 2013

"All my life I loved cars," he said. People "would round off the front, the hood or change the grille. They would lower 'em in the back. They called 'em bubble skirts and in the front they would have these big chrome hub caps. Cadillac hubcaps, and they called 'em spinners. So that's how we got the name ... from a hubcap."

The group was signed to a small local label, Tri-Phi, by R&B legend Harvey Fuqua and his soon-to-be wife, Gwen Gordy. Tri-Phi was later taken over by Motown, owned by Gordy's brother, Berry.

An early hit, "That's What Girls Are Made For," featured Smith on lead vocals.

But the Spinners never found their niche at Motown, often working around the office while other male vocal groups on the label -- including the Four Tops, the Temptations and the Miracles -- went on to major success.

"When we were at Motown and we had a hit, we wouldn't get another record released for another year. So now you're playing catch-up," Smith told James. "When you get a hit, you gotta keep popping 'em out there, you know. And so, we felt like we got lost in the shuffle at Motown."

Musicians knew who they were, though, thanks to the group's showmanship. In the liner notes to "The Chrome Collection," a 2003 boxed set, David Bowie credits the group with the best show he ever saw.

Even a Stevie Wonder-produced 1970 hit, "It's a Shame," didn't help the group at Motown, which had by then assigned them to a minor subsidiary called VIP. The label let them go not long after.

Thanks to advice from fan Aretha Franklin, the Spinners soon got another chance, with Atlantic Records. More importantly, in Thom Bell they had a producer who catered to their musical strengths. Bell was also responsible for arranging or producing a huge number of songs at the Philadelphia International label, owned by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

"His way of producing was top of the line," Henderson told CNN in 2003. (Henderson died in 2007.) "With Bell, everything was designed for us."

For the next several years, it was hit after hit: "I'll be Around," "One of a Kind (Love Affair)," "Then Came You" (with Dionne Warwick), "The Rubberband Man," and "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love." Smith split the lead vocal duties with Philippe Wynne.

"We had always been promised (by Motown) that, 'This is your year,' " Henderson recalled. Atlantic "moved us into a new circle."

Critics agreed.

"The Spinners were the greatest soul group of the early '70s, creating a body of work that defined the lush, seductive sound of Philly soul," wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine on

Despite occasional changes, the band was remarkably long-lived. After Wynne left the band in 1977 (he died in 1984), various combinations of Smith, Henderson, Jackson, Fambrough and "It's a Shame" vocalist G.C. Cameron toured with the Spinners into the early 2000s.

Overall, the band had seven top 10 singles and five gold albums. The Spinners were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999 and have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Smith was diagnosed with lung cancer last November, according to the statement. Among his final requests was "to make people aware of his cancer, so as to once again bring to the forefront the many dangers of smoking."

People we lost in 2013: The lives they lived

Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:30 PM EST, Sun January 5, 2014
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
updated 7:55 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Actor James Avery, who played the beloved Uncle Phil on the hit 1990s sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," has died. He was 67.
updated 2:59 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Dr. John W.V. Cordice, the surgeon who operated on Dr. Martin Luther King after he was stabbed in Harlem in 1958, died in Iowa. Cordice was 95.
updated 8:28 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Joseph Ruskin died of natural causes in a Santa Monica, California, hospital. He was 89.
updated 4:19 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Jeffrey Ian Pollack, who directed the popular 1990s films "Booty Call" and "Above the Rim" and produced "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" has died. He was 54.
updated 6:00 PM EST, Mon December 23, 2013
Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian gun designer whose AK-47 rifle became the weapon of choice for many national armies and guerrillas around the world, died.
updated 6:53 AM EST, Sun December 22, 2013
Ned Vizzini, who shot to fame at a young age for his teenage novels focusing on youth depression and anxieties, committed suicide at age 32.
updated 4:37 PM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
Al Goldstein, the foul-mouthed publisher of Screw magazine and pornography pioneer died in New York. He was 77.
updated 3:53 PM EST, Tue December 31, 2013
Actor Daniel Escobar, who played a teacher in "Lizzie McGuire," died from complications of diabetes in Los Angeles. He was 49.
updated 7:41 PM EST, Wed December 18, 2013
"Great Train Robber" Ronnie Biggs -- one of the most notorious British criminals of the 20th century -- has died, his publisher told CNN. He was 84.
updated 8:17 PM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Ray Price, the Nashville star whose trademark "shuffle" beat became a country music staple, has died at age 87, his agent said.
updated 9:23 PM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine died, her longtime friend Noel Beutel said. She was 96.
updated 7:40 AM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Actor Peter O'Toole died peacefully in a hospital at 81 years old.
updated 7:38 AM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Tom Laughlin, the actor who wrote and starred in the "Billy Jack" films of the 1970s, died at age 82.
updated 7:56 PM EST, Wed December 11, 2013
Jazz guitarist Jim Hall, who played with the jazz greats of the 20th century and influenced the younger ones, has died, his family said. He was 83.
updated 8:46 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
Actress Eleanor Parker, nominated for three Oscars and known for her "Sound of Music" role, died Monday at 91, her family said.
updated 11:40 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
Freedom fighter, statesman, moral compass and South Africa's symbol of the struggle against racial oppression.
updated 9:18 PM EST, Wed December 4, 2013
Bill Beckwith, who co-hosted HGTV home-improvement show "Curb Appeal," has died. He was 38.
updated 9:58 AM EST, Mon December 2, 2013
Actor Paul Walker, who shot to fame as star of the high-octane street racing franchise "Fast & Furious," died in a car crash in Southern California. He was 40.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Sat November 30, 2013
Paul F. Crouch, co-founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, died at age 79.
updated 6:42 PM EST, Fri November 29, 2013
Jane Kean, who played diverse roles during a long career but was best known as Trixie on the TV revival of "The Honeymooners," has died. She was 90.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Mon November 25, 2013
Singer Wayne Mills, whose "outlaw country" songs center on honky-tonk life, died in a Nashville bar shooting.