Each month in “The Story Behind,” I’ll explore the history of a well-known Top 40 hit based on interviews I’ve conducted with individuals who performed some of the most familiar pop hits of the 1960s and ’70s. This month, I’ll look at the Spinners’ “One of a Kind (Love Affair).”
Last November, “The Story Behind” looked the Spinners’ first big hit, 1970’s “It’s a Shame.” That hit came after they’d been with Motown for a number of years, but with little chart success to show for it, they were almost an afterthought on the Motown roster of stars.
Late lead singer Bobbie Smith told me, “I always did the leads, but I had a soft, smooth voice, and at Motown, they seemed to go for a raspier voice. That’s when we brought G.C. Cameron in. He had the ability to sing Motown style.” Cameron’s friend Stevie Wonder wrote “It’s a Shame” to suit Cameron’s vocal style, and the group had their first Top 20 hit.
But it was a case of too little, too late, and after years of being overlooked, the group was ready to leave Motown. “We left Motown because they had a lot of groups of the same caliber as the Spinners,” Smith said. “They had a staff of writers, and naturally, the writers had a choice about who to work with. If you were an artist with a hit, like Marvin Gaye or the Temptations, that’s who the producers wanted to work with. When you had a hit, you needed to follow a hit with another record, but at Motown, even if we had a hit, it might be another year before we had another record. It was like starting all over.
“So when our contract was up, we decided to leave. Aretha Franklin was a good friend of ours, and she thought Atlantic would be a good place for us because they didn’t have a lot of groups playing the kind of music we were.” So the group changed labels, minus Cameron, who stayed at Motown to pursue a solo career. Philippé Wynne joined the group, which now consisted of Smith, Henry Fainbrough, Billy Henderson, and Pervis Jackson.
“When we went to Atlantic, we had already recorded four songs, and one, ‘Oh Lord I Wish I Could Sleep,’ was about to be released. But at the last minute, they called us and said, ‘Do you guys want to go with your song, or do you want to do another session?’ We asked why, and they said it was because we had a chance to have Thom Bell produce us.
“They gave Thom a choice to work with anyone there, and he chose us. He said he used to be the piano player at the Uptown Theatre, and he remembered hearing us do ‘That’s What Girls Are Made For,’ and the song stuck in his mind because he liked the harmony. So when he saw our name on the Atlantic roster, he said, ‘I’ll take them.’ It was a great marriage that brought us our great success.”
So Bell joined the group in Detroit, and they went into the studio and recorded “I’ll Be Around,” “How Could I Let You Get Away,” “Could It Be I’m Fallin’ in Love,” and “Just You and Me Baby.” Smith says that, at the end, Bell said, “‘Well I’m going back to Philadelphia, and when I come back, you’ll be #1.’ Of course, we’d heard that before! But to make a long story short, three of the songs were million sellers.”
Despite that, after 20 years in the business, Smith really wasn’t convinced they had made it. “I had gotten a job because I was getting to the point where I was thinking, ‘It ain’t gonna happen’ and was thinking about giving up music. In show business, you can’t hold a steady job, but you had to have one because you have one of those mediocre hits, and you go out of town and work for a while with the band and then you’re back to zero. So I always tried to have part-time jobs in between.
“I had just gotten a good job at the GM building with good benefits, so I had to make the decision after we recorded those songs with Thom. I had to decide if I wanted to keep that job or try one more time. I asked GM for a leave of absence, and they wouldn’t give it to me. So I decided to take one last chance, and it was the right one.”
It was a good decision, and fully committed to the idea of a career in music, they went back into the studio to record their next single, “One of a Kind (Love Affair).” Once released, it went to #11 on the pop charts and became their third straight #1 record on the R&B charts. By now, it was clear the Spinners were going to be around for a while.
But for the first time, the group was also involved in a controversy over a song’s lyrics. Philippé Wynne sang lead on the tune, and on the line near the end when he simply sang, “I just want to hug her,” some listeners thought he was singing something very different. (This version is above this paragraph. The lyrics in question are at about the 2:38 mark.)
“Well, some disc jockey broadcast that the line said, ‘I just want to fuck her,’” said Smith. “So we had to go back into the studio and clean up that one line. Today, you can say anything you want on a record, and it seems like the bigger scandal the bigger your career gets. But not back then — we had to change it, even though that’s not what it said at all.”
Atlantic felt like they needed to make sure that the song was radio worthy and remixed the song. (This version is below. The new mix is obvious at the 2:37 mark. The “hug her” line has been removed.)
The controversial moment over, the group would go on to an unbelievable level of success with songs like “Ghetto Child,” “Mighty Love,” “Rubberband Man,” and their #1 song with Dionne Warwick, “Then Came You.” The group would go on to record for many years, charting with many more national hits as well.
But for all the hits on all the levels, Smith believes it was the group’s chemistry that led to their success. “We were always the type of group who didn’t let success go to our heads — we learned a long time ago that you can’t take an ego to the bank. Philippé was the strongest voice and had a lot of charisma onstage, so sometimes he sang lead. You’ll hear some smooth ballads that Henry was singing lead on because that was the type of voice he had. Then you’ll hear one I’m lead on, or G.C. when he was with us, and so on.
“We never looked at any one person as the lead — it was whoever the song fit. We don’t care who is singing lead on the song because we’re all the Spinners. We don’t let those egos get in the way.” That team spirit served them well for over five decades, making them one of the most successful groups in the annals of popular music history.