R&B Albums from the Lost and Found (Part 1): Spinners / New and Improved

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

For some reason, a lot of the biggest R&B hit-makers of the ‘70s and ‘80s tend to not get much notice from music critics or journalists for their albums. Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, P-Funk, Prince, and Michael Jackson do, yes. But what about hit-makers like Lionel Richie, the Commodores, Diana Ross, Kool & the Gang, the O’Jays, DeBarge, Roberta Flack, the Isley Brothers, the Pointer Sisters, and Luther Vandross? Consistent hit-makers, all of them, and all fine album artists as well, and yet they seem to get treated by most critics as little more than good singles acts. (Heck, even the Queen of Soul herself doesn’t get much R-E-S-P-E-C-T for her post-‘60s albums, even though 28 of her 45 Top 40 hits date from 1970 or later.) That’s also the case with our two featured artists this week, the Spinners and Jeffrey Osborne – both undeniably good singles artists, yes, but the quality of the album cuts on most of their outings at their respective prime periods is so high that you’re really missing out on an awful lot of fine and very catchy songs by simply bypassing their albums in favor of a hits compilation.

The Spinners are a particular head-scratcher. The Detroit vocal group has eighteen Top 40 pop hits to their credit, including seven Top 5 hits and another four Top 20 hits. [This doesn’t even count their sixteen Top 40 R&B hits that failed to reach the same region of the pop charts.] Five of their albums have gone gold, three of which also topped the R&B charts. Yet, despite ranking among the Top 25 most successful chart acts of the Seventies, they’ve inexplicably still yet to make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Why their 1972 self-titled first outing on Atlantic Records – their first album with Philly-soul legend Thom Bell as producer and their first with the late, great Philippe Wynne in the lineup – is not considered a classic right up there with, say, Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, is just as inexplicable.

Sure, Let’s Get It On was fairly groundbreaking and influential, but how many of you out there can name anything on that album off the top of your head other than the title cut? Spinners, on the other hand, yielded an astounding four major Philly-soul classics, all Top 40 pop hits: the foot-stomping social commentary of “Ghetto Child” (#29), the sunny, tom-tom-heavy “One of a Kind Love Affair” (#11), and, even better, the haunting “I’ll Be Around” (#3), which became the group’s first Top Ten hit and boasts one of R&B’s all-time-greatest opening lines (“This / is our fork in the road / Love’s last episode …”), and the symphonic happy soul of “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” (#4), still one of the loveliest melodies of any R&B single from the ‘70s.

As if those four singles weren’t enough, you also have one of R&B’s all-time greatest B-sides in “How Could I Let You Go Away” (which was technically originally an A-side in its own right before deejays flipped the 45 over and started playing “I’ll Be Around” as well) and a generous handful of first-rate album cuts in the soulful strut of “Just Can’t Get You Out of My Mind” and the ballads “Just You and Me Baby” and “I Could Never (Repay Your Love).”

You really can’t go wrong with any album the Spinners made between 1972 and 1976 – they’re all very underrated and first-rate platters – but once you have their self-titled outing, the next one you’ll want to check out is 1974’s New and Improved.

It’s strangely not as critically acclaimed as its follow-up, 1975’s Pick of the Litter, but, like Spinners, it’s absolutely loaded with R&B classics. For starters, it’s got the band’s only Number One hit, the Dionne Warwick duet “Then Came You,” a song so irresistible that it also broke a four-year-long dry spell on the charts for Warwick, who hadn't come up with a single Top 40 hit ever since she had left Scepter Records to sign a new deal with Warner Brothers. (She surprisingly would have to wait another five years for her next pop hit, when she signed to Arista and had one of that label's biggest acts, Barry Manilow, produce her first outing on her new home.)

It's great fun to hear Warwick and Wynne interact throughout, whether harmonizing together or trading ad-libs, and it's easy to see why the public reacted so well to the sunny cut; it's a great example of what the sound of Philly soul in the '70s was all about and what the legendary Thom Bell was capable of as a producer. (He would deservedly go on to win the Grammy for Producer of the Year just a few months later.)

The album also sports two of the band’s greatest ballads: “Living a Little, Laughing a Little” (which even John Hiatt and Elvis Costello would cover a decade later as a duet on Hiatt's 1985 album Warming Up to the Ice Age) and the iconic “Sadie” (which missed the Top 40 but became a Top Ten R&B smash and enduring fan favorite, to the extent that R. Kelly would cover it on his multi-platinum breakthrough album 12 Play two decades later). New and Improved also boasts such underrated knockout non-singles as the clever “Lazy Susan” and “I’ve Got to Make It on My Own.”

The band continued to work with Thom Bell all the way through 1978's Spinners 8, continuing to release some fine albums (Pick of the Litter, Happiness Is Being with the Spinners) and excellent singles ("(They Just Can't Stop It) the Games People Play," "The Rubberband Man") along the way, but the loss of Wynne (who split for a solo career in 1977 and would later join the P-Funk conglomeration, sharing lead vocals on the Funkadelic hit "(Not Just) Knee Deep") would temporarily derail their success on the charts, though the band would begin the '80s by scoring another pair of Top Ten hits with the clever medleys "Working My Way Back to You / Forgive Me, Girl" and "Cupid / I've Loved You for a Lonely Time," each of which paired a disco-fied remake of a '60s oldie (by the Four Seasons and Sam Cooke, respectively) with a new original. It's their work with Wynne in the lineup and Bell in the producer's chair that remains their best work as a band, though, and must-listens for any Philly-soul fan.