Listen to this track by soulful R&B crossover hitmakers The Spinners, sometimes known as The Detroit Spinners. It’s “They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play)”, a hit single from their 1975 album Pick Of The Litter. The song was a hit on the pop and the R&B charts that year, with lots of AM radio play during the short time between the end of the classic soul era and the dawn of disco.
The Spinners came out of Detroit in the days before Motown was founded, and just before rock ‘n’ roll had united a common audience all over the country and the world. They had formed on the cusp of a new musical era, when all manner of gospel-based singing groups began to explore the idea of creating a secular version of church vocal music, later to be known as soul.
But, it would be the seventies in which they would make their biggest mark as a group by delivering the coveted crossover hit, and by exemplifying a new style of soul music altogether.
It was during this era that producer Thom Bell made a name for himself by way of his involvement in the creation of a refined and meticulously arranged take on soul music that became known as Philly Soul. The Spinners were among his most successful charges by the seventies, drawing on their gospel singing group roots, but adding instrumental flourishes to the arrangements and concentrating on crisp production values that cultivated those roots to grow into something more contemporary.
A big part of what drove this was the need to appeal to wider audiences. The gnarly funkiness of the Stax sound was penned into the R&B world by the early seventies. Motown’s pop singles-driven approach in the sixties (a label that once hosted The Spinners) had given way to more album-oriented direction, with stalwarts Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder both creating era-defining full-length records. When it came to AM radio singles, self-contained singles that included clear vocals, pristine production, and sumptuous arrangements that sounded more like movie soundtrack music were the real money makers. This would be The Spinners’ niche, working with Thom Bell as producer.
This track was recorded at Philadelphia’s legendary Sigma Studios, a location that would give birth to many Philly Soul sides, plus a number by some non-soul artists including David Bowie (Young Americans) and Elton John (“Mama Can’t Buy You Love”), both of whom were inspired by that signature sound. Besides the intricate vocal arrangements on this song that covered the gamut of bass, tenor, and alto parts (the latter thanks to guest vocalist Barbara Ingram), the instrumental backdrop of orchestral brass and strings, mixed in with the clean piano lines was indicative of the Philly Soul approach. Where the Motown sound hid a lot of the arrangements into a production wash, and Stax/Atlantic brought out the trademark playing of live musicians playing off of the floor, Thom Bell’s approach to production and arrangement was more cinematic and sweeping, with a high-definition fantastical quality built right in.
This song is a great example of that, with the vocals sounding more like characters narrating a story then a single vocalist simply delivering a pop song. The clearly enunciated vocal lines are varied, as if several people are filling in the narrative, and therefore appealing to those listeners who would identify with this voice, or that one. Apart from being an undeniable earworm, this approach was clearly designed for a wider, and arguably whiter, audience. It worked. This single released in the summer of 1975 was a million seller, crossing over to the pop charts and scoring a #5 showing on the Billboard 100. It was even an easy-listening hit, scoring #2 on those charts! Other hits would surely follow, even when disco came to subsume the Philly sound, borrowing many of its conventions while it was at it. This of course would include an equal appeal when it came to capturing new audiences in the mainstream, and to an even grander scale.
The Spinners would remain a hit single concern for the rest of the seventies. Amazingly, they are still a live act today, albeit with new members who join original member Henry Fambrough who has been with the group since 1954!
You can learn more about them at spinnersmusic.com