*Beyonce? Justin Timberlake? For me, the breaking music news—HEARTbreaking—is that Bobby Smith passed.
For the uninformed, Smith (also known as Bobbie), who died March 16th in Orlando, Florida at age 76 after succumbing to complications from lung cancer, was lead singer of vocal group, the Spinners.
If you live on this planet, you’ve heard some of these songs. They were hits in the ‘70s and have since become part of the air we breathe: “It’s A Shame,” “I’ll Be Around,” “Mighty Love,” “One of a Kind (Love Affair”),” “Then Came You” (with Dionne Warwick), “Games People Play.” There are more.
And among those Spinners classics is arguably one of the greatest amalgamations of pop and soul of all time and (obviously) one of my favorite records ever, “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love.”
People recall exactly where they were during special moments in their life: when they met someone who became a lifelong friend; a first kiss; a son or daughter’s first word.
While it may not rate with remembrances of somebody’s christening prom or first hooptie, I do remember where I was when I first heard “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love:” Oklahoma City, early Saturday afternoon, December 1972, in a pizza spot on Northwest 23rd street, playing a game of pool with Don Minnis. I was 17 and taking my turn at the table, when out of the ceiling speaker playing WKY came the intro to a song I hadn’t heard before.
I missed the shot, and Donny, much better at pool anyway, took over. I didn’t mind. I stood leaning on my cue stick, absorbed in the infectious melody over this great rhythm section and sweet chords, accented by rich horns and sweeping strings. It sure was a big ass production, exuberant and gleaming, with an unforgettable hook that made me feel good. Okay. This is that group, the Spinners.
By then on the Atlantic label, I loved their hit on Motown two years earlier, the gang-busting “It’s A Shame,” featuring the show-stopping lead vocal by group addition G.C. Cameron and co-written and produced by Stevie Wonder. When the Spinners left Motown, Cameron stayed behind and was replaced by his cousin, Philippe Wynne.
At the center of it all, fronting a joyful bank of Spinners harmonies, was who I’d later learn was Bobby Smith. Unlike the O’Jays’ Eddie Levert or the Bluenotes’ Teddy Pendergrass, then two of the Philly Sound’s most popular exponents, Smith wasn’t a shouter. Smooth and cosmo by design, his cool, knowing subtlety made the perfect counter to Wynne’s soul-stirring ad-libs.
Four minutes and thirteen seconds later, I’d fallen in love with a ditty about the moment a person feels like they’re falling in love. Who needed a girl? I had the song.
Call it surreal. In Los Angeles almost 30 years later in 2003, I had the opportunity to discuss with Bobby Smith “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love.”
I had interviewed Mr. Smith in the mid ‘70s, with the whole group. But one day in 2003, I got him all to myself. Asking him questions about the mechanics of one of my favorite songs—and days later, talking with producer Thom Bell, who created the track–was like asking close friends of the girl on which you have a mad crush to tell you what she’s REALLY like. I wanted to know everything. Smith, a pleasant, easy going kind of cat, indulged me.
“When we hooked up with Thom, he actually PROMISED us we’d have hits,” he chuckled. “That was bold. But we heard the track without vocals—just the music he’d recorded—and we got excited.”
It is often assumed that “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” was written by Thom Bell. Indeed, with lyricist Linda Creed, Bell wrote many of the ‘70s classics he produced on another vocal group, the Stylistics, including “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” “You Are Everything,” “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Break Up to Make Up” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” Bell and Creed also wrote for the Spinners.
But “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” was written by siblings Melvin and Mervin Steals, who sometimes worked under the moniker, “Mystro and Lyric.” In the ‘70s, the term “record producer” didn’t automatically mean you were a musician and/or songwriter. While Bell is a great pianist and writer, it was his brilliance as an arranger that allowed him to “hear” a hit in the demo of “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love.”
“The demo didn’t sound anything like it does now,” Bell told me in 2003. “If you heard it you’d say, ‘That’s not the same song.’ But I listened to the demo and knew immediately what I wanted to do with it.”
To that end, according to Smith, in the studio Bell was a taskmaster. “The way Thom works, he writes and arranges every part for every sound you hear on his productions, from the bells and the guitars to how the singer approaches a melody. On ‘Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,’ everything you hear me sing is exactly how he wanted it. On the hook, he was a stickler for the ad-lib, ‘Wit’ cha, baby’—he had to have that. Man, I sang that song until Thom was satisfied. In the studio, Philippe is the only one Thom would let loose on the tracks, but even then, he’d allow him to go crazy ad-libbing for about five minutes and then say, ‘Great, Phil, now here’s what I WANT you to sing….’”
As was his custom, on “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” Bell augmented the Spinners’ background vocals with those of Philly sound session stalwarts Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Yvette Benton, who become known as the Sigma Sweethearts, in honor of Philly’s burgeoning Sigma Sound studios. On Bell productions, Creed often sang background with them.
Despite the soulful thunder Philippe Wynne brought to the Spinners, Bell pointed out something I hadn’t noticed: Wynne seldom sang the opening to a Spinners hit; that honor belonged to Bobby Smith.
What was it about Smith’s voice that attracted Bell? “The illusion it represents,” he said. “Bobby is smooth, but there’s a certain command. A voice like that can sing a lot of styles–soul, jazz, pop. Anything, really.”
When I learned Bobby Smith had passed (Henry Fambrough is the only surviving original Spinner), my first thought was what I usually think when yet another entertainer I grew up listening to goes. The end of an era, I lament.
And then I listened to some of the great songs the Spinners recorded, and contemplated the truth: humans, in our limited physical form, come and go; the spirit and great music, they live forever. I need to remember this.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via STEVRIVORY@AOL.COM.