Billy Henderson

Stalwart of the Detroit Spinners


William Henderson, singer: born Detroit, Michigan 9 August 1939; married (three sons); died Daytona Beach, Florida 2 February 2007.

Berry Gordy Jnr might have given the Sound of Young America to the world but he didn't put all the artists at his label Motown Records on an equal footing. Even more than the Isley Brothers and Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Detroit Spinners always felt that, despite a six-year-long association with Motown, they were way down the pecking order and that their career blossomed once they left the label, shortly after their hit "It's a Shame", co-written and produced by Stevie Wonder, in 1970.

The vocal group subsequently signed to Atlantic Records and embarked on a fruitful relationship with the Philadelphia producer Thom Bell, who turned them into one of the biggest soul groups of the Seventies with "I'll Be Around", "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love", "Ghetto Child", "Then Came You" - a US No 1 with Dionne Warwick in 1974 - and "The Rubberband Man", complete with the hilarious elastic band dance routine at which Billy Henderson, a founder member of the group, particularly excelled.

Originally known in the UK as the Motown Spinners and then the Detroit Spinners to avoid confusion with the Liverpool folk group the Spinners, the smooth harmony quintet even topped the British charts in February 1980 with a medley of the Four Seasons' "Working My Way Back to You" and a new composition entitled "Forgive Me Girl", recorded under the aegis of the disco producer Michael Zager, who repeated the trick for the Spinners with a revival of Sam Cooke's "Cupid" segued into his own "I've Loved You for a Long Time".

Henderson remained with the Detroit Spinners until 2004 when he alleged mismanagement and sued the group's corporation and business manager to obtain financial records. He then formed Spinners Part Too, Inc with two of his sons.

Born in Detroit in 1939, Henderson (tenor) founded the Domingoes in the mid-Fifties with fellow Ferndale High School students Bobbie Smith (lead tenor), George Dixon (tenor), Henry Fambrough (baritone) and Pervis Jackson (bass). In 1960, they met Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows who was dating Berry Gordy's sister Gwen, and also intended to launch his own label, Tri-Phi. Fuqua and his future wife wrote the ballad "That's What Girls are Made For", and Fuqua sang lead backed by his new discoveries, renamed the Spinners.

The first Tri-Phi single made the US Top Thirty in 1961 but, after "Love (I'm So Glad) I Found You", on which Fuqua also appeared, Smith took over the lead spot and the Spinners struggled. In 1963, Tri-Phi was brought under the Motown umbrella and the Spinners recorded a single a year for Motown, briefly charting with "I'll Always Love You" in 1965, and losing Dixon, who was replaced by Edgar Edwards, and then G.C. Cameron. They honed their harmonies and choreographed their live act, even including a Fab Four routine of dubious taste. "We had one act, which we did for four or five years, in which we called ourselves the Brown Beatles," recalled Henderson. "We had props, wigs. We just imitated the Beatles. I was Ringo."

By 1968, the Spinners had been shuffled off to Motown's subsidiary label V.I.P., which was anything but, though they got to work with the producer Johnny Bristol, and then Stevie Wonder, who helped them back into the US charts with "It's a Shame" and "We'll Have It Made" in 1970. "We had always been promised: this is your year," Henderson said. "There were so many hits coming out of Motown at that time, somebody had to get lost."

When other labels like Stax expressed an interest in signing the Spinners, Berry Gordy invoked a clause in their contract which tied their lead vocalist G.C. Cameron, the newest recruit, to a solo deal with Motown. Undeterred, the Spinners replaced him with Phillipe Wynne, took the advice of their friend Aretha Franklin and signed to Atlantic Records.

Henderson, for one, couldn't believe the change in their fortunes when they started working with Bell at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia in 1972. Bell had been a fan of the Spinners since their Tri-Phi days and went out of his way to match the success he had had with the Delfonics and the Stylistics. "His way of producing was top of the line," Henderson said:

With Thom Bell, everything was designed for us. He had such good taste. I think the first batch of songs he brought us had three gold records in it. Nobody predicted that many hits in a row. That moved us into a new circle.

Indeed, once DJs flipped "How Could I Let You Get Away" and began playing "I'll Be Around", originally the B-side, the Spinners' first single for Atlantic became their first million- seller. In 1973, "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love", recorded at the same session, also made the US Top Five. Smith and Wynne shared lead vocals on "One of a Kind (Love Affair)" (1973), while all five Spinners took their turn singing lead on "(They Just Can't Stop the) Games People Play" (1975). The Spinners scored one of their biggest hits in 1976 with "The Rubberband Man", a track co-written by Thom Bell and inspired by his son Mark, a rather chunky boy, much like Henderson, the most jovial and shortest member of the group, who took to the track instantly.

In 1988, the Spinners performed at a concert held at Madison Square Garden in New York to celebrate Atlantic Records' 40th anniversary. Lauded by David Bowie and Elvis Costello for their fantastic harmonies and their impeccable stage shows, the Detroit Spinners had moved seamlessly through the doo-wop, rhythm'n'blues, Tamla Motown, Philadelphia Sound, funk and disco eras and were back in the UK Top Thirty in 1995 when Rappin' 4-Tay sampled "I'll Be Around".

Pierre Perrone

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