Robert "Bobbie" Smith, lead singer for the Spinners, died Saturday in Orlando, Fla., of complications from influenza and pneumonia, according to his son, Ron Smith of Detroit. He was 76.
The younger Smith, who plays lead guitar in the Spinners band, said his father had recently been undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer. After playing on the Soul Train cruise in February with the Spinners, "When he got home, he caught the flu," his son said.
Smith was born April 10, 1936, in Georgia and moved to Royal Oak Township in 1953. He spent his last year of high school at Lincoln High in Ferndale, where he met Billy Henderson and Pervis Jackson. Along with Henry Fambrough and C.P. Spencer (later of the Originals), they became the Spinners, named after spinning car hubcaps.
"I came in as the fifth Spinner," Smith said in 2003. "They had just formed the group. Everybody was doo-wopping everybody on the corner; it was the popular thing to do at that time. Groups like the Moonglows and the Drifters were very popular, so everybody was trying to sing. That's what inspired us to form the group."
The Spinners were discovered by Harvey Fuqua and Gwen Gordy in 1960 and signed to their Tri-Phi record company in Detroit. Smith sang the lead on their 1961 hit, "That's What Girls Are Made For," and Marvin Gaye played the drums.
"We had quite a few misses after that," Smith recalled, and shortly Tri-Phi was merged with Gwen's brother Berry Gordy's nascent label, Motown. Motown had an option on all of Tri-Phi's artists and scooped up the Spinners along with Fuqua and Gwen Gordy.
As good as Smith was leading the Spinners on "I'll Always Love You" and "Truly Yours," they were one of a glut of male harmony groups at Motown. During slow periods, the group worked in shipping and drove other Motown groups around.
"We were Gwen (Gordy's) boys, she fought for us like crazy," Smith remembered. "We weren't getting the right material at Motown — and even if you got a hit, you had to follow it up with another one."
Smith mentioned "It's a Shame," which G.C. Cameron sang lead on. "That was the biggest song we had (at Motown), written and produced by Stevie Wonder, but even that stayed in the can for a long time; Stevie couldn't get it out."
After a recommendation from Aretha Franklin, the Spinners signed with Atlantic Records, where they found fame and a whole new set of hits. "They didn't have a lot of groups like the Spinners, so it was the perfect place for us to be," Smith said.
That's Smith's soft, soulful voice leading the Spinners on "I'll Be Around," "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," "Games People Play" and "Then Came You" (joined by Dionne Warwick).
Smith is survived by his wife, Lorraine; sons Ron Smith, Lamar White and Richie White, as well as daughter Vanessa Smith. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.