Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Spinners -- "It's A Shame" (1970)

The Spinners were one of the Philly Sound super groups of the 70's, recording for Atlantic Records and working with songwriter/producer genius (yes, I know it's that word) Thom Bell. However, before they were on Atlantic, they recorded for Motown and this was not only their first hit, but by far their biggest and maybe only hit for that label.

What is so distinct about "It's A Shame" is that it's early Stevie Wonder written-and-produced. Lately, I've been reading former Rolling Stone magazine editor Ben Fong-Torres' compilation Not Fade Away, where he interviewed Wonder in early 1973. His album Talking Book had come out the year before, Innervisions was on its way, and for the first time, he carried a lot of clout at Motown. Wonder explains that even though his first production credit was on the Signed, Sealed and Delivered album, the first actual production gig he did was this Spinners single.

The "Signed, Sealed and Delivered" single was the musical reference point for "It's A Shame," both featuring ringing sitar-like clean guitar leads, in-the-pocket grooves from in-house bassist James Jamerson, and a kind of pumping drum playing, which I am not sure was Wonder himself or one of the "Funk Brothers."

I didn't even realize that "It's A Shame" was the one and only Spinners single to feature lead vocalist G.C. Cameron because I always knew the group's lead singer was the great Philip Wynne. But Cameron remained at Motown and married Berry Gordy's daughter when the Spinners split for Atlantic Records. You hear it's the Spinners, you assume it's the same guys, but it turns out not to be so.

In Fong-Torres' interview, Wonder explains why groups like The Spinners left Motown: "Writers are so important. I think a lot of our artists could have been more successful if they had other writers, besides Holland-Dozier-Holland, because then they would have found their identity -- and that's what everybody needs." He elaborates later on: "It's difficult to be a sustaining power for a long period of time. It's like a person comes out with a beat, and you keep on doing it and doing it and riving it into the ground."

Of course, the irony is that the Spinners spent years under Thom Bell's wing, producing a long series of soul classics.

While the Spinners will be mostly remembered for those Atlantic hits, "It's A Shame" is as much a big party song as its "Signed Sealed and Delivered" template, with those chiming Fender rhythm guitars, popping horn arrangement, and the group echoing "sha-ame" during those verses.

I've got a few videos in honor of "It's A Shame." The first is a straightforward video tribute soundtracked with the single, and another from 1989 featuring G.C. Cameron doing his remake of the song on a Detroit TV show (and you can easily tell that he's got the lead voice of the single). The third is really an appreciation of what Motown bassist James Jamerson did in songs like "It's A Shame," so here is a one-minute shot of a talented guy playing Jamerson's part, and you can see there was a lot going on across that fretboard, you may not have realized it. That dude put some swing underneath this great song.


Le Sargistanais said...

Thanks for the information dude

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to write this up! Growing up in the 70s, I've always been familiar with The Spinners' early-mid 70s classics. Recently I've come to understand that they had a lengthy career prior to their classic period. I heard this song for the first time today on a friend's CD, and it was clear that this must have been from their earlier period. The guitar work that you mention reminds me of Stylistics songs that must have come later. Very influential song we've got here!