Bud Harrelson was breaking his hand. George Theodore was colliding with Don Hahn. Jon Matlack was not avoiding a line drive.
In the spring of 1973, the Mets were a bruised and budding calamity. Reasons to believe in them would not reveal themselves for several months. But on WGBB 1240-AM Freeport, I found a more immediate repository for my faith when I heard “One Of A Kind (Love Affair)” by the Spinners. I liked it so much that it stands today as the No. 10 Song of All-Time.
I had to believe in the Spinners. They were showing me the time of my musical life.
They weren’t the only ones. In those final months of fourth grade, I bought fewer baseball cards than I had in any of the three preceding springs. Taking the time to think about “One Of A Kind (Love Affair)” has reminded me why. It’s because I was buying 45s like I never had before and never would again.
In April, May and June of 1973, I collected 26 different 45s. I bought them at Delman’s, at TSS, at Alexander’s and, in the case of “One of a Kind (Love Affair),” Tilben’s, Long Beach’s premier retailer of records, cameras and prehistoric electronics. The day I had to have the Spinners’ latest release was during the Memorial Day weekend visit of my mother’s older relatives from Florida, Cousin Lee and her husband Victor. He was talked about as not the loosest soul with a dime. It was literally true. Vic and I were walking by Tilben’s when I insisted on going in and finding three 45s I’d been wanting, one of which was, as advertised, one of a kind. The bill came to $2.40. I was carrying exactly $2.30. I asked Vic if I could borrow a dime. He relented slowly, making it clear that I’d have to pay him back. I could tell he was kidding but wasn’t kidding. I tried to give him the dime when we got home. He didn’t take it. Probably wanted to.
I never saw Lee or Victor after 1981. In the meantime I still have that 45. As the years and the media have progressed I have multiple recordings of the song on LP and tape and compact disc and anthology and box set and MP3. But the 45 is the 45. It is, because of the format in which I originally bought it and because of those magical months when I bought it, a record in a way that none of my other Top 10 songs are. I hear “One Of A Kind (Love Affair)” and I can see the black circle spin on what we used to call a record player. It’s a pleasing sensation.
In defending his licensing of “Our Country” to Chevrolet, John Mellencamp — once a virulent opponent of such sellouts — says Chevy is a better record company than Columbia ever was for him, that these days it’s the best way to get his music heard. Record company? It occurred to me I have no idea who puts out the music today. When I was collecting 45s, the round colorful label with the oversized hole in the middle was half the fun of owning the record. Bell, Epic, MAM, Fantasy, Kama Sutra, Tamla, Chelsea, Vibration…they’re still mixed in there with the presumably better known Columbias and Capitols, Apples and Elektras, Deccas and A&Ms. I can see them all, too, and not just because I still have every last one of them sitting in a box at my feet as I type.
Each label was like the back of a baseball card. The Spinners, I learned, recorded for Atlantic. “One Of A Kind (Love Affair)” was 3:31 long, written by Joseph B. Jefferson (the songwriter’s credit, like the last two-thirds of the title, appeared in parentheses) and produced, arranged & conducted by Thom Bell. I saw his name a lot on records. Turns out he was the genius behind Philly Soul, a genre I’d discover and rediscover over the ensuing decades until I decided it was my favorite music in the whole world.
My relationship with the Spinners worked pretty much the same way. If you asked me in 1973 to name my favorite song of the year, it probably wouldn’t have been “One Of A Kind (Love Affair)”. In those early days of my making list after list of song after song, the Spinners were so omnipresent in the atmosphere that I didn’t realize just how much I loved them. I was living in a golden age without understanding it until years later.
There isn’t a Spinners’ radio hit from their halcyon and gorgeous period between 1972 and 1976 that doesn’t flat out make me happy. None makes me happier than “One Of A Kind (Love Affair)”. I was ten. I didn’t know from love affairs. I didn’t always know from happy. But I could tell when other people did, and so could the Spinners. Upbeat…hopeful…spring. From the bass drum that opens the affair to the Wynne-ing vamping that ends it, this is indeed a singular trip into matters of the heart.
It took adulthood and a closer listen to realize the protagonist (given voice by the awesome Phillipé Soul Wynne) is having a terrible time in love. Yes, the title implies heavenly activity, “the kind of love that you read about in a fairy tale”. The first verse lays out the reward: a “sun that shines on a rainy day — it’s a cloud of love”. What could be better than that?
But guess what…he doesn’t have that! His love has taken a hike. How does he find out? She wrote a line or two upon the wall: “Said I’m leaving you, know I love you too, I can’t stay with you.” (This actually happened to the songwriter Mr. Jefferson.) He never saw it coming, never “thought about today would come.” Nevertheless, to this very day he could never say “a discouraging word ’cause I love you.”
Things are quite unrequited now. Yet the song is never sad. To be honest, I never exactly get to the end of the three minutes and thirty-one seconds in full concentration. I’m so enamored with the blend of musical happiness and willful stubbornness in the lyric (you’re not discouraged by that kissoff?) that the Wynne coda, devoted to how this kind of love affair makes a blind man talk about seein’ again, almost takes me by surprise every time. I’m high, I’m thrown, I’m lost in thought and then I’m back. All in about 211 seconds.
The Spinners outlasted all their 1973 classmates in my box of 45s even if it took another dozen years for me to fully appreciate how amazin’, amazin’, amazin their pop output was when I was a kid: “I’ll Be Around”; “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love”; “Ghetto Child”; “Mighty Love”; “Then Came You”; “They Just Can’t Stop It The (Games People Play”): “Rubberband Man”; along with “One Of A Kind (Love Affair)”. Others may have had more hits but I can’t think of any artist, any vocalist, any band, any group that just brought the goods so regularly. Every one of those 1970s hits is in my Top 500 and there is no contest when it comes to identifying my favorite act of all-time.
That decision began to get made in 1985. There was an autumn day (not long after the Cardinals eliminated the Mets) when I was hit with my first big automotive repair bill. I needed a pick-me-up and decided it was worth dropping an additional five bucks on The Best Of The Spinners (a Carvel ice cream cone may also have been involved). Wow. Every one of those babies came roaring back from their release date and every one of them just washed over me. Sure, some of it was a matter of bringing me back to fourth grade and the Magnolia School playground and all that, but this wasn’t pure nostalgia. The Spinners were a living organism. The more I played them through my twenties and into my thirties and now in my forties, the better they got and continued to get.
They’re the group that millions love yet are too often left out of the conversation when talk turns to the greats. Did you know that before they blossomed on Atlantic they were on Motown? They were bench players there in the ’60s. They were treated like Chris Woodward — Berry Gordy sent them on errands, for crissake. Stevie Wonder wrote them a hit, 1970′s “It’s A Shame,” but by then they were spinning out the door and over to Atlantic, praise be. Bell came in and Wynne took many of the lead vocals and, in the company of Bobbie Smith, Purvis Short, Billy Henderson and Henry Fambrough, indelible magic was made.
“One Of A Kind (Love Affair)” peaked at No. 11 in June of 1973 on Billboard‘s Hot 100. It went all the way to No. 1 on the R&B chart where it enjoyed a four-week run. The Spinners’ only pop No. 1 was “Then Came You,” recorded with Dionne Warwicke in ’74. Wynne left the group three years later. The Spinners soldiered on with John Edwards fronting. They laid down some shimmering tracks in the late ’70s, including the underheard “Heaven On Earth (So Fine),” but their last big score was in 1980 with two post-Bell, discofied remakes: “Working My Way Back To You/Forgive Me Girl” and “Cupid/I’ve Loved You For A Long Time”. Those are all right, but they’ve never sounded like the Spinners I knew and adored.
Got one up close and personal listen to the Spinners, at Westbury in 1997. Stephanie and I were in the third row for an evening with them and the three surviving Four Tops. A disc jockey from Long Island oldies station B-103 introduced the show by announcing we’d hear first from the Spinners and then from some real “rock ‘n’ roll royalty.” The Four Tops, he shilled, were in the Hall of Fame!
I like the Four Tops a lot but I was livid. Royalty? The royalty opened the show. The group, the bulk of which had been together since 1961, was beautiful. Stephanie liked the canary yellow suits more than I did, but otherwise it was a transcendent performance. It was frigging royal. (And you can take that from the Princes.)
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame holds no particular sway over the tagging of immortality the way baseball’s does, but come on. Who’s been more influential, more constant, more better for more years?
Stevie Wonder wrote for them. Marvin Gaye admired them. David Bowie called seeing them at the Apollo “the best night ever” in his experiences at that particular venue. Hall and Oates covered them generously not long ago. Barry Manilow is considering doing the same soon. Monie Love reinvented “It’s A Shame”. R. Kelly paid homage with “Sadie”. Rappin’ FoTay sampled “I’ll Be Around”. AT&T borrowed it to sell long-distance service. “Rubberband Man” found a new life with Office Max some twenty years after it was featured in Stripes. Elton John teamed with them on “Are You Ready For Love”. They were all over the radio in the heart of the ’70s and the core of their canon has stayed evergreen on various Jammin’s, Mixes and Lites up and down the dial into this century.
They haunt. They soothe. They cajole. They revive. They romance. They reflect. They get a move on. They make lots and lots and lots of us as happy as three-and-a-half minutes will allow. The Spinners will always be my one of a kind love.
The No. 9 record will be played at the end of February.
Next Friday: Proof that the Mets have been around a very long time.