DETROIT — Bobby Smith, longtime lead singer of The Spinners, died Saturday in Orlando of complications from pneumonia and the flu, his family said. He was 76.
Smith had been diagnosed with lung cancer in November.
Funeral details are not set, but services are expected to take place Monday in Detroit, said the group’s Jessie Peck.
Smith’s final performance came in mid-February during the Soul Train Cruise, said Peck. Smith, who had missed several gigs since his cancer diagnosis, was present on the cruise but not expected to perform during The Spinners’ set. Then the group began to perform its 1974 hit Then Came You.
“Like something out of a movie, Bobby shoots right out onstage and, showman that he is, grabs a mike and sings right on cue,” Peck recounted. “The audience went bananas.”
Smith joined the group in 1956 when it was known as the Domingoes. Frustrated with frequent misspellings, group members soon sought a new name, and it was the suggestion of Smith, a lifelong car buff, that won the day: “Spinners” was a nickname for high-end hubcaps.
Smith, whose first name was periodically spelled Bobbie, was lead voice on the group’s first hit, 1961’s That’s What Girls Are Made For, produced with Harvey Fuqua, a link that led the group to Motown Records two years later.
Smith and the Spinners enjoyed only minimal success during their Motown tenure, but broke big after signing with Atlantic Records in 1971 at the suggestion of Aretha Franklin. A stream of hits followed with Smith’s prominent vocals: I’ll Be Around, Could It Be I’m Falling in Love, One of a Kind (Love Affair), Then Came You, Games People Play.
As the group maintained a busy touring and recording schedule, Smith left Detroit for New Jersey in the 1980s, later settling in Florida.
Henry Fambrough, the group’s lone surviving original member, warmly remembered his friend and groupmate of more than half a century.
“Bobby was a regular, down-to-earth, good-natured person, the kind of guy who’d give you his shirt,” Fambrough said. “And ever since I’ve known him, he was just a natural showman.”