by Kevin Burton
A song that producer Thom Bell wrote for his overweight son is by far my favorite Spinners tune and has always been a guilty pleasure.
Now I’m trying to get to the bottom of it.
The song is “The Rubberband Man.” Bell wrote the song to help improve his son’s self-image because classmates were teasing him about his weight. “At first it was called ‘The Fat Man,’ since his son Mark was rather large and that’s what his schoolmates called him,” reads a passage on the Songfacts website.
“This is about a guy who makes incredible sounds with a rubber band stretched between his toes,” according to Songfacts. “The rubber band sound is simulated in the bassline. The bass was played by Bob Babbit who played on many Motown tracks. He ran the instrument through a device he called a “funk box” to get the unusual sound.”
“Bell wanted to change the perception of this nickname, so he wrote a song about a big man who can really move. He’s the guy everyone waits for at the party, since when he arrives it can really get going,” reads the Songfacts article.
“It was written for big people who were hip, to change the whole idea of a person being large being sloppy slow,” Bell said.
“This dude is out of sight. Everything he does seems to come out right,” is one lyric that speaks to that. The song emphasizes the man’s big presence over his large physical size.
I can’t find anything that tells me what Bell’s son thought of the tune.
The song is undeniably infectious. It has a repeated piano bit in the introduction that prepares you for something fun. Then the lyric goes into “Hand me down my walking cane, hand me down my hat.” Now you’re ready for some sort of stylish adventure. But the story of some guy playing music with his feet didn’t make any sense to me in 1976.
Once you know the back story you get the “don’t judge a book by its cover” message. But none of that is evident from the just the lyric. So I spent a lot of time loving the vibe of the song, peering into the lyric and saying ‘what?’ then backing off and just enjoying it.
The song has two bits that remind me of other favorite tunes. The repeated “do do do do “in the background vocals reminds me of “Love The One You’re With” by Stephen Stills. The “guaranteed to blow your mind” lyric reminds me to “Killer Queen” by Queen.
Also notable is the use of the adjective “debonair” as a noun in the lyric “So much rhythm, grace and debonair from one man.” You could say Bell stretched the language like a rubber band, but it works for me!
It just adds to the anything goes lore of rock and roll music.
“The spinners had a whole dance routine to go with this song,” choreographed by Bell, Songfacts writes. “He also ordered some very large rubber bands to go with the act, which would show up about three minutes into the song.” (The long version of the song ran to seven minutes.)
“The outlandish rubber bands made an interesting visual, as the group members and backup singers would find different ways to stretch them to the music.”
The Spinners topped the pop chart in 1974, teaming with Dionne Warwick on “Then Came You.” The Rubberband Man went spent three weeks at number two, blocked from the top by Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s The Night.” Their “I’ll Be Around” went to number three, “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” to number four. So the band had all the top spots covered.
The Rubberband Man, which hit number one on the R&B chart, was the last major Spinners hit featuring Philippe Wynne on lead vocals.
Bell had help on the song from songwriting partner Linda Creed. Bell wrote theme songs for all of his children but this was the only one ever recorded, according to Songfacts.
The song was recorded at Sigma Sound Studios in June 1976, according to Songfacts. That’s the studio where Patti Labelle, the O’Jays and The Stylistics recorded.