Reuben Armstrong, drummer with Frankie and the Spinners, dies

Reuben Armstrong, a retired shipyard draftsman who was a popular drummer and performed with the late-1960s group Frankie and the Spinners, died of heart disease Jan. 27 at Sinai Hospital.

The resident of the Belvedere Square area was 66.

Born in Baltimore and raised on West Saratoga Street in the Lexington Terrace housing project, he was the son of Joseph Armstrong, a Baptist minister, and his wife, Marvis, a registered nurse.

He attended Lombard Junior High School and was a 1969 graduate of Southern High School.

He studied mechanical drawing at Coppin State University.

“As a child, he was gifted,” said his sister, Vivian Armstrong of Baltimore. “My mother bought him some drums and he just started playing. We lived near a recreation center, and soon he began playing there and giving informal concerts. All the neighborhood children went to them, and he became so well known he got a manager.

“It was exciting,” she said. “There would be crowds. People from the projects would go to the center to hear Reuben practicing.”

In the late 1960s Mr. Armstrong attracted wider attention and joined the rhythm-and-blues group Frankie & the Spinners, later known as Frankie & the Spindles. The group, formed after members of the Spinners and Little Ray & the Playboys lost members to the Vietnam War draft, was an eight-man outfit that was initially popular with Catholic Youth Organization members. The group later achieved a regional following.

According to the book “Baltimore Sounds,” Mr. Armstrong, as a 16-year-old, played at dances at Holy Rosary, St. Michael and St. Bridget parishes in Southeast Baltimore in 1967. He also appeared on the TV show “’67 Set” on WBAL television. Later that year he appeared with his group backing up the Four Tops at the old Club Venus on East Joppa Road in Parkville.

“They recorded and released some of the best soul-rock material to come out of Baltimore in the era,” wrote author Joe Vaccarino in “Baltimore Sounds.”

The group also appeared at the old Civic Center and later opened for, or backed, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gay, Ray Charles, the Marvelettes and Temptations. They played outdoors on an Inner Harbor stage for the 1973 Baltimore City Fair.

Mr. Armstrong also worked at the Bethlehem Steel company’s Sparrows Point shipyard. A maritime draftsman, he worked on ship construction and repairs, but eventually retired after being exposed to asbestos.

He played drums for engagements at Maceo’s on Monroe Street, the Towson Ramada Inn, on Ivy Hall on Dolfield Avenue. He also recorded for the Gumption label. He backed up up Bleu Lights, Lady A and Rhapsody.

“He was a reliable guy and a steady drummer. The recoding engineers loved him,” said Milton. A. Dugger Jr., who produces the Gumption label. “Our nickname for him was Thunder because he was the loudest drummer we had.”

Mr. Dugger said that when Mr. Armstrong was playing at an event at Goucher College, a member of the audience said, “Reuben is the sexiest drummer in the world.”

He continued to make music until his death.

Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Greater New Hope Baptist Church, 2720 West North Ave.

In addition to his sister, survivors include a niece, Vonda M. Sykes of Baltimore. His marriage to Marie Armstrong ended in divorce.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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