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The Dells: In the Spotlight

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The Dells: In the Spotlight

The Dells in the late '50s

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Formed:

1952 (Chicago, IL)

Styles:

Doo wop, Vocal group, Chicago Soul, R&B

Claims to fame:

  • Bridged the gap between doo wop and "Uptown" or "Chicago" soul
  • One of the longest-lasting vocal groups in R&B history
  • Kept their basic core membership for over half a century
  • Had later hits with not one but two re-recorded versions of their early hits
  • Placed top 20 hits on the R&B chart from 1956 to 1991
  • Immortalized in Robert Townshend's somewhat fictionalized 1991 doo wop biopic The Five Heartbeats

Principal Members:

Marvin Junior (born January 31, 1936, Harold, AK; died May 29, 2013, Harvey, IL): lead vocals (baritone)
Johnny Carter (born June 2, 1934, Chicago, IL; died August 21, 2009, Harvey, IL): lead vocals (first tenor and falsetto)
Verne Allison (born June 22, 1936, Chicago, IL): vocals (second tenor)
Mickey McGill (born February 17, 1937, Chicago, IL): vocals (baritone)
Chuck Barksdale (born June 11, 1935, IL): vocals (bass)

Early years:

The story of the Dells is a remarkable tale of five teens who formed a doo wop group in the early '50s and, with few changes, remained together well into the 21st century. At first a sextet, the Dells first met as students at Thornton Township High School in the Chicago suburb of Harvey, Illinois, and formed a vocal group called the El-Rays (which the members mistook as Spanish for "The Kings"). With no less than four excellent tenors, they were soon recording for Chess' Checker imprint, but after two years with no hits, they defected to Vee-Jay, losing member Lucius McGill in the process, and picking up a new name.

Success:

With Johnny Funches' tenor doubling Marvin Junior's baritone, the newly-renamed doo wop quintet finally struck gold on the R&B charts with the doo-wop classic "Oh What a Nite" in 1956, but followups were hard to come by. Funches eventually chose family over the music business, and was replaced by Johnny Carter, lead tenor for the Flamingos. Making matters worse, the vocal group was badly injured in a serious car crash while touring in 1958, but after recuperating, they went back at it, building a reputation as both a popular touring act and a solid session backup group. They broke up occasionally but always reformed, switched back and forth between Chess and Vee-Jay, and looked for another hit.

Later years:

It didn't come until 1965, when they recorded a slower, lusher version of their old sound on a song called "Stay in My Corner." It re-established them in the more adult contemporary "Chicago Soul" vocal group vein, and they remained a constant presence on the R&B charts through 1973, even enjoying bigger hits with re-recorded versions of "Stay in My Corner" and the slightly renamed "Oh, What a Night." Even with the changes disco started to wreak on soul, the Dells managed to keep landing minor hits until 1984 or so; when actor/director Robert Townsend was inspired to film a semi-fictional bio of the band called The Five Heartbeats in 1991, they enjoyed yet another career resurgence. Throughout, the Dells toured with their late-'50s lineup until 2009, when Carter passed away; Junior followed him in 2013.

The Dells awards and honors:

  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2004)
  • Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2004)

The Dells facts and trivia:

  • The Dells can be heard singing backup on Barbara Lewis' 1963 hit "Hello Stranger"
  • Also backed up Dee Clark, Fontella Bass, Ray Charles, and Dinah Washington
  • Barksdale doesn't sing on the original "Oh What a Nite," having temporarily joined the Charms

The Dells hit singles and albums:

#1 hits
R&B:
  • "Stay in My Corner" (1968)
  • "Oh, What a Night" (1969)
Top 10 hits
Pop:
  • "Stay in My Corner" (1968)
  • "Oh, What a Night" (1969)
R&B:
  • "Oh What a Nite" (1956)
  • "There Is" (1968)
  • "Always Together" (1968)
  • "I Can Sing a Rainbow"/"Love is Blue" (1969)
  • "Oh What a Day" (1970)
  • "Open Up My Heart" (1970)
  • "Nadine" (1970)
  • "The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)" (1971)
  • "Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation" (1973)
  • "My Pretending Days Are Over" (1973)
  • "I Miss You" (1973)
Top 10 albums
R&B:
  • Love Is Blue (1969)
  • Greatest Hits (1969)
  • Musical Menu (1969)
  • Like It Is, Like It Was (1970)
  • Freedom Means (1971)
  • Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation (1973)
Other notable recordings: "Tell the World," "Zing, Zing, Zing," "I Wanna Go Home," "Why Do You Have to Go," "A Distant Love," "Pain in My Heart," "What You Say Baby," "I'm Calling," "My Best Girl," "Baby, Open Up Your Heart," "Swingin' Teens," "God Bless the Child," "(Bossa Nova) Bird," "If It Ain't One Thing, It's Another," "Goodbye Mary Anne," "Shy Girl," "Hey Sugar (Don't Get Serious)," "Thinkin' About You," "Over Again," "Inspiration," "O-O, I Love You," "Wear It on Our Face," "Does Anybody Know I'm Here," "Hallways of My Mind," "I Can't Do Enough," "On the Dock of the Bay," "When I'm in Your Arms," "Long Lonely Nights," "The Glory of Love," "Oh, My Dear," "It's All Up to You," "Walk On By," "Just as Long as We're in Love," "I Wish It Was Me You Loved," "Learning to Love You Was Easy (It's So Hard Trying to Get Over You)," "Bring Back the Love of Yesterday," "Love Is Missing from Our Lives" with the Dramatics, "We Got to Get Our Thing Together," "Power of Love," "Slow Motion," "No Way Back," "Our Love," "Betcha Never Been Loved (Like This Before)," "Private Property," "Super Woman," "(I Wanna) Testify," "(You Bring Out) The Best in Me," "Thought I Could," "I Touched a Dream," "Passionate Breezes," "Happy Song," "You Just Can't Walk Away," "One Step Closer," "Love On," "Thought of You a Little Too Much," "A Heart Is a House for Love," "My Lady, So Perfect for Me," "Come and Get It," "Oh My Love"

Movie and TV appearances (movies in italics): "The David Frost Show" (1969), "Della' (1969), "The Joey Bishop Show" (1969), "The Hollywood Palace" (1969), "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (1972), "Soul Train" (1972, 1974, 1976, 1978)

Covered by: Patti Labelle, Honey Cone, Dru Hill, Barbara Jones, Kenny Vance, Tracey Ullman, Nick Kamen, The Innocents, Unisoghn, Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy

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