The Dells are the granddaddies of R&B harmony, the group many others have attempted to emulate but none have surpassed. Formed in 1952 at Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Illinois, they’ve maintained unchanging personnel for the past 39 years: lead baritone Marvin Junior, lead tenor Johnny Carter, second tenor Verne Allison, baritone Michael McGill, and basso Chuck Barksdale. From Carter’s chirping highs to Barksdale’s resonant lows, the Chicago-based quintet continues to set the standard for top-to-bottom male harmony, and Junior’s robust voice remains among the most powerful and urgent instruments in the annals of soul music.
Between 1956 and 1992, the Dells chocked up a total of 46 hits on Billboard’s R&B singles chart, including such classics as “Oh, What a Night,” “Stay in My Corner,” “Always Together,” and “Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation.” Now they’re back with their first new album in eight years, Reminiscing on Volt Records, a division of Fantasy, Inc. with a current artist roster that boasts such other old-school soul greats as the Delfonics, the Dramatics, and Brenda Holloway.
“It ain’t easy being in a vocal group,” says Barksdale, the Dells’ spokesman. “We’ve had our peaks and valleys. It’s been a roller coaster, but I believe that God has plans for each and every one of us. Who the hell knew in the beginning that we were going to be together 48 years? We’ve been here in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties. Now we’re in the year 2000.”
Reminiscing is a family affair for the Dells. The title track and two others were penned and produced by Verne Allison, Jr., better known as “Tony,” son of group member Verne Allison and the Dells’ drummer for the past five years. Marvin Junior’s son, Marvin Junior, Jr., did likewise for the anthem-like “Where Do We Go from Here.”
Save for the brief reprise of the group’s 1971 hit “The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind),” the remaining selections were produced by Fred Pittman and Preston Glass and written by one, the other, or both. Pittman is a member of the Dells’ family by extension. As a teenager in Brunswick, New Jersey, he sang in a group called Chain Reaction. “The group that we imitated the most was the Dells,” Pittman recalls. Over the past 15 years, he has produced some of the top harmony groups in the business, including the Dramatics, the Stylistics, the Temptations, and the Delfonics, but his dream had always been to record the Dells.
Initially known as the El-Rays, the group was organized in 1952 in Harvey, a Chicago suburb, by five friends from high school—Junior, Allison, McGill, Barksdale, and original lead tenor Johnny Funches—plus McGill’s older brother Lucius. “We started off doo-wopping,” Barksdale recalls. “We came off the corner at 147th Street and Robey where an ice cream parlor was. We used to sing down in the subway so we could get the echo sound.”
The El-Rays cut their first single the following year for Checker Records, a Chess subsidiary. Titled “Darling I Know,” it went nowhere. “I don’t know what Leonard Chess heard or saw in us,” Barksdale says. “The first time he heard Marvin Junior sing, he said, ’Marvin, you have a job?’ Marvin said, ‘Yeah. I got a job.’ Marvin was working in a steel mill at the time. Leonard said, ‘Keep your job, ’cause you’ll never be a singer.’ But as the years went by, he just fell in love with us. He literally took us under his wing.”
Two years later, minus Lucius McGill, they began recording for Vee-Jay as the Dells. Their third release for the company, the Funches-led “Oh, What a Night,” became a No. 4 R&B hit and an enduring doo-wop number that the group successfully revived 13 years later, taking it to the top of the R&B chart.
In 1958, while they were en route to an engagement in Philadelphia, the A-frame of the group’s station wagon snapped, resulting in an accident that left McGill seriously injured. The group became inactive for nearly two years, with Barksdale joining the edition of the Moonglows that also included Marvin Gaye. In 1960, the Dells reunited and auditioned to be Dinah Washington’s opening act and backup group. They passed, but when it came time to go on tour, Funches decided to remain home with his family. Johnny Carter, former high tenor with the Flamingoes, was hastily recruited.
“Johnny fit right in,” Barksdale recalls. “It was like a glove that had a thumb missing and, all of a sudden, you had the complete glove. It became a tight fist of sound. It was so beautiful.”
The group blossomed during its stint with Washington. “Dinah took care of us,” Barksdale explains. “She put us on our feet and we began to understand how this business is supposed to go.”
While working with Washington, they were tutored by Kirk Stewart, a vocal coach who expanded their already full harmony approach to include intricate jazz voicings. “We had the ability to learn the ninths and the thirteenths and all the great stuff that the Hi-Los, the Four Freshmen, and the Double Six of Paris sing,” Barksdale says. “It amazed most people. They’d only heard us do ‘Oh, What a Night,’ then all of a sudden here we were singing all these magnificent standards.” The Dells continued doing jazz during an extended mid-Sixties tour with Ray Charles and his orchestra.
After re-signing with Chess Records in 1966—it was their third go-round with the company—the quintet began working with songwriter-producer Bobby Miller and arranger Charles Stepney. The two men found a way of combining the singers’ jazz-imbued harmonies with their doo-wop roots to create a series of lavishly orchestrated R&B and pop hits—the biggest being 1968's R&B chart-topping “Stay in My Corner”—that tranformed the Dells from opening-act status to major concert headliners.
Today, 48 years after their inception, the Dells continue to headline concert halls and nightclubs around the globe. “You’re not old till you’re cold—that means in the graveyard,” Barksdale says. “We’re not there yet. We still work gigs and we still have fans and draw a lot of people. We’ve been the teachers who’ve laid the road for Boyz II Men, Backstreet Boys, and so on.”
Reminiscing, the group’s latest release, provides further musical fodder for other groups to study and for fans to savor. “I want people to know I’m braggin’ on this,” Barksdale says of the album. “Not from an egotistical standpoint, but from a professional standpoint, I know what we’ve done is phenomenal. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It’s the kind of music that people have not had the pleasure of listening to in a long time.”