The Dells are one of the longest lasting groups of all times! They have found a way to keep original members in the group for over forty nine years. Their line-up did not change from 1960 until the death of Johnny Carter on August 21, 2009. Over the years The Dells repertoire included doo-wop, jazz, soul, disco, and rhythm and blues.
The Dells started singing together while attending Thorton Township High School, in Harvey, Illinois. The group formed in 1952, using the name, The El-Rays. The group consisted of Marvin Junior, Mickey McGill, Lucius McGill, Verne Allison, Chuck Barksdale, and Johnny Funches. Lucius McGill left the group in 1954, making the group a quintet. Lucius signed with the Chess brothers' Checker label and recorded a doo-wop single, "Darling I Know", the record flopped.
The group changed their name to The Dells in 1955, and soon signed with Vee-Jay Records. In 1956 they recorded their first hit, "Oh What A Night". Funches was a co-writer and lead singer on the song. The song went to #5 on the R&B charts and is listed at #260 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of The 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time. Follow up songs failed to have the same impact.
A tragic car accident in 1958, threatened to derail the group. Mickey McGill, nearly lost his leg in the accident. The group agreed to split-up to give McGill time to recover.
Barksdale joined a new version of The Moonglows, that included a young Marvin Gaye on lead. McGill did recover and Barksdale rejoined the group in 1960. By this time Johnny Funches, had left the group for good, frustrated with the group's slow progress. Funches was soon replaced by Johnny Carter, who came from The Flamingos. This would be the final line-up change for the group for over forty nine years. The Dells went on to sing background for the likes of Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, and Barbara Lewis, of "Hello Stranger" fame. The group got some fine tuning from Quincy Jones, and began to include jazz, and Broadway styled show tunes as part of their live and recorded acts.
The Dells returned to Chess' subsidiary label Cadet, working with Bobby Miller, and Charles Stepney. Stepney would later become an arranger and producer for Earth, Wind, and Fire.
In 1967, The Dells released an album called, "There Is", which included their first R&B hit in years with the titled track. The song featured a contrast to most other groups of the time by having the raspy baritone voice of Marvin Junior on lead, with the very tight harmony in the background. The song was also a top 20 pop hit. After "There Is", The Dells continued with a string of hits, including "Wear It On Your Face", "Always Together", "I can sing A Rainbow/Love Is Blue", and their first #1 hit "Stay In My Corner" in 1968. The song also went to #10 on the pop chart. "Stay In My Corner" featured another contrast, it featured Johnny Carter's first tenor balanced against Marvin Junior's baritone. This arrangement became a trademark of The Dells. The group had to wait until 1969 before they were looked at as R&B stars. That year the group revived their first hit, "Oh What A Night", which was re-produced under a classic soul format. Marvin Junior's husky lead made the song sound new. It was in stark contrast to Johnny Funches smooth tenor on the original recording, this version went to #1. They had more hits with "Open Up My Heart", "Oh What A Day", and "On The Dock Of The Bay".
"The Love We Had Stays On My Mind", was another top 10 hit for the group on the R&B charts in 1971. Charles Stepney took over production duties from Bobby Miller at this time. In 1973 The Dells had their first certified gold record, "Give Your Baby A Standing Ovation", that was produced by Don Davis. The Dells were now a top-selling recording act.
With The Chess Label having financial troubles, Cadet records, a subsidiary started having problems, so The Dells left at the end of 1974. The group then recorded for Mercury, ABC, 20th Century Fox, and Virgin labels, with a few hits including, "I Touched A Dream", which put the group back in the top 40.
For awhile The Dells were confined to the oldies market, until they were asked by Robert Townson to be creative consultants on his acclaimed 1991 musical "The Five Heartbeats". The movie was based loosely on the lives of The Dells. The group had a hit with the George Duke composition, "A Heart Is A Home For Love". The song was issued on the sound track of the movie and went to #13 on the R&B charts. This hit gave the group a push and made them the second group to chart singles in four different decades, after the Isley Brothers.
The group then moved to the Philadelphia International label, where they recorded the album "I Salute You". The Dells have kept an active touring schedule stopping from time to time to record an album, including 2003's "HOTT".
In 2004 the group was inducted in both the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame, and The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
Like the Imperials, The Dells don't consider themselves a doo-wop group, but on their 1974 recording "I Miss You" you can hear the doo-wops in the background, ten years after doo-wop was said to be dead. In my mind and heart no matter what The Dells sing I hear doo-wop.
The next blog will be about some of the writers, arrangers, producers and managers. These are the behind the scenes people that created the songs, and the acts to sing them. Very few groups were able to direct their own lives once these other people got involved. Some of these people were good for the groups and really helped them along. So many of these groups were young and were exploited by some of these people.
Please leave comments and request and we'll keep doo-woping!!