Dells, The

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Dells, The

Dells, The , one of the longest running groups in pop music, with only one personnel change in nearly 50 years together, and the inspiration for the movie The Five Heartbeats, formed 1952 in Harvey, 111. Member ship: Johnny Punches, voc.; Marvin Junior, voc; Verne Allison, voc.; Mickey McGill, voc.; Chuck Barksdale, voc.

Those who agree with Oscar Wilde’s notion that “American lives have no second act” should consider The Dells. With the exception of Johnny Punches, who left the band in 1960 and was replaced by former Flamingo Johnny Carter, the Dells lineup has remained unchanged since 1952. Even their style hasn’t so much changed as evolved with the styles of African-American vocal music, segueing from doo-wop to vocal group soul with seamless elegance, eloquence, and extraordi-nary harmony. They have endured and recorded for most of that time, even scoring an R&B hit in 1991. Every time the band seemed like it was over, something came along to keep them going.

The El-Rays, as they called themselves in the beginning, started singing in high school mostly as a way to get into parties and meet girls. When they started to get good, they took a stroll down Chicago’s musical Mecca, Michigan Ave. When Vee-Jay records didn’t want them, they crossed the street and signed with Checker. Checker put out their first single, “Darling Dear, I Know” which netted them a whopping $56 dollars and sold dozens. But they met Harvey Fuqua of the Moon-glows, who helped them sort out their harmonies. Vee-Jay took another look and signed them in 1955. They recorded their breakthrough record “Oh What a Night” a year later. That record sold millions of copies. Still, one member recalled that their first album showed a white band on the cover!

Over the next years, the Dells recorded and toured. They had several minor hits, including a 1965 Vee-Jay release of “Stay in My Corner” that hit #23 on the R&B charts. However, it took the group until 1968 to score another major hit. By then, they had returned to Chess subsidiary Cadet. They recorded the There Is album. The title track went to #20. A re-recorded version of “Stay in My Corner” hit #10, pop and topped the R&B charts. Through 1973, they scored another half-dozen pop hits, including “Always Together” (#18, 1968), “Does Anyone Know Fm Here” (#38, 1969) and “I Can Sing a Rainbow/Love Is Blue” (#22, 1969). A new, extended version of “Oh What a Night” topped the R&B charts in 1969, rising to #10 on the pop charts. They followed this with the 1971 #30 hit “The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)” and the 1973 gold record “Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation,” which topped out at #34 pop.

Despite all their years together, the Dells rarely traded on nostalgia, recording low level R&B hits through the 1980s for Epic and other labels, and spending much of their year on the road. In 1990, Robert Townsend hired the band as “technical consultants” for a comedy he was thinking of doing about a vocal group. His time with the Dells convinced him that a drama would be more appropriate, and the film became The Five Heartbeats. In addition to being very nearly a biopic, the soundtrack produced the group’s #13 R&B hit “A Heart Is a House for Love.” In the wake of this, they hooked up with the legendary production team of Gamble and Huff for the tune “Oh My Love” and signed to Zoo records.

While the hits stopped coming, the Dells keep going. Working on 50 years together, they continue to play out, indefatigable and still in fabulous voice.


It’s Not Unusual (1965); Stay in My Corner (1968); Musical Menu (1968); There Is (1968); The Dells (1969); Love Is Blue (1969); Musical Menu/Always Together (1969); Like It Is, Like It Was (1970); Oh, What a Night (1970); Freedom Means (1971); Come Together (soundtrack; 1971); Sweet As Funk Can Be (1972); Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation (1973); The Mighty Mighty Dells (1974); The Dells Vs. Dramatics (1974); We Got Together (1975); No Way Back (1975); Love Connection (1977); They Said It Couldn’t Be Done But We Did It (1977); New Beginnings (1978); Face to Face (1979); I Touched a Dream (1980); Whatever Turns You On (1981).

—Hank Bordowitz