R&B vocal group
Along with the Four Tops, the Isley Brothers, and the O’Jays, the Dells—second only to the Four Tops in terms of longevity—are one of R&B music’s most venerable and truly original groups. Still performing more than four decades since their formation and undergoing only one personnel change in their entire professional career, this vocal quintet from the Chicago area embodied a timeless sound that influenced generations of artists, from white entertainers in the 1950s and 1960s to hip-hop and R&B stars in the 1990s. The rap group Dru Hill, for one, covered the Dells’ signature song “The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind)” on their 1998 album Enter the Dru. In addition to that 1971 hit, the Dells recorded numerous other popular songs, among them “Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation,” “Stay in My Corner,” and “Oh, What a Night.” Through the years, the Dells—weathering stylistic shifts from doo-wop and soul to disco—released 19 albums and 44 singles, including three gold albums, seven gold singles, and 25 charted Top 40 hits.
Formed in 1952 in Harvey, Illinois, a suburb just south of Chicago, the group originally called themselves the El Rays. Back then the lineup consisted of Marvin Junior, Johnny Funches, Verne Allison, Charles (Chuck) Barksdale, Michael (Mickey) McGill, and Mickey’s
Members include Verne Allison (born on June 22, 1936 in Chicago, IL); Charles (Chuck) Barksdale (born on January 11, 1935, in Chicago, IL); Johnnie Carter (joined group in 1960); Johnny Funches (left group in I960); Marvin Junior (born on January 31, 1936 in Harrell, AR); Lucius McGill (born in 1935; left group in 1954); Michael (Mickey) McGill (born on February 17, 1937, in Chicago, IL).
Formed in 1952 in Harvey, IL, as the El Rays while students at Thornton Township High School; auditioned in nearby Chicago for Leonard Chess of Chess Records, who had them record a single for his Checker imprint label; released their first record, “Darling I Know,” 1954; signed by the pioneering R&B/pop/blues label Vee-Jay Records, changed their name to the Dells, 1955; released “Oh, What a Night,” 1956; released It’s Not Unusual, 1965; released career-making album There Is for Chess Records, a six-minute remake of “Stay in My Corner” became a number one R&B hit, 1968; “Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation” became a certified gold single, 1973; released The Second Time on Urgent!, were subjects of the Robert Townsend film The Five Heartbeats, 1991; released I Salute You on Zoo/BMG, 1992; remained active on the tour circuit, 1990s—.
Awards: Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Hall of Fame Award; NAACP Image Award; Soul of American Music Award.
brother, Lucius McGill. After honing their skills harmonizing on street corners, the six vocalists, then students at Thornton Township High School, auditioned in nearby Chicago for Leonard Chess of Chess Records, who shuffled the sextet into the studio to record a single for his Checker imprint label. In 1954, the group released their first record, “Darling I Know,” with the song “Christine” on the flipside.
“Darling I Know” became a regional hit, but not long afterward, Lucius McGill quit the El Rays. Deciding to continue as a quintet, the remaining members hooked up with Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows, who took the young men under his wing and schooled them on five-part vocal harmony. Soon, the quintet arrived at a striking style, with Junior’s warm, earnest baritone serving as the group’s focal point. In 1955, upon signing with the pioneering R&B/pop/blues label Vee-Jay Records, the El Rays changed their name to the Dells.
The Dells’ first two singles for Vee-Jay, “Tell the World” and “Dreams of Contentment,” went largely overlooked. But “Oh, What a Night,” an original written by Funches and Junior, soared to number four on the Billboard R&B chart at the end of 1956 and was also a favorite on pop radio. This was an unusual achievement for African Americans pursuing musical careers during the 1950s, an era that saw black artists not only dealing with racial segregation in public, but on the sales charts as well. “They used to call that race music,” recalled Barksdale in an interview with Ebony magazine writer Joy Bennett Kinnon, “and they refused to play it on the pop stations.” Furthermore, most black groups received little income for their work. By the late 1950s, the Dells were only earning about $14 a piece per week, despite their rising popularity. However, the Dells were motivated by music, not money. “Back then we had youth on our side,” said McGill. Nevertheless, the singer admitted, “We have been through an awful lot in our tumultuous career. It was a real struggle.”
After the release of two regional hits, “Why Do You Have to Go,” and “Pain in My Heart,” a car accident injured most of the members of the Dells, resulting in a two-year absence. When they recovered in 1960, Funches opted not to return. His replacement, tenor Johnnie Carter, was a former member of the Flamingos, a group remembered for the hits “I’ll Be Home” and “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Carter’s mesmerizing falsetto, backing Junior’s earthshaking lead, would also contribute to the soul group’s trademark sound.
Reunited, the Dells cut another regional hit, “Bossa Nova Bird,” for the Chess subsidiary Argo Records before returning to Vee-Jay. In 1965, with the aid of producer/music director Curt Stewart, the Dells released the album It’s Not Unusual, hoping to get a head start on the Tom Jones version of the title track about to be issued in the United States. Although Jones made “It’s Not Unusual” a hit instead of the Dells, the vocal quintet scored in the summer of 1965 with the dreamy classic “Stay in My Corner.”
Soon thereafter, Vee-Jay folded, and the Dells returned to Chess in the summer of 1966 and began working with producer Billy Davis and arranger Phil Wright. Two singles, “Thinking About You” and “Run for Cover” were released. By now, however, soul had replaced doo-wop as the new R&B sound. Therefore, in the summer of 1967, Chess moved the Dells to the imprint label Cadet Records and teamed the group with staff producer Bobby Miller and arranger Charles Stepney. The Dells, intending to move more in the direction of soul, appeared to adapt without effort. In late 1967, the Dells returned with the hit single “O-O, I Love You,” and in March of 1968 released their career-making album There Is. The title track single release, backed with the Motown-inspired “Show Me,” climbed to number 11 on the R&B chart and number 20 on the pop chart, and the album rose all the way to number 29 on the pop chart by the summer.
More hits were still to come. Also in the summer of 1968, a six-minute remake of “Stay in My Corner,” became a number one R&B hit and a number ten pop hit. In the fall, “Always Together,” reached number three on the R&B chart and number 18 on the pop chart. The following year, the Dells’ success on the charts continued with the medley “I Can Sing a Rainbow”/“Love Is Blue,” a number five R&B hit, and a remake of “Oh, What a Night,” a number one R&B hit. Both songs appeared on the quintet’s 1969 LP Love Is Blue. The Dells 1970 album, Like It Is, Like It Was, spawned the hit singles “Open Up Your Heart” and “Long Lonely Nights.” Their 1971 album, Freedom Means, produced by Stepney since Miller had left Chess for Motown, yielded the hit singles “The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)” and “It’s All Up to You.”
After recording two more LPs with Stepney—The Dells Sing Dionne Warwick’s Greatest Hits, released in May of 1972, and Sweet As Funk Can Be, released in November of 1972—the Dells switched to Detroit producer Don Davis, who produced the group’s certified gold single “Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation” off the album of the same name. The song peaked at number three on the R&B chart and number 34 on the pop chart. Other top-selling, Davis-produced singles included “My Pretending Days Are Over” and “I Miss You,” both in 1973, and “I Wish it Was Me You Loved,” “Learning to Love You Was Easy (It’s So Hard Trying to Get Over You),” and “Bring Back the Love of Yesterday,” all three from the 1974 album The Mighty Mighty Dells.
The Dells signed with Mercury Records in 1975 after Chess folded. For Mercury, the quintet recorded the following LPs: 1975’s We Got to Get Our Thing Together (the title track reached number 17 on the R&B chart), 1976’s No Way Back (which included the hit “Slow Motion’), and 1977’s They Said It Couldn’t Be Done But We Did It (which spawned the number 20 R&B hit “Our Love”). In 1978, the group changed labels again to ABC Records, for whom they recorded 1978’s New Beginnings, yielding the hit “Superwoman,” and 1979’s Face to Face.
In 1980, the Dells signed with Chi-Sound Records, owned by producer Carl Davis, who had a distribution deal with 20th Century Records. With Davis’s label, the Dells recorded the LPs I Touched a Dream (the title track reached number 17 on the R&B chart), released in 1980 and Whatever Turns You On, released in 1981. Continuing to record for various labels for the remainder of the 1980s, the Dells met with Davis again to record The Second Time for his Urgent! label in 1991. The album included a cover of the Baby Washington song “That’s How Heartaches Are Made.”
That same year, the Dells were the subject of the Robert Townsend film The Five Heartbeats, released by 20th Century Fox that spring. Originally, the actor/comedian/director had set out to make a comedy about black vocal stand-up groups. However, after Junior informed him that there was nothing funny about the racism, harassment, and financial hardships that blacks in the business had to endure, Townsend, who traveled with the Dells for six weeks to make the film, changed his script, arriving with a more poignant and historically accurate film. The Dells song for the soundtrack, “A Heart Is a House for Love,” went to number 13 on the R&B chart, giving the quintet their first Top 20 R&B hit in more than eleven years.
In 1992, the Dells recorded a new album, I Salute You, for the Zoo/BMG label. Since then, they remain active on the tour circuit, selling out shows nationwide. Several compilations have been issued in tribute to the Dells, including Anthology, a two-CD, 36-track retrospective released by Hip-O/Universal in November of 1999. The Dells have earned many honors for their achievements, among them a Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Hall of Fame Award, an NAACP Image Award, and a Soul of American Music Award.
It’s Not Unusual, Vee-Jay, 1965.
There Is, Chess, 1968.
The Dells, Chess, 1969.
Love Is Blue, Cadet, 1969.
Like It Is, Like It Was, Cadet, 1970.
Oh, What a Night, Vee-Jay, 1970.
Freedom Means, Cadet, 1971.
Sweet As Funk Can Be, Cadet, 1972.
Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation, Cadet, 1973.
The Mighty Mighty Dells, Chess, 1974.
We Got to Get Our Thing Together, Mercury, 1975.
No Way Back, Mercury, 1976.
They Said It Couldn’t Be Done But We Did It, Mercury, 1977.
New Beginnings, ABC, 1978.
Face to Face, ABC, 1979.
I Touched a Dream, 20th Century, 1980.
Whatever Turns You On, 20th Century, 1981.
The Second Time, Urgent!, 1991.
I Salute You, Zoo/BMG, 1992.
Anthology, Hip-O/Universal, 1999.
Billboard, November 27, 1999.
Ebony, July 1997.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 19, 2000).
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