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The Dells were one of the finest and longest-lived R&B vocal groups in history, and what's most amazing is that they did it with nearly all the same members. They were one of the very few doo wop outfits to successfully update their sound, finding their strongest commercial niche in the late '60s and '70s as a polished smooth soul harmony group. While their chart fortunes certainly fluctuated over the years, they remained a viable act right up into the '90s, by which time they had long since achieved legendary status in the R&B community.
The Dells were formed in 1953 in southern suburbs of Chicago, specifically the town of Harvey, Illinois, where all the members attended high school together. The original lineup featured lead baritone Marvin Junior, lead tenor Johnny Funches, tenors Verne Allison and Lucius McGill, second baritone Mickey McGill, and bass Chuck Barksdale. Initially called the El-Rays, the group recorded their first single, "Darling I Know," for Chess Records subsidiary Checker that year; it flopped. Lucius McGill departed not long after, and wasn't replaced, cutting the group down to a quintet. Newly christened the Dells, they got another shot in 1955 when they signed to Vee-Jay. They had a minor R&B hit with the ballad "Dreams of Contentment" that year, but really scored big in 1956 with the doo wop classic "Oh What a Nite," which featured Funches singing lead and went Top Five on the R&B charts. Thus established, the Dells hit the road, although they found it difficult to duplicate their chart success. Tragedy nearly struck in 1958; on their way to a gig in Philadelphia, the body of the group's station wagon failed, resulting in a serious accident that lacerated Junior's larynx (slightly altering his voice thereafter) and nearly cost McGill the use of his leg. The Dells went on hiatus to recover; in the meantime, Barksdale became a temporary member of the Moonglows, where he sang alongside Marvin Gaye.
The Dells reconvened in 1960 and successfully auditioned to tour with Dinah Washington, as both her opening act and backup group. Funches, however, was tired of touring and decided to stay home with his family, which would be the last time any member left the group. He was replaced by lead/falsetto tenor Johnny Carter, a former member of the Flamingoes. Working with vocal coach Kirk Stewart, the Dells perfected the more challenging art of jazz harmony singing. They toured with Washington for two years, subsequently signing with the Chess subsidiary Argo and releasing four jazz-flavored singles, all of which tanked. They returned to Vee-Jay in 1964 and began recording R&B again, though their local nightclub act centered more around jazz; 1965 brought them a Top 30 R&B hit with "Stay in My Corner," their biggest success since "Oh What a Nite." However, Vee-Jay went bankrupt in 1966, and the Dells returned to Chess for a third time, this time the Cadet subsidiary; their first two singles, "Thinking About You" and "Run for Cover," became local hits. Also in 1966, the Dells became Ray Charles' touring vocal backup, giving them an opportunity to sing in some of their biggest concert venues yet.
Cadet was where the Dells' career really started to take off. In 1967, the label assigned producer Bobby Miller and arranger Charles Stepney to handle the group, and they began to exploit the striking contrast between Junior's earthy baritone and Carter's luminous falsetto, adding lush orchestrations and plenty of horn charts. The Dells' first album under the Miller-Stepney aegis, There Is, was a smashing success, spawning no less than four hit singles including an expanded remake of "Stay in My Corner" that topped the R&B charts and went Top Ten pop. Suddenly the group was bigger than it had ever been; their follow-up album, 1968's Always Together, spun off another four singles. Released in 1969, Love Is Blue gave them another R&B number one and pop Top Ten with a remake of their '50s classic "Oh What a Nite." Miller moved on to other projects in early 1970, and Stepney became the Dells' producer on the following year's Freedom Means, which featured the hit ballad "The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)." After a Dionne Warwick repertory album in 1972, Cadet hired Don Davis as the group's new producer, which paid immediate dividends in the form of the Dells' first certified million-selling single, 1973's "Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation." After a few more hits with Davis, the Dells left Cadet in favor of Mercury in 1975.
Although the group's production kept pace with the times, incorporating nods to disco, their Mercury stint wasn't as successful, and they switched labels again in 1978, jumping to ABC for a couple of albums. It seemed their career momentum had stalled, at least until 1980's I Touched a Dream LP, recorded for 20th Century. Produced by the Chi-Lites' Eugene Record, I Touched a Dream recaptured the Dells' old magic, and was greeted with enthusiastic reviews. The follow-up, Whatever Turns You On, wasn't quite as successful, though, and the Dells wound up spending a number of years off record, returning with a little-noticed old-style soul album in 1988's The Second Time. It looked as though they might be consigned to the oldies circuit until filmmaker Robert Townsend approached them to serve as consultants on his movie about a fictional vocal group, The Five Heartbeats. The Dells recorded a song called "The Heart Is a House for Love" for the soundtrack, which became a left-field R&B chart hit when it was released as a single in 1991. That led to a new album for Zoo in 1992, I Salute You, which attempted to mate the Dells' sound with urban contemporary and new jack swing production; however, it wasn't a hit, and the group returned to touring. Former lead singer Johnny Funches died of pneumonia in January 1998, and Verne Allison underwent a successful triple bypass in 2000, the same year the Dells released Reminiscing on the revived Volt label; it was their first album of new material in eight years. Johnny Carter died of cancer in August 2009, and in May 2013 Marvin Junior died after suffering from heart and kidney problems.
Wikipedia:This article is about R&B group. For the Wisconsin geologic feature or vacation destination, see Wisconsin Dells (disambiguation).
The Dells were an American R&B vocal group. Formed in high school in 1952 by founding members Marvin Junior, Verne Allison, Johnny Funches, Chuck Barksdale, and Mickey and Lucius McGill, under the name the El-Rays, they released their first recording in 1954, and two years later, had their first R&B hit with "Oh What a Night". After disbanding due to a near-fatal car crash in 1958, the band reformed in 1960 with Funches being replaced by Johnny Carter. This lineup remained together until Carter's 2009 death. The Dells were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004. The band performed until illness forced longtime lead singer Marvin Junior and bass vocalist Chuck Barksdale into retirement, ending the group's 60-year run.Allmusic biography
ContentsHistory1.1 Early career1.2 Successful years1.3 Later years1.4 Deaths
The Dells grew up in Harvey, Illinois and began singing together while attending Thornton Township High School. Forming in 1952 under the name the El-Rays, the group initially consisted of Marvin Junior, Mickey McGill, Lucius McGill, Verne Allison, Chuck Barksdale, and Johnny Funches. Lucius soon left the group and the remaining quintet signed with Checker Records, releasing their first single, "Darling I Know," which flopped.
In 1955, the group renamed themselves the Dells and signed with Vee-Jay Records. In 1956, they recorded their first hit, "Oh What a Night" (a song co-written by Johnny Funches, who also sang lead on the recording alongside Marvin Junior), which hit the Top 5 of the R&B singles chart. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. The song is ranked #260 on the Rolling Stone magazine's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In November 1958, the Dells suffered a car accident that left McGill in a hospital in Ohio for six months. The group temporarily disbanded and Barksdale sung as a member of Harvey Fuqua's spinoff Moonglows act, Harvey and the Moonglows, which included a young Marvin Gaye. In 1961, the Dells reunited and auditioned for Dinah Washington. After Washington agreed to hire them, Johnny Funches left the group to take care of his family. Funches was replaced by Flamingos founding member Johnny Carter and sung background for Washington for two years. In 1966, Ray Charles hired them to be opening acts, only to fire them after their performance gave them several standing ovations. The group would also sing background for Barbara Lewis, mainly on Lewis' 1963 hit, "Hello Stranger", while also working with Quincy Jones, who helped to fine tune their vocals for standards and jazz material.
In 1966, the Dells returned to Chess under the label's Cadet subsidiary working with Bobby Miller and future Earth, Wind & Fire arranger Charles Stepney. In 1967, the Dells issued the album There Is which included their first R&B chart-topper in years with the title track, which showcased the sharp baritone of Marvin Junior and the harmonies with the four other Dells. The song was also their first top 20 pop hit.
Subsequent R&B hits included "Wear It on Our Face," "Always Together" (Top 20 Pop, "I Can Sing a Rainbow - Love is Blue (medley)" (UK #15), and their first #1 R&B hit and first Top Ten pop hit, 1968's "Stay in My Corner," which reached #10 on the pop chart and showcased both Carter and Marvin in lead vocals. The Dells' soulful version of their debut hit, "Oh What a Night" gave the group their second chart-topping R&B single and also reached the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100. For a second time, the song sold over a million copies. Subsequent hits included "Open Up My Heart," "Oh What A Day," and "On the Dock of the Bay." In 1971, the Dells' "The Love We Had Stays on My Mind" became another Top Ten hit on the R&B charts, also reaching the pop Top 30. By this time Charles Stepney had taken over production duties from Bobby Miller. 1973's "Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation" was their third certified gold record. The song was written by L.V. Johnson and produced by Don Davis.
Leaving Cadet around the end of 1974 with the parent company in financial difficulties, the group would continue recording under the Mercury, ABC, 20th Century Fox and Virgin labels finding some hits including 1980's "I Touched a Dream", which returned the group to the top 40 on the R&B charts. The Dells were confined mostly to the oldies market afterwards until they were asked to be creative consultants to Robert Townsend's acclaimed 1991 musical, The Five Heartbeats, which was loosely based on the lives of the Dells. The group recorded a composition titled "A Heart Is a House for Love". The song reached number thirteen on the Billboard R&B chart, making them only one of two groups to have hit singles in five decades. The following year, signing with PIR, they released the album, I Salute You. The Dells continued performing and recording sporadically in the early years of the new millennium. In 2004, the group were inducted to both the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group continued performing until 2012.
In 1998, original Dells vocalist Johnny Funches died of pneumonia on January 23, 1998. Johnny Carter died of cancer eleven years later on August 21, 2009. Carter is one of the few artists to be a double Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, having been inducted with The Flamingos in 2001, and the Dells in 2004. On May 29, 2013, Marvin Junior died in his sleep at his home in Harvey, Illinois, succumbing to complications of kidney failure and a weak heart at 77. Chuck Barksdale is also said to be gravely ill."Johnny Funches (The Dells)". Rockabillyeurope.com. Retrieved 2012-03-26. Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. pp. 81, 258 & 327. ISBN 0-214-20512-6. Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 150. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. Wynn, Ron. "L.V. Johnson". Allmusic. Retrieved May 27, 2010. Thedeadrockstarsclub.com - accessed August 21, 2009 "'Oh What a Night' singer Marvin Junior dies at 77". ABC 7 News Chicago. May 29, 2013. Retrieved May 29, 2013.