His husky, mahogany instrument was the inspiration for Teddy Pendergrass and countless other male singers who emulated his grit, power and conviction, the very personification of a masculine voiced soul singer. When baritone Marvin Junior sang, you believed every word. As one of two long-time lead singers for the Dells (we lost the falsetto lead Johnny Carter in 2009), Marvin helped define for a generation what a male soul singer was expected to be, soulful, declarative, unwaveringly sure in his desires and love, the kind women wanted and men respected. An inductee in both The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Vocal Group Hall of Fame along with his fellow Dells, Marvin Junior will be greatly missed.
Born in the Chicago south suburb of Harvey, Illinois on January 31, 1936, Marvin Junior is an original founding member of The Dells. Formed at Thornton Township High, Marvin Junior, Johnny Funches (who was later replaced by Johnny Carter, formerly of The Flamingos, following a Dells’ car accident), Verne Allison, Chuck Barksdale, Mickey McGill, and his brother Lucius (who left the group after their first 45 was released) auditioned for Chess Records as a street corner doo wop group in the 1950s and hit regionally with “Darling I Know” and “Christine.” After being schooled by Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows on five-part vocal harmony and gaining experience as the background touring and session singers for the iconic Dinah Washington, the Dells proved unstoppable. Starting with their first national #3 R&B hit “Oh, What A Nite” (which would be re-recorded in 1969 as “Oh, What A Night” and became a #1 R&B and a Top 10 Pop hit) and followed through in 1965 with their Top 25 R&B hit, “Stay in My Corner,” a song whose re-recorded version eventually became The Dells first #1 R&B and Top 10 Pop hit in 1968. Scores of Top 40 R&B hits followed, including: “Nadine,” “Our Love,” “There Is,” “Super Woman,” “I Miss You,” “Always Together,” “Glory of Love,” “Open Up My Heart,” “I Touched A Dream,” “It’s All Up to You,” “On the Dock of the Bay,” “A Heart is a House of Love,” “The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind),” “I Wish It Was Me You Loved,” “I Can Sing a Rainbow/Love is Blue,” “Give Your Baby A Standing Ovation,” “You Just Can’t Walk Away,” “My Pretending Days Are Over,” and “Learning To Love You Was Easy (It’s So Hard Trying To Get Over You).”
With 26 original and 14 compilation albums released, Marvin Junior and The Dells had a career spanning four decades. More meaningfully, Junior belonged to a group whose member line-up after 1960 never changed again. There are few genres where The Dells did not successfully excel during their prime, from pop and R&B to doo-wop and jazz, every genre owned by their unique harmonies. The act recorded for several labels, sometimes helping to define that label, like Cadet/Chess in the 1960s with producer/arranger Charles Stepney, Philadelphia International with the legendary Gamble & Huff, as well as ABC, Volt, Virgin, Vee Jay, Mercury and 20th Century Fox, among others.
Marvin Junior and the group proved so culturally impactful during their run, they were the inspiration for Robert Townsend’s hit film The Five Heartbeats. Reportedly, it was Marvin Junior who encouraged a change in direction for the film, originally conceived as a comedy, to a serious drama, citing the decidedly unfunny experiences groups like The Dells endured on the road from 1952 up until Marvin Junior’s death, from racism to label rip-offs. Townsend toured for several weeks with Junior and The Dells to accurately capture the quintet's experience for Townsend's fictional story of the rise and fall of an R&B group. The movie soundtrack also landed The Dells a final major R&B hit in "A Heart is a House of Love."
A staple of the golden-era veterans' circuit, Marvin Junior and The Dells toured extensively throughout the 90s and 2000s and recorded their last album in 2002, Open Up My Heart: The 9/11 Album. His son, Marvin Junior, Jr., has followed his father’s footsteps, becoming a respected musician and recording artist with a voice very reminiscent of his father.
We are still working to identify and list out Marvin Junior’s surviving family members. Marvin Junior was 77. May he rest in peace and his music live on forevermore.
By L. Michael Gipson