Like the Four Tops, the Dells will go down in soul music history as a group equally respected for its longevity as for its great music. A legendary act that moved from doo-wop to jazz to soul for 50 years, the Dells managed to stay relevant while musical styles and audiences changed, and created a discography of memorable material.
Formed in the early 50s in Harvey, Illinois by high school friends Marvin Junior, Charles Barksdale, Johnny Funches, Verne Allison, and Michael McGill, the group originally known as the El-Rays recorded the single "Darling I Know" for Chess records, but it went nowhere. However, the renaming of the act as The Dells and a signing with with Vee Jay Records two years later began the group's ascent, ultimately taking them into the Top 5 in 1956 with the doo-wop cut "Oh What A Night." Unfortunately, the group was unable to repeat the success of "Night," and for the next decade moved from doo-wop to jazz to soul in search of a signature sound.
In 1961, a frustrated Funches left the group and was replaced by falsetto singer Johnny Carter. Carter became the last personnel change in the group and the missing piece of the puzzle for the Dells. In 1965, the group landed the hit they'd been looking for with "Stay in My Corner," a six-minute, soulful ballad that highlighted what would become a group trademark sound: Junior's gritty baritone lead alternating with Carter's expressive falsetto. They gathered a national following over the next few years with a slew of hits on the Cadet label, including extremely successful remakes of their earlier hits "Oh What A Night" and "Stay in My Corner."
Working with producer Charles Stepney, the Dells hit a landmark in 1972 with Freedom Means, perhaps their greatest album and the vehicle for "The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind)," one of truly seminal soul ballads of the decade. They followed it the next year with the nice ballad "My Pretending Days Are Over" and the even bigger "Give Your Baby A Standing Ovation," which opened with a rather corny spoken introduction (complete with canned audience applause) but which nonetheless highlighted the great interplay between Junior and Carter.
Over the course of the latter 70s and 80s, the Dells continued to record and tour regularly, with dozens of middling charters. And just when it appeared they would forever be relegated to the oldies circuit, Robert Townsend knocked on their door to consult on his soul music movie The Five Heartbeats (loosely based on group's experiences), and brought the Dells in for two songs on the movie's soundtrack, "Stay In My Corner" and a new cut, "A Heart Is A House For Love." The latter was a surprise hit, and brought the Dells back to the top ten more than 30 years after their debut.
While the Dells continued to perform over the next decade, they released only two more relatively unsuccessful albums, the last being the Reminiscingin 2000 on Volt Records. The group picked up its recording pace in the 21st century, releasing two albums, the last of which was 2003's Hott.
In 2004, the Dells were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a well-deserved honor for one of the greatest soul groups of all time. The group performed more sporadically as the decade wore on. And in August, 2009, tenor lead John Carter died after a long bout with cancer. The response from around the music world was overwhelming; a reflection on Carter's talent and the often underrated importance of the Dells.
By Chris Rizik