For much of today's listening audience, the Dells are a distant echo from some velvet canyon.
The doo-wop and soul quintet formed 60 years ago this year under the streetlights of south suburban Harvey. Their journey led them to a 2004 induction into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame. They were inducted by actor-filmmaker Robert Townsend, who grew up on the West Side of Chicago and used the Dells as a template for his 1990 movie "The Five Heartbeats."
Dells lead singer Marvin Junior died Wednesday of kidney failure at his home in Harvey. He was 77 years old.
He was surrounded by friends and family, near and afar.
The Dells catalog included seven gold singles, three gold albums and 25 top 40 hits.......
.....The Dells formed by singing gospel as freshmen students at Thornton Township High School. The group cut its first record in 1954 under the name of the El Rays for the Chess/Cadet label. The ballad "Darling Dear, I Know" went nowhere and earned just $36 in royalties.
They renamed themselves the Dells after the Wisconsin tourist attraction because they wanted to get away from the animal names (Spaniels, Flamingos, etc.) of the era.
Each voice of the Dells assumed a distinctive personality: the floating second tenor of Vern Allison, the booming bass of Chuck Barksdale, who is in ill health, Mickey McGill's baritone and Mr. Junior's powerful lead. Funches left the group in 1959 and was replaced by former Flamingo Johnny Carter, who died of lung cancer in 2009.
Mr. Junior fought for his space in the lead. "It's always been eight, nine of 20 guys on the corner and everybody wants to sing," Mr. Junior told me in a 1982 interview at May's Carry Out at 147th and Robey in Harvey. "Me and Johnny (Carter) still do it. Sometimes you'll have 10 tenors and four lead singers and people will be yelling "Shut up!," and he offered a hearty laugh.
Mr. Junior sang lead on the Dells biggest hit "Oh, What a Night," recorded in 1956.
"Oh What a Night" crested at No. 3 on the charts, behind Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" and Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill." The song was born at the Boots & Saddle club in Markham. "It was a unique place," Mr. Junior said. "They had a riding stable with horses and a nightclub called the Dude Room. They had horse and motorcycle rodeos in the summer. When they found out we had a group, they let us rehearse there. One Sunday night, a group of girls told us they were crazy about us and asked to cook dinner for us."
The Dells had a hell of a time.
At the next day's rehearsal they talked about the dinner-party.
"[Former lead tenor] Johnny [Funches, who died in 1998] said, 'Oooh, what a night.' I said, 'Say that again.' Johnny said, 'Oooh what a night.' And I said, 'To love you dear.' And we sat there and wrote it."
Between 1961 and 1963 the Dells were managed by late Chicago based jazz singer Dinah Washington, a favorite of Bob Dylan's. The Dells sang behind a roster of Rock n' Roll Hall of Famers: Jerry Butler, Etta James and Ray Charles. David Williams, Michael Jackson's guitar player, got his start with the Dells. So did Gladys Knight musical director Benjamin Wright.
During the early 1960s, the Dells were part of the Alan Freed rock n' roll circuit appearing in concert at the Apollo in Harlem, the Howard in Washington, D.C. , the Royal in Baltimore, and of course the original Regal Theater on the south side of Chicago.
They had so much fun that night they re-recorded "Oh, What a Night" in 1969.
The Dells had 1970s hits like "Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation" and "The Love We Had." The Dells best selling album of the 1970s was "The Dells v.s. the Dramatics," which still sounds like a vintage Herb Kent radio bit.
The Dells distinguished themselves from other vocal groups through switch-off leads, a cross checking technique introduced by Chess Records producer Bobby Miller.
Carter set up the song with his tender tenor. He established the story. Mr. Junior would then follow through with his powerful lead. They traded off vocal lines, framed by the other voices.
The group never forgot the lessons Dinah Washington taught them.
Mr. Junior said, "She really groomed and bred us for the supper clubs. We can sing just about anything."
Barksdale then added, "It was like going to graduate school. We sang a lot of high-low jazz. She managed us and she clothed us. She gave us a better concept in terms of stage presence."
They learned their lessons learned well. The Dells play on.