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The Dells

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Oh What A Night

Article reproduced from Chicago Sun Times (14.03.04)

The Dells have spent a lifetime blending five distinct voices into a common call of beauty and spirit. The quintet's pursuit of soul and R&B music has led it from the streetlights of south suburban Harvey to the spotlights of Manhattan. And the group will be celebrating its 51st anniversary in style.

On Monday the Dells will receive one of pop music's highest honors, when it is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Dells will be honored in ceremonies at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City by actor-filmmaker Robert Townsend, who grew up on the West Side of Chicago and used the Dells as the basis for his 1990 movie "The Five Heartbeats."

Among the unsung heroes of rock 'n' roll, the Dells boast a resume that lists seven gold singles, three gold albums and 25 Top 40 hits. The band's lineage skips across the pages of a black music encyclopedia, incorporating doo-wop, gospel, blues and jazz influences.

The Dells are elated about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, particularly because it was a long time in coming.

"We are truly blessed," said Dells baritone Mickey McGill. "Especially when your peers vote you into something like this, you know all your work was not in vain. We have sung together and been together so long, we click on stage and off stage."

The "so long" stretches back to 1953, when the Dells were formed at Thornton Township High School. The group sang doo-wop with basic two-part harmony, until a meeting with Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows in 1954 convinced the band to expand into five-part harmony.

The group cut its first record in 1954 under the name of the El Rays for the Chicago-based Chess/Cadet label. The ballad "Darling Dear, I Know" went nowhere, earning just $36 in royalties.

Despite such bleak early prospects, the band played on. They renamed themselves the Dells after the Wisconsin tourist attraction, because they wanted to get away from the animal names (Spaniels, Flamingos) popular in that era.

Between 1961 and 1963, the Dells were managed by late jazz singer Dinah Washington. The Dells sang behind Washington, Jerry Butler, Etta James and Ray Charles. David Williams, Michael Jackson's guitar player, got his start with the Dells. So did Gladys Knight's musical director, Benjamin Wright. The Dells still tour with the likes of the Whispers and the O'Jays.

Butler first heard the Dells in 1958, when he was a member of the Impressions with Curtis Mayfield and Chattanooga, Tenn., imports Sam Gooden and Arthur and Richards Brooks. The Impressions had just recorded "For Your Precious Love."

"We were a bunch of young, scared kids," Butler said earlier this week. "We walked into Vee-Jay [Records], and there were the Dells -- our idols. We were emulating the Dells, the Spaniels [from Gary, Ind.], all the groups of that period. But the Dells were tall. And handsome, dressed to the nines. We stood there in awe.

"After that we all went to the Apollo Theatre in New York. The Dells were kind enough to tell us, 'This is what you do, this is what you don't do, this is where you stay, this is where you don't stay.' They were like big brothers. It was a wonderful period in our lives."

The quintessential Dells song is the 1956 hit "Oh, What a Night." Framed by flowing five-part harmony, it crested to No. 3 on the charts, behind Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" and Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill." That was rock 'n' roll.

Four out of the five current Dells are original members. (That's a better average than fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers such as the Temptations or the Beach Boys.) The group's empowering sound consists of the emotive lead of Marvin Junior, the floating second tenor of LaVerne Allison, the dignified bass of Chuck Barksdale and the reliable baritone of McGill. They are all original members. In 1959, former Flamingo Johnny Carter replaced Johnny Funches (who died in 1998).

This marks Carter's second entrance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is also an inductee with the original Flamingos.

Through the use of switch-off leads, the Dells distinguished themselves from other vocal groups. This unique cross checking was introduced by Chess Records producer Bobby Miller.

McGill explained, "Marvin has such a soulful, rough voice, but Miller told Carter, 'I want you to deliver the song.' So Johnny became the set-up man because he was tender. Once Johnny set the story, Marvin would come in, since he was such an impact singer. I believe this was our contribution to the world of music.

"For example, the Temptations had leads where Eddie Kendricks would sing the whole song, and David Ruffin would sing the whole song. Bob Miller said, 'No, we're going to let Johnny do a line, Marvin do a line.' It was different."

Early on, the Dells wrote much of their own material. Carter and Junior penned "Oh, What a Night," which returned to the charts in 1969 as a deep soul remake. During the late 1960s and early '70s, the Dells scored three million-selling albums "Love Is Blue," "Greatest Hits" and "There Is" (that disc's raucous title track became a crossover hit on WLS-AM and WCFL-AM).

In 1970, Butler opened the Butler Songwriting Workshop on South Michigan Avenue, which produced notable graduates such as Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy Jr. (Natalie Cole). Other alumni included Terry Collier and Larry Wade.

Dells arranger Charles Stepney thought so much of Collier and Wade's work with the Dells that he did an entire album ("Sweet as Funk Can Be" in 1972) devoted to it.

"At one time I was a little guy standing there looking at my heroes," Butler said. "And some 20 years later, I had a hand in doing something that helped lengthen their career."

Always striving to remain current, the Dells do not like to be regarded as a nostalgia act. They have always remained current. In the mid-1980s, the band scored a Top 20 R&B hit "You Just Can't Walk Away" for the now defunct Private I Records, which also was the home of the Staple Singers and the Chi Lites.

"At some point in time a group like this becomes family," Butler said. "You don't have a blood tie, you have a spiritual tie, which is sometimes greater. The secret to the Dells staying the way they are this long is that there's something deeper than just 'we are making money together.' It is a very spiritual thing."

Article by: Dave Heokstra (Chicago Staff Reporter)


Note: Would have posted this up on News section but didn't want to knock Mark B's letter off top.

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