Marvin Junior, dead at 77, was lead singer for the Dells
By Dave Hoekstra Staff Reporter email@example.com June 1, 2013 8:20PM
Chicago based R&B group the Dells. They enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 15, 2004 L to R; Johnny Carter, LaVerne Allison, Marvin Junior, Michael McGill, Chuck Barksdale
Updated: July 3, 2013 6:46AM
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 Harvey. Their journey led them to a 2004 induction into the Rock and 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. Seventy-seven years old, he was surrounded by friends and family.
The Dells’ catalog included seven gold singles, three gold albums and 25 top 40 hits.
The Dells began by singing gospel as freshmen 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, earning just $36 in royalties.
They renamed themselves the Dells after the Wisconsin tourist attraction.
Each voice of the Dells assumed a distinctive personality: the floating second tenor of Vern Allison, the booming bass of Chuck Barksdale, Mickey McGill’s baritone and Mr. Junior’s powerful lead. Former lead tenor Johnny 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 said 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 gave 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.”
At the next day’s rehearsal, they talked about the dinner-party.
“Johnny [Funches] said, ‘Oooh, what a night,’ ” Mr. Junior recalled. “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. The Dells sang behind a roster of Rock and 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’s musical director, Benjamin Wright.
In 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 the original Regal Theater on the South Side of Chicago.
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 vs. 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 said, “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 well. The Dells play on.