The Dells were an R&B vocal group, formed in Harvey, Illinois in 1952. The original members were Johnny Funches, Marvin Junior, Verne Allison, Lucius McGill (who left early) Mickey McGill, and Chuck Barksdale, who were all high school students. They started as the El-Rays and was first signed to Chess label where they released one record. Soon, the group changed its name to The Dells, and released their first big R&B single “Oh What A Night” in 1956. More hits followed, such as “There Is” (their first Top 20 pop hit), “Stay In My Corner”, “Always Together”, “I Can Sing A Rainbow/Love Is Blue”, “Oh What I Night”, “The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind)” and “Give Your Baby A Standing Ovation”. The group experienced change of personnel in the late 1950s when Funches retired from active touring with the group and Johnny Carter (of the Flamingos) replaced him. Junior was then made as the lead singer after that shift. The Dells were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2004.
Early days as the El-Rays
The original members of the R&B/soul vocal combo The Dells had all attended the same high school in the town of Harvey, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. They were Marvin Junior (baritone), Johnny Funches (lead tenor), Verne Allison (tenor), Lucius McGill (tenor), Mickey McGill (second baritone) and Chuck Barksdale (bass).
In 1952, the group was formed, initially calling themselves The El-Rays, and signed with Chess Records’ subsidiary imprint Checker. They released their first single “Darling I Know” which flopped.
Now as the Dells, with their first big hit
Lucius McGill left not long after. He wasn’t replaced, and the group was now called The Dells and performed as a four-piece. In 1955, the group signed to Vee-Jay Records, and eventually scored their first big hit with “Oh, What a Night.” The single, featuring Funches on lead vocals, went to #4 on the R&B singles chart in 1956.
Temporary disbandment and reformation
Because of the success of “Oh, What a Night,” it made The Dells legitimate stars. The song’s success led to life on the road for the quintet. Their success however, was tainted by tragedy which occurred in the autumn of 1958. The entire group was in a near-fatal car accident that particularly left McGill requiring long hospitalization in Ohio.
Because of the accident, The Dells temporarily disbanded. In the meantime, the band’s bass vocalist Barksdale sang for the Moonglows, along with future star Marvin Gaye.
In 1960, The Dells got back together and auditioned for Dinah Washington. When the audition became successful, Funches retired from the group, preferring instead to stay with his family. He was replaced by Johnny Carter (lead/falsetto tenor), who had been with another vocal group The Flamingoes. This lineup — Junior, Allison, Barksdale, Mickey McGill, and Carter — would remain for over four decades. They toured with Washington for a couple of years, and signed with another Chess subsidiary Argo where they released a handful of little-known jazz oriented records.
Peak of chart success
The Dells then returned to Vee-Jay in the early 1960s, shifting to recording R&B again, making a minor return to the R&B charts with “Stay in My Corner” in 1965. In 1966, Ray Charles also invited them to be his touring vocal backup in his concerts. That same year, The Dells also returned to their old label Chess Records, this time to another subsidiary label Cadet, which would begin their long association with the imprint. There, the group started to collaborate with the producer-arranger team of Bobby Miller and Charles Stepney.
This move proved to be auspicious for the group as The Dells started to churn out one hit after another, on both R&B and pop charts especially in the late 60s music era. These included “There Is” (#20 pop, #11 R&B), their remake of “Stay In My Corner” (#10 pop, #1 R&B), “Always Together” (#18 pop, #3 R&B), “Does Anybody Know I’m Here” (#38 pop, #15 R&B), “I Can Sing A Rainbow” b/w “Love Is Blue” (#22 pop, #5 R&B), and their more successful re-hash of “Oh What a Night” (#10 pop, #1 R&B), among other charting singles on the Cadet label.
In 1970, Miller left to collaborate with other artists, leaving Stepney to fill in his stead as The Dells’ new producer for their album Freedom Means in 1971. The following year Cadet picked Don Davis (who had just finished working with Dionne Warwick) as the group’s new producer.
The Dells in later years
The group’s fortunes in the later years would never be the same. At least The Dells tried their best to update their sound as a response to the current musical trend. In 1976, The Dells moved from Cadet to Mercury Records. They tried their hand at disco, but the attempt was not successful. They later moved to different other labels: ABC, 20th Century Fox and Virgin. Their 1980 single “I Touched a Dream” at least returned them into the higher spot for the time being, peaking at #17 on the R&B singles chart that year.
The Dells seemed to be bound for the oldies music revivalist circuit. That is, until director Robert Townsend asked them to be his creative consultants for the critically-acclaimed movie musical The Five Heartbeats (1991), about a fictional vocal group loosely based on The Dells themselves. For the film soundtrack, they sang “A Heart Is a House of Love” (#13 R&B).
Original member Johnny Funches died of pneumonia, in 1998.
Despite their attempts to update their sound on their later records, they didn’t have the hits they hoped for. The Dells were still a popular touring act. The Dells remained together until Carter died in 2009 of cancer. The band went on for three more years until illnesses forced the remaining members into retirement, and in 2012 The Dells were no more.
Their contributions to the music industry have provided them with honors; the most prestigious of these were being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2012.
The group’s founder Marvin Junior died in May 2013 after a lingering illness. He was 77 years old.