One of the longest-running vocal groups in rock and roll history, the Dells date back to 1952. The group’s original lineup – lead tenor Johnny Funches, second tenor Verne Allison, lead baritone Marvin Junior, baritone Michael “Mickey” McGill and bass singer Chuck Barksdale – changed only when Johnnie Carter replaced Funches in 1960. Between 1956 and 1992, the Dells racked up an astonishing 46 R&B hits. Eight of these made the pop Top 40, including their best-known songs, “Stay in My Corner” and “Oh, What a Night.” The Dells are part of a great lineage of black harmony groups, including the Stylistics, the Delfonics and the Dramatics, and the phenomenal success of younger acts like New Edition, Boyz II Men, Backstreet Boys and N’Sync would be hard to imagine without them.
The Dells’ greatest successes came on Cadet (one of Chess’s subsidiary labels) between 1968 and 1973. However, the Dells also had a successful first chapter as a doo-wop group on Vee-Jay in the Fifties and early Sixties. With McGill’s brother Lucius as a short-lived sixth member, they formed in high school in their native Harvey, Illinois (a Chicago suburb), and they’d gather on a streetcorner or in a subway station to perfect their craft. They cut their first sides for Checker (also a Chess subsidiary) as the El-Rays in 1953. A year later, pared to a quintet and renamed the Dells, they signed to Vee-Jay, the Chicago-based R&B label. The group scored a major R&B hit in 1956 with their third Vee-Jay single, “Oh What a Nite” (Number Four), a vocal-group classic that they remade a decade later as “Oh, What a Night.” The later version topped the R&B charts and became a Top 10 pop hit, too. The Dells also scored twice with “Stay in My Corner,” on Vee-Jay in 1965 (Number 23 R&B) and Cadet in 1968 (Number One R&B, Number 10 pop).
The only change in members occurred after a 1958 car wreck seriously injured McGill and sidelined the band. When they regrouped in 1960, Johnny Funches opted not to return and Johnnie Carter – late of the Flamingos, and also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with that vocal group – replaced him. The Dells were holding down regular jobs and performing on weekends, but after winning an audition as Dinah Washington’s backup group, they returned to music full-time. They toured with Washington from 1961 to 1962. “She put us on our feet,” said Barksdale, “and we began to understand how this business is supposed to go.” The Dells then moved in a mellower jazz and pop-harmony direction, a la the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Lo’s.
When Vee-Jay shut down in 1966, the Dells moved to Chess. With producer Bobby Miller and arranger Charles Stepney, the group began cutting hits in a solid R&B vein again. There Is, released in 1968, was a unique combination of Fifties doo-wop harmonies and orchestrated Sixties soul. The highly successful album yielded four hits.
The Dells recorded prolifically for Cadet through the mid-Seventies, and their more noteworthy releases included 1971’s Freedom Means, 1974’s The Mighty Mighty Dells and 1975’s We Got to Get Our Thing Together. In 1974, they teamed with the Dramatics to cut The Dells Vs. the Dramatics. The late Nineties saw the release of two Dells compilations: Oh, What a Night!: The Great Ballads (MCA) and Anthology (Polygram). In 2000, they released a new album, Reminiscing, on the revived Volt label. Two years later, the Dells celebrated their 50th anniversary – an amazing feat of talent and perseverance.