Tell The World-The Story of The Dells©2000JCMarion


The story of The Dells begins as so many of these biographical tales do, in the halls of the local high school where a group of would be harmonizers get together and hit some notes and see if they have the makings of stardom in their future. In the case of The Dells the story begins within the friendly confines of Thornton High in Chicago suburb Harvey, Illinois. The members of the up to now nameless group included Johnny Funches - lead; Mickey McGill - baritone; Chuck Barksdale - bass; and tenors Marvin Junior and Verne Allison. Mickey McGill's brother Lucius was During the summer of 1953, the five young singers began to get serious about their talents and now had a name - The El-Rays, and searched for a record label waiting to give them a chance.

They found their way to Chess Records, and immediately recorded two songs for Leonard Chess who did not think very highly of the El Rays but gave them a one shot on the company's Checker label. The result is Checker #794 - "Darling I Know" and "Christine", and was released in the spring of 1954. The record did not go anywhere, surely part of the reason must be the low opinion of the group held by the record company's head man which certainly does not give a boost of confidence to the young singers. Although the disappointment was evident in the fate of the first outing by the El Rays, they decided to work on their shortcomings and give it a go again. They found a few gigs at neighborhood night spots and this helped them to improve their presentation and work on interaction with the audience. They also managed to get valuable tips and insight during a backstage get together with The Moonglows.

About a year after their failure with Checker Records, they were ready for a second shot at the big time. This time they were put in contact with Calvin Carter, Jimmy Bracken, and Vivian Carter Bracken, the guiding lights at Vee-Jay Records. Working with Vee-Jay, one of the very few Black owned and operated independent labels in the country, was a much more harmonious relationship in more ways than one. This resulted in the first release for the newly named Dells on Vee-Jay #134 - "Tell The World", while the flip side was "Blues At Three" by the Count Morris Combo. The ballad side by the group was a competent song that was sung well by the group but just did not catch fire outside their home area. (Today that record remains one of the great sought after collector's items of R & B vocal group history). Vee-Jay released a second record by The Dells near the end of the year - #166 - "Dreams Of Contentment"and "Zing Zing Zing".

By early 1956, the ballad side was doing very little in sales or airplay, but surprisingly "Zing" was doing fairly well in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. But this was not enough to dispel the feelings of frustration and failure within the group. During the summer of 1956 at the very pinnacle of the popularity of the sound of the Rhythm & Blues vocal groups, The Dells gave it one more go for Vee-Jay and the result of that fateful session is # 204 - "Oh What A Night" and "Jo Jo". The up-tempo side jumped off first but soon the ballad song "Oh What A Night" written by members Johnny Funches and Marvin Junior began to catch the ear of the public. Soon it was the major selling vocal group record of the summer and rocketed onto the national pop charts. By the end of the year it reached into the top five best selling records in the country regardless of style or category. It was the biggest seller for the Vee-Jay label up to that time and cemented the little independent label as a prime player on the national recording scene. "Night" just kept on selling even swamping their next release on Vee-Jay # 230 - "Moving On"/ "I Want To Go Home" which was almost a forgotten record. The group had floundered a bit because of the string of failures and some members even left for a time (notably Chuck Barksdale who did fill in work with The Moonglows and Otis Williams & The Charms), but now the Dells had finally met with success the five members were back together and soon found themselves on stage at New York's Apollo Theater along with The Pearls, Velours, Solitaires, Channels, and Flamingos. The Dells were now in with the top names in the field.

In early 1957 The Dells were back in the studios to record a true follow up side, now that #204 had finally run its course as a monster hit of the fifties. The result was another fine ballad called "Why Do You Have To Go" written and was a wonderful evocation of the discovery of true love and trying to hold on to the magic of the moment. In many ways it was the equal of "Oh What A Night", and together they made for an early legacy of the group. The record got good airplay and did sell well but certainly not in the league with their monster hit of the year before. Vee-Jay #251 came out in the summer pairing "OOh Bop She Bop" and "A Distant Love" and later in the year with #258 - "Time Makes You Change" / "Pain In My Heart", but neither one did much as far as sales were concerned. The two big ballads kept the group in the public eye however, and so the group had many in person appearances lined up.

In early 1958 The Dells do nightclub dates in Montreal and Toronto in Canada, and the group is well received there. They have a February date on Dick Clark's American Bandstand television show which is rapidly becoming a prime showcase for vocal group talent. About this time "The Springer" and "What You Say Baby?" are released on Vee-Jay #274. The Dells appear with Hoss Allen and John Richbourg at WLAC in Nashville, do a big show at Philadelphia's Uptown Theater for Georgie Woods with Chuck Berry, The Chantels, Pastels, Heartbeats, Hollywood Flames, and Little Joe & The Thrillers, and then head back to the Apollo Theater for a week. The Dells introduce their new record of "I'm Calling"/ "Jeepers Creepers" in June at the Royal Theater in Baltimore with Hot Rod Hulbert.

In late summer The Dells return to the Uptown Theater in Philly for a show with label mates The Spaniels and The Impressions with Jerry Butler. In October the group does a week long appearance at the Apollo Theater in New York. Throughout the next few weeks the group previews their newest release "Wedding Day". The official Vee-Jay release comes in late November on #300 b/w "My Best Girl". Late in the year the group heads from their home base in Chicago to Philadelphia for another Uptown Theater appearance with radio d.j. Georgie Woods. While outside Cleveland, they are involved in a serious auto accident that leaves Mickey McGill hospitalized and the other members with various injuries. The remaining members of The Dells make the show but soon after the group retires from the music scene. Vee-Jay continues to release singles by the group throughout this time.

Vee-Jay #324 - "Dry Your Eyes" / "Baby Open Up Your Heart"; #338 - "I Wanna Go Home" / a remake of "Oh What A Night"; and #376 - with Danleers member Dallas Taylor singing lead "Hold On To What You've Got" / "Swingin' Teens" were released during this period of inactivity. At this time in early 1960 Chuck Barksdale and short time member Johnny Carter (from The Flamingos) joined the Dinah Washington show as backup singers. The remaining four members were heard on four releases on the Argo label which was part of the Chess and Checker Records unit. None of the four were hits coming in 1962 and 1963 - Argo #5415 - "God Bless The Child" / "I'm Going Home"; #5428 - "Eternally" / "The Bossa Nova Bird"; #5442 - "If It Ain't One Thing" / "Diddley Dee Dum Dum"; and #5456 - "After You" / "Goodbye Maryanne". There were four more releases for the faltering Vee-Jay label in the mid sixties - Vee-Jay #595 - "Shy Girl" / "What Do We Prove"; #615 - "What A Good Night" / "Wait Til Tomorrow"; #674 - "Stay In My Corner" / "It's Not Unusual"; and #712 - "Hey Sugar" / "Poor Little Boy".

By 1966 the Vee-Jay label was no more as the pressure of big time recording had done the Black owned independent record company in. Fleeting record releases involving The Four Seasons and The Beatles added to the problems. At this juncture The Dells were faced with the problem of what to do to continue their career as a viable vocal unit, and the answer was one that many groups that lasted into the late fifties and early sixties had done. They realized that the day of the R & B vocal groups was over and something new was needed to sustain their popularity. So the members of The Dells set about reinventing themselves as others had done. It took a bit of doing, but by 1967 they found the right sound and presentation as a soul music entity closely following the lead of The Temptations. Now recording for Cadet Records (another Chess label) the group had a string of late sixties hits for the label. "O O I Love You" on #5574; "There Is" on #5590; "Stay In My Corner" (a top ten pop hit) on #5612; "Always Together" on #5621; "I Can Sing A Rainbow" on #5641; and a modernistic remake of "Oh What A Night" on #5649 (another top ten pop hit). All in all The Dells had more than 25 records that charted for Cadet in a ten year span. Their biggest was "Give Your Baby A Standing Ovation"on Cadet #5696 that was a million seller in 1973.

The Dells went on to record for Mercury Records for three years, ABC Paramount, 20th Century and the Private I labels into the late 1980s. The Dells after forty years in the business total close to fifty R & B hits, twenty five that made the pop charts, and numerous back up vocals for many artists such as Vee-Jay singers Jerry Butler, Barbara Lewis, Wade Flemmons, and Etta James on Cadet. It has been a marvelous career distinguished by its longevity and sustaining musical excellence. They remain in the hearts and minds of vocal group harmony lovers mainly for "Oh What A Night", but they were more, much, much, more.

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