50 years of smooth harmonies

Dells stand, deliver timeless sounds

May 04, 2002|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Fifty years they have been together, making music steeped in silky smooth harmony, hypnotic melodies and good old-fashioned soul. Fifty years of producing a string of classic hits, from the toe-tapping "Oh What a Night," to the achingly tender "Stay in My Corner."

Fifty years of concerts around the world, platinum and gold records, even a critically acclaimed Hollywood movie.

A half century - a near lifetime, it seems - of being the legendary Dells. In many ways, they are the forerunners of latter day R&B harmony, helping set the standard for groups like the Temptations, the Miracles and many contemporary artists.

"We're the last group standing, and I think we have paved the way for successful vocal groups, from Boyz II Men to 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys," says co-founding member Chuck Barksdale, speaking by telephone from the group's home base in Chicago.

"We are probably one of the only groups of black males, doing stand-up vocals that remains intact after so long ... it's almost unbelievable, but it feels great to be able to celebrate our 50th anniversary as performers."

Barksdale, the group's spokesman, is incredibly upbeat despite a recent fire that swept through his family's longtime residence, destroying property and irreplaceable mementos, including several gold records.

It means that as he prepared to fly to Baltimore for the Dells concert tonight at Morgan State University, he also dealt with the insurance company, claims adjuster and a real estate agent. "No one was hurt, that's the important thing," says Barksdale, who describes himself as a man of faith, and a survivor.

Indeed, that same philosophy has sustained the Dells in the often tough and unpredictable music industry, helping them survive the professional pitfalls and personal pratfalls that have felled other successful groups.

"We have always stood for God, and for each other," he says of group members Marvin Junior, Johnny Carter, Verne Allison and Michael McGill. "Over the years, we've had our arguments, had our problems. But we understand that you don't have to be disagreeable to disagree. I think that has helped keep us together, and everybody has been here since the group's inception."

They started in 1952, just five high school buddies from a Chicago suburb who called themselves the El Rays, crooning doo-wop and harmonizing on street corners and in the subway. The El-Rays cut their first single for Chess Records in 1954, a song called "Darling I Know," that flopped. Two years later, they signed with Vee Jay Records and changed their name to the Dells.

"We pulled the name out of a hat," says Barksdale, chuckling. "The old name had gotten too complicated, and we needed something that would fit easily on the marquee. Dells rhymed with bells, like music. We liked that."

The name change may have done the trick, for soon after, the newly dubbed Dells released "Oh What a Night," which became an immediate hit.

By the '60s, the quintet was opening for Dinah Washington, working with producers like Quincy Jones and touring with Ray Charles. The Dells also began singing more ballads and standards and incorporating jazz-infused harmonies into their signature doo-wop style.

Along the way, the Dells were also cranking out what would be some 44 chart-placing R&B hits, including three that reached No. 1. One of those was "Stay in My Corner" - all six minutes and 10 seconds of it.

The ballad (released in 1964 on Vee Jay Records, then re-released in 1967 on Cadet Records) remains a beloved favorite among Dells fans.

"When we were teen-agers, everybody would dance to that song at parties," says Brenda V. Thompson, a nurse practitioner from Woodlawn who has been a fan for more than 40 years. "I can still hold the note, just like he did," she laughs, referring to lead baritone Junior's golden moment in the song.

Over the years, she has kept up with the group, attending concerts whenever the Dells come to town. She has also introduced her son, Craig Thompson - in his 30s - to the music. "He's gone with me to shows. ... We both enjoy the Dells," she says. "I think the fact that they are celebrating 50 years together is a true testament to their talent."

Indeed, the Dells keep moving right along.

They have racked up a bevy of prestigious awards, among them an NAACP Image Award and induction into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation hall of fame.

In 1991, they gained a new generation of fans with the release of The Five Heatbeats, based on their lives and careers.

Meantime, they perform 95 to 100 concerts yearly, while making time for community projects.

Their latest is working with "Open Up My Heart Inc." a non-profit foundation based in Miami that is raising money to assist janitors, couriers, temp workers and cooks victimized by the Sept. 11 attacks. To help, the Dells released "Open Up My Heart: the 9-11 Suite." It's a remake of the Dells' 1970 hit single "Open Up My Heart," sung with Jubilante, a Miami youth choir.

Asked the secret of their longevity, Barksdale says he believes the Dells have created a musical legacy that will endure in this age of videos, Internet music and teen pop sensations.

"I think what has happened is that the music that was written and produced for us has great meaning to people," says Barksdale. "It has class, dignity, it respects our women. I think that is why we're still here."

Concert

What: The Dells (with the Delfonics, Blue Magic, Eddie Holman and BADD)

Where: Gilliam Concert Hall, Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, Morgan State University

When: 7 tonight

Tickets: $27.50-$50

Call: Murphy Center, 443-885-3286; TicketMaster, 410-481-4328

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