The Dells have given us a half-century of R&B harmony

The Rock Hall of Fame group has had 46 R&B hits

Music: in concert, CDs

May 06, 2004|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,Special to the Sun

After being nominated nine previous times, it's no wonder the Dells were stunned to learn they'd finally been inducted into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"A friend who is a DJ in Washington, D.C., called me up," says group spokesman Chuck Barksdale, speaking by phone from his Chicago-area home. "He asked if I'd heard the news, and I told him, 'Don't play with me.' "

Once his initial skepticism gave way to jubilation, the singer was overcome by emotion.

"I told him to hold the line. I said, 'Lord have mercy.' Don't tell me there is no God. He will do for you but only in his time. ... It's truly wonderful. It's the highest honor we could get. It's major. This is once in a lifetime."

Indeed, the Dells have had a once-in-a-lifetime run, propelled by a silky-smooth string of soulful hits and a storied longevity. (The Dells are one of the longest-running vocal groups in rock 'n' roll history.)

Co-founder Barksdale and fellow members Marvin Junior, Verne Allison, Michael McGill and Johnny Carter (who replaced original member Johnny Finches in 1960) have made sweet music for 51 years now -- with no signs of slowing down.

"We're old, not cold," says the 69-year-old bass singer, laughing. "These days, there's a huge void for old-school artists. They want to put you out to pasture, and the radio stations don't want to give you airplay. But we've never given up."

The group recently released a new CD, titled Hott. Its first single, "Can We Skip That Part," is what Barksdale dubs a "magnificent" ballad encouraging couples to fight less and love more. It was written by Allison's son.

Meantime, the Dells still perform 75-110 dates a year and will appear in Baltimore Saturday at the Fifth Regiment Armory for a pre-Mother's Day concert. The lineup includes the Intruders, Eddie Holman and Ollie Woodson, formerly of the Temptations.

"We thank the people of Baltimore for keeping us around," says Barksdale. "It is so heartwarming to know that people have been true fans and friends of the Dells all these years. We don't take it for granted."

The Dells went into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March with Prince, George Harrison, Jackson Browne and ZZ Top.

Describing the ceremony at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel as "very lavish, very costly," Barksdale still sounds euphoric recalling the star-studded, music-filled extravaganza.

"Robert Townsend introduced us," he says of the actor / producer / director behind the acclaimed 1991 film The Five Heartbeats, which chronicled the Dells' lives and career. "Our wives were there, our families. They have been through so much with us. It was a wonderful experience."

The honor is fitting for these forerunners of latter-day R&B harmony, who have persevered for decades in the notoriously fickle music business.

They started in 1952, simply 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," which flopped. Two years later, they signed with Vee Jay Records and changed their name to the Dells because it fit easily on the marquee, and it rhymed with bells, like music.

The name change seemed to do the trick, for soon after, the quintet released "Oh What a Night," which became an immediate hit.

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

Between 1956 and 1992, the Dells racked up some 46 chart-placing R&B hits, including eight that made pop's Top 40, and three that reached No. 1. Perhaps the most famous is the tender "Stay in My Corner" -- a twice-released fan favorite that lasts more than six minutes.

In the late '90s, the group released two compilation albums; in 2000, they put out a new CD, Reminiscing.

Today, the Dells are signed to A&E Records, a small independent black-owned outfit in Atlanta. It's a move that has the group members hoping they'll garner new hits, says Barksdale, who quips: "We've been on more labels than Campbell's soup."

"You come into this business blindfolded," he says. "All you want to do is chase girls and go on stage. Then the reality hits you ... the IRS, reading contracts. I call it business show, instead of show business, because unless you understand business, the show is totally irrelevant."

Still, the Dells remain grateful. After all, they've had more than a half-century of success, concerts around the world, platinum and gold records, a Hollywood movie and awards that include an NAACP Image Award and induction into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.

The latest accolade is both humbling and inspiring, says Barksdale.

"Since being inducted, so many wonderful things are coming our way. We've opened up a whole universe of blessings. We're thankful."

The Dells perform Saturday at the 5th Regiment Armory (Howard and Preston streets) at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-481-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

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