(MCA) 11 tracks - Original 'Chess' recordings from 1967 to 1974
One of the longest summers of my life was spent unloading refrigerators in a Sea warehouse. Not only was the work tedious and the weather steamy hot, but I while my girlfriend lived in New York City. Fortunately, an AM radio, companion at work, and one song in particular seemed to keep me from vaving in completely. Several times a day the Dells' Open Up My Heart, a ballad that moved like a freight train up a hill, would hit the airwaves, and I would feel a jolt of new resolve as lead singer Marvin Junior resisted the temptation to oversing and the song built naturally to a taut climax. You could often count on the disc jockey to chime in over the instrumental break with some appropriately poignant prose and perhaps a dedication to a young couple in Germantown. Sometimes a couple of us would even try to sing the song in a boxcar (for proper echo, of course).
I survived the summer, in no small way due to Open Up My Heart, and to the Dells' I'll always be grateful. Open Up My Heart came near the end of the Dells' second. Their first was on Vee-Jay in the '50s and early '60s as a moderately successful)-wop group. They were rejuvenated in the late '60s by a move to Chess Records, where producer Bobby Miller and arranger Charles Stepney, with their brassier, updated arrangements and a new emphasis on baritone singer Marvin Junior brought the Dells their unprecedented success. A string of hits ('Stay In My Corner', 'Always Together', 'Love Is Blue') filled the gap left by Motown groups like the Four Tops and psychedelicized Temptations, while Detroit producer Don Davis provided a '70s rejuvenation with 'Give Your Baby A Standing Ovation', 'I Wish It Was Me You Loved' and 'My Pretending Days Are Over'.
The Dells recently celebrated their 34th anniversary, a staggering feat made all the more impressive by the consistency of personnel: only one change in three decades - Johnny Carter replaced Johnny Funches as featured tenor (before the group moved to Chess). That the group has maintained itself so well for so long is a wonder, but there's little to wonder about the songs on this album. It proves one and for all, the Dells stand alone.
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The charts didn't reflect it yet, but The Dells would reign as one of Chicago's top R&B vocal groups for several decades to come. Hailing from south suburban Harvey, Illinois, the quintet had only tallied one national hit for Vee-Jay Records, the scrumptious ballad Oh, What A Nite (it's on our 1956 volume), but that didn't reflect the sky-high quality of their Vee-Jay catalog.
The group boasted two exceptional leads; tenor Johnny Funches handled ballads with an airy, floating beauty, while melismatic baritone Marvin Junior punched the up-tempo stuff home with gruff intensity. Tenors Verne Allison and Mickey McGill and bass Chuck Barksdale completed the lineup.
Cut April 18, 1958, the delicate Funches-led ballad Dry Your Eyes, an Allison composition, was another Dells gem, though they didn't technically exist when Vee-Jay finally got around to pressing it up in September of '59 with a jumping Junior-led Baby, Open Up Your Heart that McGill wrote on the other side. The group had been involved in a late '58 auto accident on the Ohio Turnpike; McGill's leg was broken in three places, leading him to abandon the road. Allison went to New York; Barksdale joined Harvey Fuqua's new Moonglows with Marvin Gaye, and Junior and Funches toiled at a local steel mill. Happily, The Dells regrouped in 1960 apart from Johnny, who retired from singing for good. They found a sterling replacement: ex-Flamingos first tenor Johnny Carter, who gave the quintet a new falsetto top end. Junior emerged as the quintet's powerhouse principal front man.
Stylistically, The Dells progressed with Carter in the ranks. They got into modern harmony, singing jazz and backing no less than Dinah Washington on a couple of her '61 Mercury sessions. After a brief 1960 return to Vee-Jay, the group jumped over to Chess' Argo subsidiary and continued working toward a longterm bout with stardom that would finally ignite in the latter half of the '60s.