In the spirit of full disclosure, I just wanted to point out that I recently wrote the liner notes to this timely reissue by one of soul music’s most respected and longest serving collective. The Dells were one of the very few doo-wop outfits to successfully update their sound, finding their strongest commercial niche in the late ’60s and ‘70s as a polished, smooth soul harmony group to rival the likes of the Stylistics, Delfonics, Dramatics, and Impressions, whom they had, in turn, inspired. Founding member, and the group’s allotted spokesman, Chuck Barksdale, was good enough to elaborate on the group’s history, and shed light on the recording of this seminal album for the expanded reissue on SoulMusic.com.
By the time ONE STEP CLOSER was released in 1984, the Dells already had a history that few groups had matched, a highly impressive three decades together. Yet, amazingly in 2012 they’re marking their Diamond Jubilee, an incredible 60-years together, a monumental milestone of on and offstage camaraderie that few will ever equal. It’s a long way from the doo-wop harmonies the quintet had honed on the corners of Chicago streets during the early ‘50s, and while the fashions and styles of their music have changed many times in the intervening years, very little within the group’s makeup has been altered. The four founding members, Marvin Junior, Mickey McGill, Verne Allison, and Chuck Barksdale, were joined by original lead tenor Johnny Funches [1935-1998], until he was replaced in 1961by tenor Johnny Carter. Together the Mighty Dells would enjoy an impressive 48-years with the same personnel, until Carter’s death from lung cancer in 2009; he was 75.
The Dells arrived at Private I Records (the CBS distributed label was already revitalizing the careers of the Chi-Lites, the Staple Singers, and Bonnie Pointer) after several decades with Cadet/Chess, which came to an end in the mid ‘70s. In the decade that followed they recorded a handful of albums for a string of labels without ever finding a new home and a long-term relationship to match what they had with Cadet during their formative years. “I think that the times changed us,” reflected Chuck Barksdale. “We had lost Charles Stepney, who was our primary producer and arranger after he left Chess Records. We were looking for another deal … Then Marvin Yancy and Chuck Jackson, who were a wonderful production team, and had produced some very big records on Natalie Cole and Aretha Franklin, came to our attention.”
Recorded in California, ONE STEP CLOSER would be prefaced by the lead single, “You Just Can’t Walk Away.” This rich midtempo head-nodding love song would draw comparisons to Teddy Pendergrass’ subtle nuances, a coincidence Barksdale was quick to clarify: “Teddy was Marvin Junior’s surrogate son. He loved and adored Marvin, and that’s where he got his sound. In fact, whenever we were in town and Teddy was free, he’d always come to see us. We knew he was coming by to check Marvin out because it was an advancement to secure his position that he was getting ready to move into the vocal major league, which he very eloquently did. ‘You Just Can’t Walk Away’ was a great song, and I think the Dells did a great rendition on that particular production.”
The title track was swiftly issued as the follow-up, reaching the lower half of the R&B listings. “It was the first time we had used what I call synthetic music,” recalls Barksdale, “but the song was strong enough to make the track happen. We’d already heard the song, because Marvin [Yancy] had played it for us on the piano. When we heard the new rendition it made us think maybe we’re catching up with the times, rather than the times leaving us behind. So we accepted it for what it was worth, and it ended up being a very strong production.”
A third single, the shuffling midtempo jam, “Love On,” completed a trio of R&B hits (despite the lowly #60 placing), but the album’s hidden gem was the contemporary upbeat dancer, “Don’t Want Nobody,” written and produced by acclaimed guitarist David Williams. (It’s Williams’ signature funky strumming that famously anchors the end of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and a thousand other recordings from Madonna and Roxy Music to Earth, Wind & Fire and Boz Scaggs.)
Williams was also responsible for “Jody,” another synth-laden dancer and a modern tale of infidelity. The album also contained a cover, the Ashford & Simpson composition “I Am Your Man” (originally cut by Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers on Motown in 1968, later by the Four Tops and most recently by Seal). This served as a throwback to the group’s street-corner days with rich harmonies in their classic five-part vocal doo-wop style, with producers Archie Russell and Danny Johnson perfectly emulating a Bobby Miller production and Charles Stepney arrangement. Added to that mix was the striking juxtaposition between Junior’s earthy baritone and Carter’s luminous falsetto.
For 60 years the Dells have set the standard for top-to-bottom male harmony, and are among soul’s most important and venerable groups. They remain one of the powerful and unique vocal groups in the annals of R&B music, and were rightfully inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2004.
Whilst ONE STEP CLOSER might not rank as high in their complete discography as others – they racked up an astounding 47 R&B hits, with 27 of them crossing over to the pop charts – it did yield a trio of hits, and expertly bridged the old-new school divide in soul music with considerable ease.
About the Writer
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and the BBC, in the process compiling and/or writing liner notes for over 200 CDs (including a number for SoulMusic Records). Lewis currently consults for Kings Of Spins and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America.