HARD TO believe but true the Dells celebrated twenty years of existence in February 61 tins year and I think it's fair to say that there has hardly been a year during that time that they haven't contributed something of major proportion to the soul scene.
To show their appreciation. Chess Records made June 'Dells Month' in the States. "My concept of the whole idea of Dells Month." explained Chuck Barksdale, the group's bass singer, "is that the company repromotes all of our old albums in some cases re-pressing them as well as putting a major drive behind our new one."
That drive will go behind some nine albums going right back to their first major album release. "There Is", right up to today and the brand new album, "Give Your Baby A Standing Ovation".
"From what I can make out, "Chuck continued, "it entails the company taking advertisements in various major cities around the States and also buying time on the radio stations for the new album. It's a tremendous compliment from the company and we are very proud to be on the receiving end of it. From what we have been told, it's also been a successful campaign, too, so that makes it that much more worthwhile. But if you were to ask me the question of its success m about a month's time, I could give you an even better and more precise answer."
This year. 1973. has been one of the very best for the Dells and it has given them already one very major hit in "Give The Baby A Standing Ovation". At the time that I was speaking with Chuck, the group was in Detroit putting the finishing touches on their next album, which w ill be the first with their new producer. Don Davis, famed for his work with the Dramatics. Johnnie Taylor and Major Lance. The first time that Don and the Dells came together to work was on the single. "Standing Ovation" but the album of the same name only bears two tracks recorded with Don.
Already, though, this upcoming album looks like bearing rich fruit because Chuck is 99% certain that the next single will come from this session. "There's one cut on there that we all think will be a monster for us and we expect it to be our next release," he says. "It's called "My Pretending Days Are Over. I'm Gonna Leave The Acting To The Stars In Holly wood". It's all about a guy who has found his right woman and he's going to give it all up for her. You remember Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman"? Well, it has something of that flavour about it.
"The rhythm tracks were cut down in Muscle Shoals. Alabama, and we're here in Detroit now adding the strings and horns and all. This is, you know, only our second session with Don. The first time we just did "Standing Ovation" and the flipside. "Closer". But this is really the first time that we have been able to really get lo know each other. And, without doubt, I would have to say that this looks like being one of the most beautiful relationships we've ever had with a producer. And I don't mean to slight anybody because we've had some wonderful producers Charles Stepney carried us through some wonderful and successful years."
In this day and age when one marvels at groups like the Drillers, the Coasters and the other oldie groups that are still around, the Dells are something really special. Because, whilst they retain the charm of being capable of coming up with their own hits of more than a decade ago, they have weathered the storm perhaps better than any other group. I say that because virtually al of the other groups have undergone numerous personnel changes and they have all had lean spells with record sales.
The Dells have never suffered the latter and they have, to their enternal credit, been able to keep completely up-to-date with their sound and musical concept, thus not having to delve back into their hits of the 50's repertoire. It is surely worth noting that many of today's really big and successful vocal groups hail from the late 50's and early 60's era. Names such as the O'jays, Spinners. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Temptations they can all be traced back to more than a decade ago and perhaps the Stylsitics are the only genuine new supergroup.
But the Dells are one up on all of these others — except the perennial Temps, of course because they have all without exception gone through a long period of nothingness, if such a word exists.
Their very earliest line-tip was Chuck Barksdale, Michael McGill. Marvin Junior. Lucius McGill, Verne Allison and Johnny Funches, the group's original lead voice. At their inception, they were known as the El Rays, Under that name they only made the one record for Chess' subsidiary label, Checker, entitled "Darling I Know" but it wasn't a hit. A year later in 1954, they became a quintet with Lucius leading the group.
At the same time, they joined Vee Jay Records, also of Chicago, and became the Dells. During the two years that followed they recorded a lot of tracks for Vee Jay but it wasn't really until 1956 that they really broke through. That was with "Oh 'What A Nite", written by Marvin Junior and Johnny Funches. It reached the Top 5 R&B chart in the Stales towards the end of 1956.
In all honesty, the remaining years with Vee Jay were not all that successful. There were times during that spell when the group nearly broke up.
"I think perhaps that the prime reason for us staving throughout those years. "Chuck honestly admitted. "Was that we knew each other so well, we knew we would make it. We had all grown up together in the same streets in Chicago and we had gone through so much together.
"You know, that's our thing togetherness. Sure, we have had our ups and downs but we know each oilier so well, we're just like blood brothers. I think, through the grace of God, we were given minds that were co-ordinated towards keepin the group together no matter what happened. I can only say we're very thankful."
In I960, the group re-joined Chess Records and this time they appeared on the Argo label, which was later to be changed lo Cadet, their present label, During the three years that they staved with the company that time, they only had one worthwhile hit. "The Bossa Nova Bird". During that spell, though, they did make their only other personnell change. Johnny Lunches left the group and was replaced as lead singer by Johnny Carter, who had previously been lead voice with the Flamingos.
At the expiry of their contract, they returned to Vee Jay Records and there they stayed until the company folded in 1960. However, they did make good again with a song called "Stay In My Corner", which was a summer hit for them in 1965.
The eara between those two big hits "Oh What A Nite" and "Stay In My Corner" — was certainly the hardest for the group. "We did actually throw it in for a few months back in 1960 but we owe a great deal to Dinah Washington, really. She picked us up around 1961 and she took us to the dinner clubs and supper clubs and that was our big break, really. I think that may be the turning point in our lives and I think that if Dinah Washington hadn't picked us up then or someone of that status you and I wouldn't be having this conversation now." This is the same though now with all young talent. They need someone to come up and say 'look. I think you've got talent and I've got the vehicle to let you be seen' and it's the lack of this that stops an awful lot of good talent from breaking through."
At the demise of Vee Jay Records in 1966, the Dells made their way to Chess Records for the third time. This time it was certainly third time lucky because the group hasn't looked back since having their first Cadet it back in 1967 with "O-O. I Love You". The hits have been thick and last and have included new recordings of both of their earlier hits and it is interesting to note that the Dells' only two chart toppers have been the re-cuts on "Stay In My Corner" and "Oh What A Nile "
Their other Top 10 records have been "There Is". "Wear It On Our Face", "Always Together". "Love Is Blue/I Can Sing A Rainbow" which gave them their only Top 20 record in Britain "Oh What A Day". "Open Up My Heart". "The Glory Of Love" and now. "Give Your Baby A Standing Ovation". And yet, with all of this success, their current hit is the first official Gold Disc that they have won. How can this be?
"Well. I'm glad you asked me that." Chuck said, obviously genuinely pleased that the point had arisen. "As far as the RIAA (the governing boby of the .American record industry and who actually make the awards for records selling more than a million) is concerned, we've never had a million seller until now. During Leonard Chess' regime at Chess Records. I guess he simply didn't want to belong to the RIAA. And so, though, we've sold million upon million of records, we never got that award.
"I remember that one year — it was 1968 or maybe 1969 — we were given some Gold records by Chess Records for "Stay In My Corner" and "Oh What A Night" and two Gold albums for "Dells' Greatest Hits" and "Love Is Blue". But they were given more or less as an appreciation on behall of the company rather than to let the world know that we'd sold the records. So, you can understand why we are so excited that we should at last get a real Cold record."
Actually, directly before this current hit, there were strong rumours flying about that the Dells were ready to leave Chess and join the new Kwanza label. "Yes, well," Chuck began obviously guardedly and intent on picking his words correctly, "we were thinking about leaving. I guess a recording contract is like a marriage really. We ran into a little dispute but it was settled very happily for all concerned. I think it cleared the air a little and the solution will benfit both parties. Certainly, as long as the company puts as much drive behind us as they are now doing, we won't be thinking about going any place."
With all of this long-founded success, it is worth noting, too. that the Dells have vet to play to a British audience. Sure, they've been here they were here earlier this year as substitute group for the O'Jays, when they pulled out.
"I'm glad you brought that point up, too." Chuck enthused, "because I would like the people in Britain to know how much we would like to play for them. We've been in London twice — back in 1971 and, as yon said, earlier this year in February or March but we have never played to anyone else but the American forces bases. And we loved everything about England, we loved the people and everything and it is honestly one of our big wishes that we should be able to come back and play to the civilian audiences. We've simply newer had the opportunity lo play for the record-buying audience and they have been very kind to us over the years and we would like to be able to say thank you properly. In fact, we would love to come over very soon and in time perhaps to help this record become a hit in Britain."
Also m the immediate future is a nationwide tour of the Stales by the Dells. "Somewhere along the line recently," Chuck reflects, "we lost the interest of the public, our public who had been buying our records. Whether it was neglect on the part of the record company or lack of the right material, we'll never know and right now it doesn't matter. We feel that right now, while we are back on the right road, we want to build ourselves back up to where we were only a couple of years ago. That's why we intend to set a big store into records and why we are taking such pains to make our records just right."
So, the immediate future looks bright for both the Dells and their fans — even their British fans with the bright thought that we may alast be able to see them in Britain before long. With the release now of Standing Ovation" in this part of the world, it looks all that much more likely and with Phonogram's efficient and effective promotional force behind the record, it must stand more than a fair chance of repeating its American success in Britain. Let's hope so because it would undoubtedly open the door for a British tour by live talented men.