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Chuck Barksdale Tribute


 The fans of old school vocal harmony groups are grieving over the loss of the unforgettable bass voice of the Dells, Chuck Barksdale.  He passed away this morning (May 15, 2019) about seven o'clock. Of the core members of the group, in the heavenly choir he’s preceded by Johnny Carter in 2009 and Marvin Junior in 2013. 


Charles was born on January 11 in 1935 in Chicago.  “My father was an entertainer.  In fact, he was an actor for whatever roles a black man could get back in the 20s and 30s.  My mother was a fantastic singer, an operatic singer.  She was contralto.  Her voice reminded you of a very rich Marian Anderson type of voice. -- She was singing mainly in Chicago for churches.”

“I sang in the church choir, because that was what was happening for those who had any kind of vocal talent as young kids.  My grandfather was a bass singer, and I always wanted to emulate him.  So he was my first inspiration towards that particular entertaining.”  Chuck’s own favourites included the Moonglows, Jimmy Ricks, Brook Benton, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles and Take 6.

Chuck got into music more seriously in the early 1950s.  “Michael McGill and myself would listen to music in his mother’s woodshed.  Mike’s mother wouldn’t let him play secular music in the house, so she made him put the record player in the woodshed.  There he had a collection of records from the Ravens, the Dominoes, the Moonglows, the Five Keys etc.”

“It was a situation, where I had gotten out of high school, joined the air force and come back.  Michael and Lucius McGill had moved to around Harvey, Illinois, a town called Markham.  Marvin Junior and Johnny Funches I always knew.  In small towns like Harvey and Markham, everybody knows everybody. -- Although I came from Chicago, my grandparents from my mother’s side lived in Harvey.”

Thornton Township High School in Harvey was the seat of learning for most of those six kids - Verne Allison, Marvin, Mickey, Lucius, Johnny and Chuck – who started practising street-corner doowop singing in 1952 and eventually formed the El-Rays.  You can read more about those days, first recordings and actually the whole history of the group in short in my tribute to Marvin Junior at  Chuck: “As young kids knowing literally nothing about vocal group singing, harmonies etc., we were like young babies lost in the woods trying to find our way musically into an area, where we would learn how to sing. --We had the voices.  We just didn’t know what to do with them. -- Leonard Chess told Harvey Fuqua ‘take these kids and teach them how to sing’.”


On Oh What a Nite on Vee-Jay in 1956, which was their first hit as the Dells, Calvin Carter replaced Chuck as the bass singer.  “In ’55 the Dells were not doing very well, work-wise or whatever.  We were in Detroit.  There was a group called Otis Williams and the Charms.  They had a couple of hit records – Hearts of Stone and Ivory Tower – they were doing very well.  Their bass singer left the group. -- I wasn’t with Otis Williams that long – maybe six-eight months, nine at the most.  I did a couple of sessions with them, but I can’t even remember what the names of those records were.”


Chuck had been moonlighting also with the Moonglows earlier in the 1950s, and again in 1959, when the Dells were on a two-year hiatus after a car accident on the Ohio Turnpike in November 1958.  “That was in ’59, when I hooked back up with Harvey Fuqua, who had just brought another group to Chicago called the Marquees.  In that group there were Marvin Gaye, Chester Simmons, who was also a bass singer, James Nolan and Reese Palmer.  They were then called the New Moonglows.  That was what kept my feet based inside of show business.” 

Chuck did the monologue on Jerry Butler’s A Lonely Soldier on Abner in 1960, and on the Dells single titled Swinging Teens on Vee-Jay in 1961 it’s only Chuck and Verne Allison, who were in the studio.  The other singers were Dallas Taylor and Lawrence Brown.  Chuck: “The others were trying to make up their minds, whether they want to sing professionally again.  It was in the heart, but hadn’t quite reached the mind yet.  Then everybody came back.”

The Dells
The Dells left to right: Verne Allison, Chuck Barksdale, Johnny Funches, Mickey McGill and Marvin Junior


Chuck: “There was a time period in Chicago, when the Dells were probably the most sought-after background group.  This period from the late 50s to mid-60s was flourishing with record businesses, record companies, distributors... -- A lot of these people we did background for, we may not have known personally.  We were the background vocal sound everybody was after.  So when we came into a session, it was not from the personal standpoint.  It was ‘go to do your session’, and we probably had two or three sessions in one day.” 

Together with the producer Bobby Miller and arranger Charles Stepney, the group hit their peak period on Cadet/Chess starting from 1967.  The first hit, a great soul ballad called O-o I Love you, actually starts with Chuck’s monologue.  One of Chuck’s biggest favourites from that Cadet period appears on the 1971 album Freedom Means, a medley titled If You Go Away & Love Story.  “It was the composition, the arrangement, the whole cohesiveness of the arrangement – vocally and instrumentally – what I loved.  Also the rendition is what I’m in love with.”

According to Chuck, the Dells have many more million-sellers than officially certified.  “Leonard Chess never joined the RIAA.  So what he would literally do, he would call us and say ‘come to the office next day, I’ve got something for you.’  He would have made up some gold albums, some gold singles, and he would give us the whole stack of them.  And we would be like little kids running around in toy town ‘oh man, we’ve got the gold album – but we don’t have the gold.’  We found out later that Stay in My Corner had literally sold over four million records around the world.  Leonard Chess paid us.  He gave us royalty cheques of fifty thousand in that era.  He kept us stroked real good.”


After the glorious Cadet era, the group switched over to Mercury but Chuck wasn’t very pleased with those records, especially with No Way Back in 1976,  “...probably an album that should have never come off in terms of allowing us to lose our identity.  The Dells identity has been and probably will be – until we are no longer – to sing the best of the greatest love songs we can find.  You come along with a very good up-tempo song from time to time – There Is, Wear It on Our Face – but we’re not a disco group, never will be.”

The group still had releases on such labels as ABC, MCA, 20th Century, Private I, Veteran, Virgin, Philadelphia International, Volt, Devine Records and their own Dells/Way, but the last real highlight was the 1991 ballad A House Is a House for Love from the Five Heartbeats movie.  “This was not supposed to be a story about the Dells from the beginning.  This was supposed to be a story about a stand-up vocal group, black, that was gonna be a comedy.  Robert Townsend, the director, was brought to our dressing room by a young lady by the name of Kitty Sears, because he wanted to come and ask us, if it would be okay for him to use Stay in My Corner and Oh What a  Nite in this upcoming comedy.  When he mentioned ‘comedy’, Marvin Junior chimed in and said ‘hey, wait a minute, ain’t nothing funny about being a black stand-up vocal group.  It’s a major struggle, and the struggle continues today.’ -- Robert travelled with us for the next six weeks.  He watched our comradery, he heard us argue, saw us work on stage, riding on a bus, have dinner together.  He took that and literally changed the script.”

In 2004 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Please read still Chuck’s comments on their 2008 CD Then and Now -  

Chuck’s quotes are taken from the multi-part Dells Story in Soul Express).


© Heikki Suosalo

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