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  One of the best – if not THE best - and most soulful baritone singers is gone.  Marvin Junior passed away on May 29, 2013, in Harvey, Illinois - about fourteen miles from Chicago – due to kidney failure and weak heart.  Many remember how on the big hit version of Stay in My Corner in 1968 on Cadet Records Marvin stretches a note (on ‘baby’) for seventeen seconds.  However, on stage he used to stretch it a lot longer and on the third single release of the same song on 20th Century in 1982 he holds that one note for thirty seconds! 

  Marvin was born on January 31 in 1936 in Harrell, Arkansas, but moved to Harvey, when only six months old.  Marvin: “My mother and my aunt sang in a spiritual group, and I’ve sung spirituals.  My father played guitar.  We listened to groups like the Moonglows, the Five Keyes and we’ve always liked Ray Charles.  My number one was the Moonglows, but I also loved a lot of spiritual singers, the Highway QC’s, the Sensational Nightingales...”

  Together with Verne Allison, Chuck Barksdale, Michael McGill, Johnny Funches and Lucius McGill, they formed a group called the El Rays in 1952 (in Spanish ‘rey’ means ‘the king’).  Marvin: “They always try to make us the kids that came from the ghetto, but Harvey then was a middle-class town, of 35 000.  We were raised here in Harvey, and we went to a beautiful Thornton High School.”

  Their very first single on Checker in 1954 was Darling I Know/Christine.  Marvin: “Leonard Chess gave us a cheque of seventy-something dollars and we thought we were cheated.  Truthfully he did us a favour, because the record really didn’t do anything.  It wasn’t a lot of copies printed.  It was only put out in Chicago.  I sang Christine.  After we recorded that record, Leonard really hurt my feelings, because he told me I was not a singer.  He said he liked me and told me to get me an education, to get a good job, because I was not a singer.  Later, when we signed back the next time (in ’62), he tried to get me to sign a single contract.”

  Lucius left the group in 1954, and soon after that they went to Vivian Carter’s house and signed with Vee-Jay Records.  “As we hadn’t had any big hits with our name, we changed our name to the Dells.  Vivian was the one that suggested that, but Verne came up with the name.  The same thing as it was before – we wanted a short name.  If you had a long name – there were so many acts in a show there, like from six to nine acts – your name would get abbreviated.”

  On Vee-Jay between 1955 and ’64 they released 17 singles and enjoyed some hits, such as Dreams of Contentment, Oh What a Nite and Stay in My Corner, for the first time in 1965.  The group disbanded for almost two years after a car accident in November 1958, and Johnny Funches left them in 1961 right after they had auditioned for Dinah Washington.  They replaced him with Johnny Carter of the Flamingos fame, and kept working as an intact quintet until Johnny’s passing in August 2009.

  The group returned to Chess, to one of its subsidiaries, Argo, for two years and four singles in 1962, but their most magnificent period – both musically, and in popularity – was with another Chess subsidiary, Cadet from 1966 till 1975.  Besides their own hits, the group did background work and contributions for many other artists, including Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Barbara Lewis, Betty Everett, Wade Flemons, Andre Williams, Etta James, Joe Murphy, Ted Taylor, Cicero Blake, Jo Ann Garrett, Bobby Jones, the Players etc.  After Dinah Washington they toured with Ray Charles for a while.

  The Dells, the producer and writer Bobby Miller and the arranger Charles Stepney formed the winning team to create such masterpieces as O-O I Love You, There Is, Stay in My Corner, Always Together, Does Anybody Know I’m Here, I Can Sing a Rainbow & Love Is Blue, Oh What a Day and Open Up My Heart.

  Marvin: “The second time we did Stay in My Corner was like a mistake.  We had put an album together, and we were ten minutes short on the album.  We had been doing Stay on stage and it went over well, so we thought ‘let’s put Stay on the album’.  Stepney said ‘well, it’s not ten minutes long, but I’ll tell what we’ll do.  We’ll stretch it’.” 

Their next big hit in 1971, The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind), was cut with Charles Stepney only.  Marvin: “Bobby Miller had an argument with Chess.  He left and went to Motown.  He tried to get us to follow him over to Motown, but we didn’t do it.  He got very upset about that.  We weren’t really thinking about leaving, because they gave us a new and better contract.”

  Their next producer was Don Davis, who first gave the group a golden record with Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation in 1973, and then hooked them up with the Dramatics (Love Is Missing from Our Lives).  Marvin: “Don Davis had the Dramatics already.  He came up with the idea of us and them doing an album together.  We were bumping into each other in the studio all the time, anyway.” 

  After that the group continued recording with different producers on such labels as Mercury, ABC/MCA, 20th Century, Private I, Veteran, Virgin, ZOO/Philadelphia International, Dells/Way Records, Volt and Devine between 1975 and 2002.  In the mid-80s there were rumours about the group joining forces with Gamble & Huff.  Marvin: “Gamble & Huff were gonna produce us already in the 70s.  Chess owed Gamble & Huff some money, and they told Chess ‘okay, we produce the Dells, but you gotta pay us our money you owe us first... which didn’t happen.  The rumour is that those first tunes that Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes had cut on that first big album were written for us, because we were coming over to Gamble & Huff.  When we didn’t go, they gave them to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.”

  Finally they cut an album with Gamble & Huff called I Salute You on ZOO/PIR in 1992.  Marvin: “To me, that’s the best album we’ve ever made.  But what happened with that album, the distributing company and Gamble & Huff got into a big argument.  They got to arguing over the budget – who was gonna pay for the video, they got arguing over a lot of things – and it ended up so that the record just got lost.  It didn’t play.  Gamble & Huff after that left the company.”

  Already a year prior to that, in 1991, the Dells came back to the limelight with the release of a movie, The Five Heartbeats.  It was accompanied with the popular soundtrack and the power ballad, A Heart Is a House for Love.  Marvin: “That was 85 % our story.”  The director, Robert Townsend, travelled with the group for six weeks and listened to their stories, mostly by Marvin.

  In 2000 the Dells were part of the Going Home....A Tribute to Duke Ellington project, but they also released an impressive album of their own on Volt Records called Reminiscing.  Two years later they released a fine but little-known mini-CD called The 9/11 Suite on Devine Records.  In 2004 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and their documentary titled The Dells: Oh What a Night won a Chicago/Midwest Emmy in the category of Outstanding Achievement for Documentary Programs – Documentary or Cultural Significance in 2004-2005.  There’s also a 2007 DVD available (  Please read also Chuck Barksdale’s comments on their Then and Now CD from 2008 at  

  Marvin: “I’ve always thought that entertainment was a big part of people’s life.  I don’t think they know how big and important music is to their lives.  I always tell them to try just one week or only two days to go without television or radio or record.  Then you’ll see how important it is.  When we came up, all the entertainers, we tried to be role models.  We dressed as neat and clean as we can and we did the best shows we could.  We sang songs that had messages and good stories in it.”

(Marvin’s comments are from my multi-part Dells feature in Soul Express).



Heikki Suosalo

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