With 55 years in the music business ? the last 48 of which have included the same members ? The Dells (Verne Allison, Chuck Barksdale, Johnny Carter, Marvin Junior and Michael ?Mickey? McGill) are the ultimate example of harmonic bliss on and off the stage.
Recently, Goldmine caught up with Barksdale, Junior and McGill to discuss a distinguished career that has brought them induction into three halls of fame: Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll and Vocal Group.
Goldmine: How did the group come to be formed?
Michael ?Mickey? McGill: My brother, Lucius, Marvin, Verne, Johnny Funches and I were friends at Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Ill. We were inspired to sing by The Spaniels ? R&B pioneers out of Gary Ind. ? who had a huge hit on Vee-Jay Records with ?Baby It?s You.? Chuck Barksdale, a Thornton alumna, had returned from the Air Force and joined the group when we performed The Mills Brothers? version of “Till Then” at Thornton’s “Gym Jam” in 1952. We sang at house parties and under the viaduct at 147th & Robey, which provided a natural echo chamber.
GM: How did the group?s original name, The El-Rays, come about?
MM: I came up with that name in Spanish class. I was really trying to name the group The El-Reyes, which meant ?The Kings? in Spanish. Somehow, it got changed to The El-Rays, which, in Spanish, is just ?The Rays.?
GM: Your first single was ?Darling I Know? (1954) for the Chess subsidiary label Checker.
Marvin Junior: That wasn?t a bad tune. We just couldn?t sing yet.
MM: It was Lucius? only 45 with the group. He wanted no part of the entertainment business and joined the Marine Corps. After he returned home, he worked for the postal service until he retired.
GM: After one single, The El-Rays left Chess for Vee-Jay records in 1955.
MM: Sales of ?Darling I Know? were awful. Leonard Chess gave us our $69 royalty check and released us from our contract.
Chuck Barksdale: We didn?t have to travel very far. Chess and Vee-Jay were across the street from each other on Cotton Grove Avenue.
GM: Upon arriving at Vee-Jay, why did you change your name to The Dells?
MM: Vee-Jay?s owner, Vivian Carter, suggested we get a fresh start by changing our name. Verne Allison ? our second tenor ? came up with the new name. He wanted something short and sweet, with a ring to it. He thought ?Dells? was appropriate, as it rhymed with ?Bells,? and there are five letters in the word for five guys.
GM: The Dells met Harvey Fuqua and The Moonglows around this time. What influence did they have on you?
Marvin Junior: All the influence in the world. Each Moonglow member who was our vocal equivalent would stand beside us and guide us in singing the right note. I idolized The Moonglows? Bobby Lester.
Chuck Barksdale: Harvey gave us structured harmony.
GM: Marvin, what inspired you and group member Johnny Funches to write your first hit ?Oh What A Nite? (1956)?
MJ: We were performing at a place called Boots and Saddles in the Chicago suburbs. It was a cowboy joint. We worked there on the weekends for $2 a night and a hamburger. Some girls came up to us after a show and invited us over to their house on Sunday for dinner. It was a fine time. The day after the party, we were in the studio rehearsing and Johnny started singing ?Oh what a night? and I responded with ?to love you dear.? We sat right down and wrote the entire song in an hour.
CB: It was #3 in the country, behind Elvis Presley?