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Anthology attests to lasting greatness of Dells

By Ron Wynn

MARCH 20, 2000:  The emergence of soul music in the late '50s and early '60s rewrote the rule book for African American vocal ensembles. Instead of intricate four- and five-part harmony arrangements, compositions were tailored to fit the skills of one or two lead singers. Instrumental solos were either shortened or tightly interspersed within the overall framework, while rampaging intra-group exchanges were gradually eliminated. These changes effectively signaled the end of golden age gospel and doo-wop as primary genres. While some groups in both styles survived and still perform today, many more embraced the new sound, recasting themselves as soul performers.

No doo-wop group made the transition more skillfully than Chicago's Dells, whose career is spotlighted on a new two-disc set, The Dells: Anthology. The Dells numbered among soul's elite, but they cut their finest tracks in an era when The Temptations were dominant. Specializing in creamy, quasi-erotic material, they presented their songs in an adult, no-nonsense manner that could be excessively sentimental, but never trite or overwrought. They found their niche after producer/composer Bobby Miller and arranger Charles Stepney began featuring baritone singer Marvin Junior as the group's lead voice, pairing him with the luminous falsetto of Johnny Carter.

Carter, a one-time Flamingo, joined The Dells in 1961, replacing Johnny Funches--the group's only personnel change in nearly 46 years. From the mid-'60s until 1981, The Dells enjoyed multiple R&B hits, seldom crossing over but becoming established favorites among soul fans.

This set offers solid evidence that no soul unit, with the possible exception of The Temptations, made more spectacular records than The Dells in their prime. It also highlights their initial struggle to develop a singular sound. The first disc includes five numbers from the '50s and early '60s, among them the lightweight doo-wop of "Dreams of Contentment" and the pseudo-jazz piece "The (Bossa Nova) Bird." Though you can hear the group's promise on tunes like "Pains in My Heart" and "Dreams of Contentment," it's quite clear that with Junior in the background, and without Carter present, The Dells were floundering.

Miller and Stepney's impact became evident on the subsequent string of hits that comprises much of Disc One. "O-O I Love You," "There Is," "Always Together," and "Love Is So Simple" were among the many gems on which Junior's rumbling delivery was marvelously contrasted with Carter's shimmering, almost winsome falsetto. Mickey McGill frequently added distinctive spoken-word commentary, but it was the voices of Junior and Carter, along with the splendid string settings and explosive horn charts, that completed the package.

The Miller-Stepney team also reworked several tunes the group had cut earlier in its career. "Stay in My Corner" was a decent doo-wop song; Stepney made it a soul standard by expanding the arrangement, increasing the song's length, and giving Junior a chance to demonstrate his impressive circular breathing skills.

The Dells' ability to elevate average material can also be heard throughout their treatments of "I Can Sing a Rainbow/Love Is Blue," "Long Lonely Nights," and "I Can't Do Enough." These are numbers with, at best, maudlin lyrics, but The Dells' strong vocals made them noteworthy.

The second disc isn't quite as exciting. There are only 15 tunes, and the list includes the umpteenth reworking of "Stay in My Corner." However, there are also triumphs, among them "Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation," "I Wish It Was Me You Loved," and two superb numbers from The Dells' wonderful 1980 comeback LP I Touched a Dream. Both the title track and "Passionate Breezes" hark back to the group's peak era; The Chi-lites' Eugene Record, serving as session producer, coaxed an extraordinary lead vocal from Junior on "I Touched a Dream," while Carter's floating lines nicely buttress the arrangement on "Passionate Breezes."

The final number, "A Heart Is a House for Love," taken from The Five Heartbeats soundtrack, offers fine harmonizing and above-average singing, but it gets bogged down by mediocre lyrics. Still, it's a good indicator of what has made The Dells so special for the better part of five decades; they've retained their vocal mastery throughout, and whenever their material matches their abilities, the results have been transcendent. They may never again top the charts, but The Dells will always belong in the upper echelon of soul royalty..

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