The Dells’ voices carried them from Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Ill., to global soul stardom, they became one of Chicago’s most versatile, accomplished and enduring R&B groups. Their bass singer and co-founder Chuck Barksdale, who always enjoyed discussing this incredible journey, died on Wednesday after a lengthy illness,according to the singer’s family. He was 84.
While The Dells emerged during the 1950s doo-wop era, Barksdale disparaged that term and preferred describing his group as close harmony singers. Indeed, Barksdale’s team ignored limitations even within a single song. They sounded equally comfortable singing jazz, reworking popular tunes or recording intricately orchestrated soul.
“We ended up being the greatest vocal group because of the variety in our singing,” Barksdale said in a 2016 interview. “Everybody was in five different religions, but the point is we were able to get along. Everything that God puts together is going to be right.”
Barksdale began singing as a child, imitating the bass voices in his grandfather’s Methodist church (later, Barksdale converted to Islam). Then, taking inspiration from pop vocal groups like The Mills Brothers, Barksdale joined with tenors Marvin Junior, Verne Allison, Johnny Funches and Lucius McGill along with baritones Michael “Mickey” McGill (Lucius’ brother) and Marvin Junior to form their own ensemble. Originally named The El-Rays, they practiced, performed and struggled around the city and southern suburbs. Shortly after Lucius McGill left, a name change to The Dells and contract with Chicago’s Vee-Jay Records led to their first hit, “Oh What A Nite,” in 1956.
Still, this success did not mean financial rewards for the young men who sang it
“We worked the Apollo Theater in New York 23 times in two years,” Barksdale said. “They weren’t paying us any money. It was like free labor.”
Other tribulations could have brought about the group’s early demise. A serious car accident during a 1958 tour resulted in serious injuries and the members took time off from music to recover. Funches left in 1960, with John Carter replacing him. The resulting five-member lineup of The Dells reconvened and would continue recording and performing together for 50 years.
When The Dells got back on the road, their early 1960s experience touring and recording with jazz star Dinah Washington became advantageous. Along with the discipline that she instilled, Barksdale said that his group learned from her arrangers, including Quincy Jones.
“That (singing with Washington) was building our musical minds to the point where we could sing anything because of the changes we were taught to sing,” Barksdale said. “Once we learned to hear each other and sing each other’s part, and make each part fit in with the other four, it was outstanding.”
The Dells’ manifold expertise made them key to Chicago’s Chess Records’ move toward expansive R&B concepts during the late 1960s. Producer Bobby Miller and arranger Charles Stepney blended the group’s ecstatic voices with singular orchestrations on the 1968 album, “There Is.” This collaboration yielded the hit, “Stay In My Corner,” which was a new version of their earlier Vee-Jay single.
Barksdale and Stepney also championed the Terry Callier & Larry Wade songwriting partnership and they composed six songs for the group’s landmark “Freedom Means” album in 1971, including “The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind).” Wade was amazed when he witnessed the group record, especially Barksdale’s brief spoken-word monologues.
“The resonance of Chuck’s bass voice was so profound,” Wade said. “He was one of the most imitated bass singers around while you could hear how these five guys sounded so incredibly close together.”
McGill added that Barksdale’s entrepreneurial skills became equally invaluable.
“Chuck was a go-getter,” McGill said. “Chuck would go out there, find out where the next gig was, what the next contract was and was a very good negotiator with promoters.”
After Chess’ mid-1970s demise, The Dells soldiered through the disco era and its aftermath. They recorded commercial jingles but received a more substantial break in 1991 when director Robert Townsend adapted their experiences for his fictional film, “The Five Heartbeats.” They also sang the movie’s theme, “A Heart Is A House For Love.” Thirteen years later, The Dells entered the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
The Dells’ performing career ended with the deaths of Carter (in 2009) and Junior (in 2013). Barksdale frequently discussed the group’s history and legacy in the years that followed. His memories reflected the affection and resilience that enabled their staying power throughout more than five decades.
“We all grew into loving each other,” Barksdale said. “Oh, we had our spats and misunderstandings, but, eventually we came back. And we used to do a thing before we went onstage: we’d clasp each other hands, say a little prayer, then we’d go onstage and kill them!”
There will be a public viewing on May 19 from 1-6 p.m. at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. Martin Luther King Dr. Wake will be on Monday from 10-11 a.m., and services from 11 a.m.-12 p.m. at the same location.