The Vault of Soul: The Dells

A circle cut-out picture of the Dells sits atop graphics of a starry night sky. A logo in the right corner reads "The Vault of Soul" and large centered text reads "The Dells."
Graphics by Sarah Tarlin

Each week of Black History Month, we open the 88.9 Vault of Soul with profiles of iconic soul pioneers. Continue reading to take a deep dive into the Dells’ incredible legacy.


By Annie Sarlin, Staff Writer


In 1952, the young men who went on to be known as “The Grandfathers of R&B,” or the “Magnificent” Dells — Marvin Junior, Johnny Funches, Lucius and Mickey McGill, Verne Allison and Chuck Barksdale — met at Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Illinois. Together, they started a doo-wop group under the name the El-Rays and practiced their singing performing on street corners to passersby. They eventually auditioned for Chess Records, where they released one single entitled “Darling, I Know,” that was largely unsuccessful. 



After the flop of their first single, Lucius McGill left the group and the members renamed themselves the Dells, a name they kept for the rest of their decades-long career. Under this new name, they signed with Vee-Jay Records and released “Dreams of Contentment” before they hit it big with their song “Oh What A Night,” which reached number four on the R&B charts. 



The popularity of “Oh What A Night” prompted the Dells to start traveling for performances. Sadly, while on the road, the band was in a car crash in 1958. The accident damaged McGill’s leg and injured Junior’s larynx, which also impacted his ability to sing. After this incident, they stopped performing for a couple of years. 

The members ultimately recovered and reemerged to tour as an opener for blues singer and pianist Dinah Washington in 1960. At this point, Johnny Funches, another founding member, left and the band brought in John Carter to fill his spot. 

A few years after this tour, the band rejoined Chess Records and produced the songs “Run for Cover” and “Thinking About You.” The success of these singles prompted them to go back on the road, this time with “The Genius of Soul” himself, Ray Charles



In 1967, the Dells released There Is, their first and most successful album. The band recorded 16 other albums in which they explored a variety of different genres including pop, doo-wop and disco. Over the course of their 50 years of recording, the group created seven gold singles, 25 top 40 hits, three gold albums and three number one Billboard R&B hits. 

In 1991, The Dells would record the single, “A Heart is A House for Love.” Their song would be featured at a critical point during the motion picture The Five Heartbeats. The movie centered around a fictitious R&B doo-wop group that was loosely based on the careers of the Dells, the Temptations, Four Tops, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke and other soulful singing acts of their time period. After the film’s release, the song would reach the #13 on the Billboard US R&B charts. It was their most successful hit of the 1990s, quite a feat for a singing group entering its 40th year of existence.





Many refer to the band as the “Grandfathers of R&B Harmony” because of their pioneering work that inspired many vocal groups that followed. In honor of their contributions, the Dells were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 by Robert Townsend. 



  • Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award (1992)
  • 24th Annual NAACP Image Award (1992)
  • Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2004)
  • Inducted into Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2004)
  • Soul of American Music Award 
  • Jackie Award
  • Illinois NARAS Governors Award recipients




This song, originally recorded in 1956, was redone in 1969 with a different tempo and arrangement. In this version, Barksdale added a spoken intro to the song in which he reminisces about a magical night over a catchy bass groove. The focus then switches to the signature harmonies of the Dells. All of the vocalists blend perfectly together, even while one sings a low baritone part as another does an impressively high falsetto. Marvin Junior, the lead vocalist in the song, performs many impressive vocal riffs that make a somewhat repetitive song become dynamic and interesting throughout. 



“The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)” was released in 1971 on the group’s album Freedom Speaks and demonstrates the group’s versatility as singers. In just one song, the Dells transition from a soft-spoken, ballad-like sound to a powerful belt that incorporates vocal fry. This transition drives the emotion of the song and makes the heartbreak the singer shares over his lost love seem authentic and raw. While the song is less harmony-driven then many of their other songs, the background vocals are still beautiful and somehow convey feelings of sorrow, often with no lyrics other than “ooh” and “aah.”



In “I Miss You,” the Dells get a little funkier. Their signature “doo-wop” vocals provide a rhythmic accent to each phrase sung by the lead singer, who uses a much grittier tone than in their earlier songs. The song also prominently features a groovy bass line that makes it impossible not to tap your feet to the beat. It can be difficult to deviate from one’s traditional style, but this song is the perfect demonstration of the band’s unique ability to explore different genres while staying true to themselves.



Released in 1968, this power ballad of yearning love implores its beloved to literally stay by their side. Featuring live orchestration, the Dells share their vocal trademarks: the doo-wop precision and syncopated harmony. The call-response and harmony vocals between co-leads Johnny Carter and Marvin Junior strike a balance matched by very few groups. At a few points within this iconic song, the music drops, allowing the group to share their, “just a kiss from you,” echoing a capella chops. Johnny Carter’s falsetto held notes are equally matched by Marvin Junior’s hearty baritone and nearly 20 seconds of note-holding. This is a song of perfect highs and lows, and contrasting strength. 


You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more. 

Interested in exploring the soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Or, take a deep dive into R&B, hip-hop and the legendary voices of soul alongside new and pioneering MCs by streaming ERS+.

Uncommon Newsletter

Music reviews, ticket giveaways, live performances & member specials.

Sign Up

We'll never sell your email, be boring or try to sell you on bad music.

in studio performances