Soul fans revere Teddy Pendergrass as owning of the best raspy baritones in R&B music. However, he did not pioneer that gritty "lover man" style--that honor belongs to Marvin Junior, lead singer of the 1960s group The Dells. A founding member of the Chicago-based doo wop group, Junior recently passed away at age 77 in his Harvey, Illinois home. His death closes the book on one of the most influential and long-lasting singing groups of the 1960s. For over 50 years, the group not only charted numerous soul hits, but remained remarkably intact with few personnel changes. While difficult to choose just one of their singles, "Stay in My Corner" represents the signature Dells sound: perfect harmonies led by Junior's husky vocals.
The group dates back to 1953, when six high school friend in Harvey formed a singing act. Led by Junior, the then-named El-Rays cut their first single for Chicago's famed Chess Records: that song flopped. After one member departed, the now quintet signed a deal with another Chicago label, Vee Jay, in 1955; the now-named Dells scored a major hit with their second single, "Oh What a Nite" with Dells member Johnny Funches on lead vocal. The Dells seemed to be on the rise, but a serious accident soon temporarily derailed the group. Junior suffered a laceration on his larynx; he recovered his voice, but it sounded different thereafter. Luckily the band members recovered enough to reconvene in 1960, but lost the road-weary Funches. The Flamingoes' falsetto tenor Johnny Carter replaced the singer, which incredibly marks the last personnel change the Dells experienced.
Looking to refine their sound, the Dells learned jazz harmonies and eventually re-signed with Vee Jay. Their 1965 comeback "Stay in My Corner" cracked the R&B top 30, but this success soon met with frustration. Vee Jay went bankrupt in 1966, leading the band to return to Chess. While on the Chess subsidiary label Cadet, the Dells attained their greatest number of hits, with Junior and Carter sharing lead vocals. Junior's baritone contrasted well with Carter's tenor. They finally crossed over to the pop market in 1969 with a remake of their own hit "Oh What a Nite"; that song reached the Billboard top ten. Amazingly, this marked the second time they updated their own material: their 1968 version of their own "Stay in My Corner" also found success on the R&B and pop charts.
The Dells continued recording in the 1970s and 1980s on various labels, but never quite regained their 1960s glory. However, they experienced a resurgence in 1991 from an unlikely source: filmmaker Robert Townsend. At the time he was directing his movie The Five Heartbeats--already based on the Dells--and asked the group if they would serve as consultants on the film. Not only did they inspire the story, the Dells even recorded a new song for the soundtrack, "The Heart Is a House for Love." It became a surprise R&B hit, which led the Dells to record a new album attempting to incorporate the then-popular new jack swing with their classic sound. This experiment proved unsuccessful, but in 2004 the doo wop group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Carter's passing in 2009 marked the end of the Dells' performing years.
Cowritten by Wade Flemons, Robert Eugene Miller, and Barrett Strong ("Money"), "Stay in My Corner" provides a perfect showcase for Junior's husky, sensual voice. He and Carter alternate lines, their distinct voices coming together before the chorus. Listen to Junior belt out the lyrics "There'll be times when I may fail / I'll need your love to sometimes comfort me" and you'll experience the deep emotions Junior is expressing. He delivers the lines like he has lived every word, not holding anything back.
Not only have the Dells affected virtually every modern close harmony group (the Hall of Fame lists New Edition, Boyz II Men, Backstreet Boys and N'Sync as just a few examples), but Junior's no holds barred delivery has influenced generations of soul balladeers. "Stay in My Corner" illustrates just how much Pendergrass learned from Junior's unique vocal style.