Word circulates this morning that Charles Barksdale, the bass voice for R&B group The Dells, passed away at the age of 84.
The Dells hailed from Harvey, Illinois, in the south suburbs of Chicago. (If the town of Harvey sounds familiar to you, it’s because it was, for many years, the home of the Dixie Square Mall. You’ve seen it in the movies.) From 1956 until 1992 they managed an impressive 47 titles on the Billboard R&B charts.
Their first record to cross over to the pop charts, “The (Bossa Nova) Bird,” was released by Argo Records in 1962 and didn’t do much, landing at #97. By the late Sixties, though, the band began an impressive string of crossover success, landing seven titles in the Top 40 and 24 on the Hot 100.
The Dells made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. They were inducted by director Robert Townsend, who explained that they were the band he used as the inspiration for the film The Five Heartbeats. The group was also inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
It’s not hard to see how the band influenced other R&B groups that followed, and Barksdale’s role as bassman was something that other groups tried to approximate. Listen to “Stay In My Corner,” a Top Ten hit from 1968, and you can hear bits and pieces of later groups like Boys 2 Men in the vocal stylings. They also hit #10 in 1969 with their re-worked version of 1956’s “Oh, What a Night.” The original record was an R&B hit, but the re-recorded version enjoyed the crossover success. (We’ll cover that one later this summer.) The hit parade slowed by the 1970s; despite the resurgence in 50s nostalgia, the interest didn’t seem to apply to Black vocal groups as evenly, and the hits stopped coming. 1973’s “Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation,” however, is a record that we don’t hear often enough.
If I have to pick one fantastic Dells record to spotlight, though, I have to go with “There Is.” In early 1968 this became the first record for the band to cross over to the Billboard Top 40, and ended up at #20. (It did a little better at home: Chicago’s WLS advanced it to #9 on their weekly surveys. WCFL, which tended to sound a little more White, bumped it up to #16.) Everything about this song screams hit record: the keyboard intro that sounds more than a little like the later Guess Who hit “These Eyes,” the solid rhythm track, the tight vocals, the beautiful and soulful harmonies. This is a record that Oldies radio left behind a long ago, and it’s a shame.
You can hear “There Is” by clicking here.