Chuck Barksdale of the Dells: The Hard Days Behind ‘Oh What a Nite’
When Chuck Barksdale of the Dells died Wednesday, I did what I suspect a lot of fans do: I started humming and singing, badly, some of the great Dells songs.
There were a lot of those, both in the 1950s rhythm and blues era and when the Dells reinvented themselves in the 1960s and ’70s as a soul group.
With no disrespect for later hits like “Stay In My Corner,” my faves are the ’50s ballads. “Tell the World,” “Dreams of Contentment,” “Pain In My Heart,” “Dry Your Eyes,” “Why Do You Have To Go.”
Oh yeah, and “Oh What a Nite,” their first hit and their musical signature for more than a half century after it was released in 1956.
It’s a fine tune, set apart by beautiful singing. It reached the top five on the R&B charts, so when Vee-Jay Records compiled a dozen Dells songs into a long-playing album in 1959, it was naturally titled Oh, What A Nite.
I thought of that LP after Chuck Barksdale died, and not just because it has splendid songs on it.
I thought of it because the cover includes the group’s name, the album title and a darkish picture of a white couple standing by the waterfront kissing.
Vee-Jay was a relatively low-budget operation, so this simple, inexpensive cover concept is neither surprising nor problematic.
Except that it would have been just as inexpensive, and more appropriate, to have the cover feature a picture of the Dells.
Why didn’t it? Well, I wasn’t in the Vee-Jay art department when the Oh What A Nite cover was designed. I do know that on the relatively rare occasions when black artists in the rock ’n’ roll / rhythm and blues fields got albums in the 1950s, their picture often was deliberately left off the cover. It was just safer, the thinking went, not to flaunt the black thing.
Even though “Oh What A Nite” was a romantic ballad, as color-blind as “People Will Say We’re in Love,” the Dells were associated with a genre that was still considered vaguely dangerous, threatening to replace good music with jungle music.
Chuck Barksdale over the years came to know his way around the music business. When I talked with him several years ago, he preferred to accentuate the positives about his career, and the Dells’s career, of which there were many.
They were in demand as a live act for decades. They placed two dozen albums and twice that many singles on the national R&B charts. “Oh What A Nite” has been an oldies radio cornerstone for decades. In 2004, they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The 1991 Robert Townsend film The Five Heartbeats was based on the Dells’s career. They performed music for it.
Perhaps most impressive, they sang together for more than 50 years, with a few breaks, and only had two personnel changes — in a game where many groups change members as often as they change shirts.
The Dells lost Lucius McGill in 1954 after they recorded their first unsuccessful single, “Darling I Know” as the El-Rays for the Checker label. In 1960, after they took a break following a serious auto accident, they replaced original lead singer Johnny Funches with Johnny Carter from the Flamingos.
That’s it. Otherwise, Barksdale, Verne Allison, Michael McGill and Marvin Junior sang together from 1952 until Father Time forced them to give a farewell performance in 2012 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
By then Carter had died, in 2009. Junior died in 2013, and now Barksdale. Funches died in 1998. Funches’s departure played a major albeit unintentional role in the Dells’s evolution from the ’50s to the ’60s, since what R&B historian Marv Goldberg called his “wavering tenor” provided the distinct flavor in those wonderful ’50s ballads. Truth is, no one sounded quite like the Dells.
Barksdale was neither the songwriter nor the lead singer, but his contribution was also critical. Vocal groups then knew how to use a bass singer, an art that would practically disappear over the next two decades. Barksdale filled the “bottom” of the vocal arrangements, providing a foundation on which the baritones and tenors built.
Fun fact: Even though Barksdale sang “Oh What a Nite” thousands of times over the years, he was not on the original recording. Every so often in the early years he got frustrated with the Dells and bolted to other groups, and at the time of the “Oh What a Nite” session he was singing with Otis Williams and the Charms. Later he would sing for a spell with the Moonglows, at the same time Marvin Gaye was starting his career with that group.
Barksdale acknowledged that the fact the Dells stayed together all those years didn’t mean they always agreed on everything, or always got along. Few families would, and that includes families who didn’t face the same obstacles touring black artists faced in the 1950s.
“We would go down South,” Junior told author Robert Pruter for his book Doo-Wop: The Chicago Scene, “and there would be black downstairs and white upstairs, and we would see signs, ‘Colored Motel,’ ‘Colored Guesthouse,’ and white and colored water faucets and bathrooms.
“I remember the first time we went to Miami Beach, which we had all heard and read so much about. I ran down to the beach to swim, the guy there stopped me and said, nope, the colored beach is 10 miles down the road.”
The Dells weren’t being singled out. That was white America then, working hard to keep things the way they were.
In the music world, at least the Dells’s corner, artists tended to be pretty color-blind. But the odds and the system were stacked against young vocal groups, and even when the successful Moonglows became their musical godfathers, the Dells were still playing weekend gigs at local joints like the Boots and Saddle rodeo bar for two dollars a night.
Then sometimes you catch a sprinkling of stardust. After one show at the Boots and Saddle, Junior told Pruter, some girls came up to the group, said they enjoyed the show and asked if the singers would like to come to their party.
Turned out the party was just the five girls, and it lasted all night. Ah, show biz.
The next day in the studio, as Junior told it, the guys were saying, “What a party, what a night,” and Funches, fooling around, sang the phrase. Next thing they knew it was a song, and next thing after that, it was a hit, and next thing after that, a group that probably would have had to go out and get real jobs was on the path to, eventually, a career.
Barksdale said he loved the fact he spent most of his life making music.
Sure, the business bounced him around, the group never got the money it deserved, and even after 50 years, respect could be elusive.
Chuck Barksdale and the Dells beat the system.