Marvin Junior, founding member of doo-wop group Dells, dies at 77

Marvin Junior, a founding member and the lead singer of the Dells, a Chicago doo-wop and soul group whose songs appeared on the rhythm-and-blues charts in five decades and included such hits as “Oh, What a Night” and “Stay in My Corner,” died May 29 at his home in Harvey, Ill. He was 77.

His death from kidney failure was confirmed by his wife, Ruby Junior. He had diabetes.

The Dells, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, had one of the most stable lineups among R&B vocal groups and served as a model for the 1991 film “The Five Heartbeats.”

From 1956 to 1992, the group had 46 hits on the Billboard rhythm-and-blues charts. The Dells’ Hall of Fame citation describes them as “part of a great lineage of black harmony groups, including the Stylistics, the Delfonics and the Dramatics, and the phenomenal success of younger acts like New Edition, Boyz II Men, Backstreet Boys and N’Sync would be hard to imagine without them.”

Four of the five original Dells sang together almost continually from 1953 until their final performance in 2009. Mr. Junior’s powerful voice and forceful delivery — he was dubbed Iron Throat by the Temptations’ David Ruffin — influenced other singers, most notably Teddy Pendergrass. The Dells’ style, from the late 1950s onward, was built on the contrast between Mr. Junior’s emphatic baritone and Johnny Carter’s warbling, falsetto tenor.

Vocal group The Dells (clockwise from bottom left Johnny Carter, Marvin Junior, Chuck Barksdale, Verne Allison and Mickey McGill) pose for a portrait circa 1960 in New York City. Junior died May 29 at his home in Harvey, Ill. He was 77. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Mr. Junior sang lead on the group’s first hit, “Oh, What a Night,” which he co-wrote with the original Dells tenor Johnny Funches. The song, now considered a classic of doo-wop balladry, reached No. 3 on the pop charts in 1956, right behind Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.”

Rerecorded in 1969, “Oh, What a Night” climbed to No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

The Dells had another hit song with their 1968 recording of “Stay in My Corner,” which sold more than 1 million copies. The recording slowly builds a sense of romantic anticipation over six minutes. Near the end, Mr. Junior draws out the word “stay” for nearly half a minute, a vocal feat that brought the house down during concerts.

Mr. Junior and his colleagues also stayed busy as backup singers on studio recordings and went on tour in the early 1960s behind jazz singer Dinah Washington.

The Dells had a revival in 1991 when the song “A Heart Is a House for Love” was featured on the soundtrack of “The Five Heartbeats.” The film told the story of a fictional vocal group’s struggles over three decades of touring. The Dells were credited as technical advisers on the film.

Marvin Curtis Junior was born Jan. 31, 1936, in Harrell, Ark., and moved with his family to the Chicago area as a boy.

Mr. Junior and other future Dells — Charles Barksdale, Michael McGill, Verne Allison and Funches — first sang as high school classmates in Harvey, Ill., a suburb south of Chicago.

The group’s beginning was less than auspicious. One street-corner rehearsal prompted a neighbor to pour water on their heads, and they soon began practicing in a subway tunnel. They began their recording career in 1954 as the El Rays, a name they took in the mistaken belief that it was Spanish for “the Kings.” For their first record, “Darling, I Know” on Chess Records, they received a meager $59 in royalties.

They soon took their music to a rival Chicago label, Vee Jay, whose executives suggested that they change their name to the Dells.

Funches left the group in 1958 and was replaced by Carter, who had earlier worked with the Flamingos. Carter died in 2009, and the Dells have not performed since then.

Mr. Junior’s survivors include his wife of 53 years, the former Ruby Caldwell; three sons, Shawn Junior of Kankakee, Ill., Marvin Junior Jr. of Markham, Ill., and Todd Junior of St. Cloud, Ill.; three daughters, Faye Jones of Harvey, Ill., Latanya Junior of Washington and Toia Junior of Homewood, Ill.; 12 grandchildren; and a brother.

In later years, Mr. Junior was often asked the secret to the Dells’ longevity.

“While you’re fighting to get to the top, there are all kinds of things fighting against you,” he told the Boston Globe in 1991. “You need to be honest with each other, and you’ve got to know that love can be hard sometimes.”

“If I didn’t love these guys,” he added, “I’d be long gone.”

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