Marvin Junior, who brought a baritone grit to Chicago stalwarts the Dells, was fiercely loyal to the vocal group he cofounded 60 years ago.
Junior, who died Wednesday at his home in south suburban Harvey at age 77, was born on Jan. 31, 1936, in Arkansas, and as a boy moved with his family to the Chicago area. He met Charles Barksdale, Michael McGill, Verne Allison and Johnny Funches while they were attending Thornton Township High School in the early ‘50s. Funches was replaced by Johnny Carter in 1960, and the quintet remained together for decades. Along the way, they scored eight top-40 hits, including “Stay in My Corner” (1968) and “Oh, What a Night” (1969), were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, and served as the inspiration and consultants for Robert Townsend’s acclaimed 1991 movie “The Five Heartbeats.”
The quintet, originally known as the El-Rays, had a rough start. Their impersonation of the Mills Brothers on a streetcorner in the ‘50s brought the condemnation of at least one neighbor, who dumped water on their heads. They took to working out their harmonies in a tunnel under 147th Street and Robey Avenue, Barksdale recalled in a 1991 interview with the Tribune. The group’s first single for Chess Records, “Darling, I Know,” in 1954 earned them a paltry $69 in royalties.
“I think he (Chess label founder Leonard Chess) did us a favor paying that much,” Barksdale once said. “He was really trying to tell us to get the hell out of show business.”
But the teen vocalists persevered; by the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, they were enjoying a string of hits for Chess subsidiary Cadet built on the interplay between Junior’s stalwart baritone and Carter’s tenor. Constant touring on the hardscrabble chitlin’ circuit honed their vocal chops. While driving cross-country to a show in New York at the Apollo Theatre in 1958, the group’s station wagon slammed into a pole, throwing Barksdale through the windshield and injuring McGill so badly that doctors told him that he would never walk again. The group called it quits, but McGill recovered and its career resumed.
When Townsend approached the group in the ‘80s about directing a movie based on their exploits, the Dells were unmoved. “He came backstage and said he wanted to make a comedy about standup vocal groups, but we put on the brakes right there,” Barksdale told the Tribune. “Ain’t nothing funny about this life. I don’t eat pork today because the chitlin’ circuit will kill you.”
The success of “The Five Heartbeats” revitalized the group’s career. Unlike other vocal groups, which often kept the original name even without any original members, the Dells continued to perform their deep catalogue of jazz-flavored soul ballads with Carter and four original members. The quintet performed what would be its final show in 2009, when Carter died. To the end, Marvin Junior was a member of the Dells.
“We were just five guys who happened to go to the same high school,” Barksdale said in 1991. “Five total strangers who became friends and then something more.”
Junior is survived by his wife, Ruby; sons Marvin Jr., Shawn and Todd; and daughters Faye, Latanya and Toya.