Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: The Dells

Chuck Barksdale reflects on five decades of soul

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The Dells, the pride of Harvey, Illinois, had a smash R&B hit with "Oh, What a Nite" in 1956. Thirteen years later, the group cut the song again and hit the Top Ten on the pop charts.

Perhaps more than any other act to emerge from the doo-wop era, the Dells adapted with the times. The group was immortalized as the model for the Five Heartbeats, the long-running vocal group of Robert Townsend's 1991 movie of the same name. As founding member and bass vocalist Charles "Chuck" Barksdale jokes, "It's taken us fifty years to become an overnight success."

Do you think the fact that it's the group's fiftieth anniversary might have helped put you over the top to get elected?

You know what, God is the time-maker, the timekeeper and the time-giver. Let's pass the credit down to everybody and give thanks to the Almighty for us even being still alive.

You were absent for the original recording of "Oh, What a Nite," right?

Oh, buddy, you got your history right. We were doing our little gigs, making $150, whatever it was. Minuscule money. We were in Detroit, and there was a group over there called Otis Williams and the Charms. Otis said, "Hey listen. My bass singer lost his mind. He's ready to quit. Would you mind filling in his spot for a while?" Fast-forward, I go to Cincinnati [with Williams]. They say show business is ringing the bell. I'm like Sammy Davis -- open the refrigerator, I'll do twenty minutes. Anyway, one day I'm listening to a radio station up there. And the guy is saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, there's a song here that is moving faster than a speeding bullet. It's moving up the charts like Superman. The name of the songs is 'Oh, What a Nite,' by a group called the Dells." I called up the guys and said, "Hey fellas, can I come home?"

Calvin Carter, who was the A&R director at Vee-Jay Records -- he sang bass on the record. The guys don't even know this, but I went back to Calvin Carter some years later and thanked him for filling in on such a monstrosity. I mean, the record was gonna be a hit regardless. But I think it was his energy, his belief in the song, and the timing was just perfect.

Over the years, the Dells have cut second and sometimes third versions of some of your most popular songs. When you went back and redid that one, was it in part prodding from you, saying, "Hey, I wasn't in on the first version"?

Well, not only that, I think a little ego got involved there. I said, "Hey, this one's probably gonna be a hit again, so let me do a little monologue on the front of this." There it is. And it worked. Ended up being a Top Ten smash.

The list of talent you guys have worked with over the years is pretty remarkable: Etta James, Ray Charles, Dinah Washington . . .

Well, we were taught to sing jazz by a young man named Kirk Stuart. Kirk used to be the musical director for Sarah Vaughn and Nancy Wilson. I'm talking about the Hi-Los, the Four Freshmen -- those type chords and harmonic structures the Dells sing extremely well. You close your eyes and you don't know whether we're white, black, blue green or purple.

It sounds like you guys are about as well-adjusted as they come. Was there some embellishment on Robert Townsend's part to create some drama for The Five Heartbeats?

Well, I think our story was a little too smooth to let it ride out the whole movie. He had to put some drama in there. Good, bad or indifferent, I think the people who really got the message knew it was about the Dells. I talk about it at every concert we have. We had some very beautiful success off of that movie, so no complaints.

Ever have a chance to go to a Hall of Fame induction ceremony?

Well, [fellow Dell] Johnnie Carter was the originator and founder of the Flamingos, and they were inducted a couple of years ago. So I talked them into letting me come with him. I said, "One of these days they've got to put us in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

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