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The Dells: Ultimate Collection

Peter Su

The Dells

Ultimate Collection

Label: Hip-O
US Release Date: 2004-03-09
UK Release Date: Available as import

Like Spinal Tap with (singing) chops, the Dells have been around with all but one of the original members (but that one lineup change was way back in 1960 and he wasn't even the drummer). Also like Spinal Tap, the Dells have never been particularly innovative, not even in their first incarnation as a doo-wop quintet, but they've adapted to changing trends and have kept on touring. Seemingly as a partial reward for such perseverance, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

But, of course, the Dells do have (singing) chops, so, in that sense, they're not really like Spinal Tap at all. Instead of being comic incompetents who've barely stayed afloat by latching onto the coattails of every marketable fad that broke on the charts, the Dells have changed and adapted more tastefully and gradually, if no less self-consciously. Moreover, thanks to Marvin Junior's sexy growl of a voice, they've also managed to keep sounding like the Dells in the midst of all these changes. It's also the quality of that voice, both sensual and rough, that's probably partially responsible for the group's endurance: when doo-wop was in, Junior's sensuality was played up and his was one of the voices singing in harmony. When soul demanded a commanding lead, all Junior had to do was make his voice a little more loud and hoarse than usual. Truth be told, I don't know if they deserve to be enshrined in the company of Elvis or the Beatles.

Which isn't to downplay the Dells' remarkable feat of having endured, and endured profitably, for so long. If going with the market (and scoring hits in the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90's) were so easy, lots of groups would have done more than just tried to do it. Rather, it suggests the direction in which the Dells' talents lie: never groundbreaking, they were always extremely competent craftsmen who survived by conforming.

And that's fine as far as it goes. I love doo-wop and strongly like soul and R&B, but the Dells usually don't have the tunes to match their talents at adaptation. The strongest tune here is still "Oh, What A Night" (their early doo-wop hit that, along with "Stay in My Corner", is included here as a late-'60s Chess remake). Especially when they get into their soul and R&B period, they really play up the slowburning sensuality, perhaps in part to cover up the generic nature of the tunes themselves or the lyrical conceits they carry. The material is pretty solid if generally uninspired and the Dells, whether as a doo-wop vocal group or having Junior take the lead over a soul band with horns, are more than just solid. But, especially in the latter half, after modern R&B has rounded out soul's rougher (more spirited?) vocal and instrumental edges by bringing back layered vocal harmonies, the Dells' singing gets lost in the fluid, graceful anonymity of the slow-jam tunes. When "Learning to Love You Was Easy" struts its disco stuff and heralds "Our Love" and "Super Woman" shortly after, it's a necessary shot in the arm.

And that's not just because too many of the slow songs go on for too long, with four minutes being standard and some going on for five or even six. Like a lot of such music when it's only solid and not good enough to be distinct, it strikes me as being good make-out music, music that's appropriate to the mood without being distracting. Conversely, it's also good make-out music because it's not likely to divert your attention from, ahem, more pressing affairs.

If this collection still doesn't make a case for putting the Dells in the rock immortals like Elvis or the Beatles or even doo-wop immortals like the Platters or Moonglows, at least it kind of puts them in the company of Jackson Browne or Bob Seger: talented mortals who had some good songs and some clunkers and skirted greatness maybe a few times.

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