John E. Carter, famed R&B tenor, dies of cancer at 75

Kim Janssen
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO — Lead tenor John E. Carter had the good fortune to perform with two important R&B groups: the Flamingos and the Dells.

And because of that achievement, he, along with such luminaries as John Lennon, is one of the few artists who have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice.

Carter, 75 — best known for the Dells' hit "Oh, What A Night" — died of lung cancer Thursday, Aug. 20, at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey, according to his family.

Born and raised on Chicago's South Side, Carter attended Wendell Phillips High School. He first found fame with the Flamingos, a doo-wop group he formed at age 18 in 1952 with three other members of the choir at the black-Jewish Church of God and Saints in Christ on East 41st Street in Bronzeville.

Though the group eventually had nine national chart hits with Chicago-based Chance, Parrot and Checker Records, many of the Flamingos' early recordings failed to chart.

But with their "elegant, intricate and flawless vocal arrangements," the Flamingos ultimately came to be "widely regarded as one of the best vocal groups in music," and a key influence on Motown groups including the Supremes and the Jackson Five, according to the group's entry in the Hall of Fame.

The group's first big R&B hit, 1956's "I'll Be Home," was a ballad in which a serviceman promises to return to his girl. It reached No. 5 on the R&B chart and No. 10 overall.

Soon after, Carter was drafted. But when he returned from serving as an Army cook in Germany, he had been replaced by the Flamingos.

Looking for a new gig, in 1960 he joined the Dells, a group formed several years earlier by friends from Thornton Township High School in Harvey.

The Dells' breakthrough came a year later, when the band was hired to perform as a backup band for Dinah Washington, who it toured with for two years.

The band's biggest hit, "Oh, What A Night," was inspired by a party thrown for the band and was originally recorded in 1956, before Carter joined. Re-released in 1969 with Carter singing back-up vocals, it reached the top of the R&B charts and the top 10 on the Billboard singles chart, selling more than 1 million copies.

Other Dells hits included "Stay in My Corner," which was one of the first R&B songs to run over six minutes, and "Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation," which reached number 3 on the R&B chart in 1973.

Unlike many R&B bands of the era, which changed their line-ups repeatedly, Carter and the original Dells continued recording through the 1980s and 1990s, and released "Reminiscing," in 2000, nearly 50 years after they formed.

They were the inspiration for the 1999 movie "The Five Heartbeats" and they continued to perform until last summer, when Carter's cancer was diagnosed, according to his daughter, Jewel Carter.

Carter was the only surviving founder member of the Flamingos when the group was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2001, and he became one of only five musicians to be inducted with two different groups when the Dells were inducted in 2004.

"He was singing the Sam & Dave song, 'Hold On, I'm Coming,' in hospital," Jewel Carter said.

A devoted fisherman and keen cook at his home in south Chicago suburban Park Forest, Ill., "he preferred singing to talking, and he loved making people laugh," she added.

Marvin Junior, a Dells bandmate, said: "He was a happy-go-lucky guy — he was a part of all of our lives for so long."

Carter is survived by five daughters and five grandchildren

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