Five thousand miles from home and not so fresh from a midnight discussion of drastically under appreciated soul genius — mainly Luther, Teddy and Donnie — I entered my hotel room and snapped up the iPad to check the headlines from home. Something whispered not to forget the obits, so I checked. And then I crashed. A long time ago, the night that Teddy Pendergrass told me flat out “Marvin Junior is my father,” I vowed to myself that when the great Chicago master of rasp and shout passed, I’d do my part to shout the hosannas that Marvin Junior deserved. That moment has come.
“Iron Throat” as another of his progeny, David Ruffin called him, died in Chicago last week. (That the world at that moment busied itself missing Ray Manzarek does not escape my bitter notice.) You who don’t know who the hell I’m mourning, bend an ear, not just to “Oh What a Night,” “There Is” and “Stay in My Corner” but even to the seeming inanity of “I Can Sing a Rainbow / Love is Blue” in which Marvin Junior deepens banality into honest deep emotion by not so simply isolating less than a word, just a syllable — “blue,” “grey,” and finally declaiming “I’m” past the empty absurdity of its origin.
Marvin Junior was the through-line in the story of one of the most remarkable — not least because only the fans and other singers seemed to notice — group careers in rock and soul history. Nothing better illustrates the transition from doo-wop to soul than the Dells’ two versions of “Oh What a Night,” the perfect doo-wop of 1956 and the improbable Philly-style soul of 1969, the one with the great Johnny Funches as tenor, the other with the equally great Johnny Carter and Marvin Junior on both, as the implacable, enduring gravity that held the group in a steady orbit all the way through. The Dells had not only two legitimate any kind of Hall of Fame tenors but in the mighty Chuck Barksdale arguably the best bass singer in any black vocal harmony group. So I guess that it makes sense that Marvin Junior stood out a little less than he might have in other company (but less than Ray Manzarek?). But for most of the fans he was both the guts of their sound and the whipped cream on top. It was the gravity he brought to records like “The Love We Had Stays on My Mind” and “Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation” (which has its own share of transcended absurdities) that led the group from adolescent ecstasies to adult triumphs. It’s two aspects of one mighty sensibility and it endured for four decades because of it.
So I say farewell not only to a beloved voice who has traveled with me not only great distances but taught a lesson or two and left me with some convictions, too. And a continent away from pretty much everybody who understands why, the love we had stays on my mind.