When Mercury Records sent Illinois vocal group The Dells to the City of Brotherly Love in 1977, the meeting of Chicago and Philadelphia was long overdue. The group had formed in 1952 and was already legendary by the late seventies thanks to its longevity, consistency of personnel and a phenomenal streak at Chess Records’ Cadet label mainly with arranger/producer Charles Stepney. (In fact, the group’s core membership of five – Mickey McGill, Verne Allison, Marvin Junior, Chuck Barksdale and Johnny Carter – didn’t alter between 1960 and 2009, the year of Carter’s passing!) A strong creative leader would be needed to replace Stepney and his successor Don Davis, and after one Bobby Miller/Andrew Terry-produced album, The Dells found that leader in Norman Harris. The Dells recorded two albums with “The Harris Machine” in 1977, and now those two lost Philadelphia soul classics have arrived on CD from Cherry Red’s SoulMusic Records label. They Said It Couldn’t Be Done, But We Did It and Love Connection have both been remastered and expanded by SoulMusic, and are available in stores now.
The Dells felt as if they were making up for lost time; Rico “Superbizzee” Washington’s notes reveal that Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, two of the primary architects of “The Sound of Philadelphia,” were originally slated to produce The Dells early in the decade. Leonard Chess, however, balked at the team’s asking price, and as Chuck Barksdale recalls, material intended for The Dells such as “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” scored in a big way for Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes. (The vocal similarity between The Dells’ Marvin Junior and The Blue Notes’ Teddy Pendergrass is unmistakable.) When The Dells finally got the chance to record in Philadelphia, though, it wasn’t with Gamble and Huff.
Guitarist Norman Harris was part of the rock-solid rhythm section that played on virtually every hit to come out of Philadelphia in the early 1970s, joined by bassist Ronnie Baker and drummer Earl Young. That trio formed the core of Philadelphia International Records (PIR) “house band” MFSB and when Baker, Harris and Young moved into the realm of production, Gamble and Huff even set up Golden Fleece Records for the team’s work with such acts as The Trampps. The team, however, felt underappreciated by Gamble and Huff, and in 1976, they defected to the Cayre Brothers’ Salsoul label in addition to continuing non-PIR freelance work. The two records from The Dells arrived in the post-PIR period for Baker, Harris and Young, but carried on the sound the trio participated in creating with Gamble and Huff. In addition, much of the albums’ personnel will be familiar to any Philadelphia soul fan: guitarists Roland Chambers and Bobby Eli, bandleader Don Renaldo and His Horns and Strings, and songwriters Ron Tyson and Allan Felder.
Hit the jump for a look at They Said It Couldn’t Be Done, But We Did It and Love Connection including full track listings and order links!
They Said It Couldn’t Be Done, But We Did It epitomizes the period of Philly soul in which the city’s strings-and brass-laden, orchestrated soul sound was giving way to what’s now considered disco. As such, the album has both four-to-the-floor dancefloor anthems (“Our Love”) and elaborate, yearning ballads (“Waiting For You,” “Could It Be”). It even looks back to the socially conscious songs that were a hallmark of the Philly style with “Rich Man, Poor Man (Peace).” The album’s material was written to order by Felder, Harris, Tyson, T.G. Conway, Bruce Gray and Ron Kersey, working in different configurations, and arrangements were provided by Harris, Kersey, and Conway. It, of course, was recorded at Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studio, which Philadelphia International had turned into a world-renowned spot.
Unfortunately the album stalled at No. 40 R&B and No. 208 Pop, with lead single “Betcha Never Been Loved (Like This Before)” only reached No. 29 on the R&B charts. The song is a pleading, passionate ballad showcasing The Dells’ smooth harmonies and a soulful rap. But with disco taking the public by storm, perhaps one of the album’s up-tempo tracks would have made a better choice. Three songs briefly appeared on Billboard’s National Disco Action chart, but all told, the album failed to make an impression. Reissue producer David Nathan has added three U.S. single edits to the album: “Could It Be,” “Our Love” and “Betcha Never Been Loved (Like This Before).”
Despite the lack of commercial success, Mercury took another chance on The Harris Machine for Love Connection, released later in 1977. Sensing a new approach was necessary, Harris made the decision to eschew the traditional Philadelphia soul sound in favor of something akin to more traditional R&B. Still, the album was again recorded at Sigma Sound, and more former PIR associates of Harris and co. were enlisted including arranger Jack Faith and songwriter Bunny Sigler. Bobby Eli stepped up to the plate to co-write one track, the sublimely funky “God Helps Those (Who Help Themselves).” Outside songwriters were also brought in. Not that the patented Philly soul style was wholly absent, though; there’s no denying the origin of Love Connection.
The single “Private Property” is a big ballad produced by Tyson, Felder and Harris, with strings, brass, harmonies and even falsetto vocals juxtaposed with Marvin Junior’s familiar baritone. Despite the sweepingly romantic sound, Junior makes it clear to a potential rival that his woman is his “private property” in no uncertain terms! Love and lust are also on the mind in “Don’t Trick Me, Treat Me,” in which our lead singer lets his lady know how unhappy he is with her resistance to his amorous advances in the bedroom! Arranger Jack Faith (The O’Jays’ “Use Ta Be My Girl”) provided the “original Philly sound” with Ron Tyson’s “How Could One Man Be So Lucky” in which the Dells continue to explore romantic triangles, this time from the perspective of a man imagining himself with another guy’s girl! The title track, from Felder, Tyson and Harris, is a bit of a disco-fied “Love Train” update with the group imploring peace to various locations over the world. Marvin Junior got in on the songwriting act with a jazzy doo-wop update, “Wasted Tears,” selected as the album closer.
Rico Washington again provides liner notes, with Barksdale telling him that Bunny Sigler had “written some bad songs for us.” That’s “bad” in the sense of “good,” as Sigler’s “Should I Or Should I Not” proves. Love Connection has been expanded with its lone single edit, “Private Property.” (Its B-side was a retread of “Teaser” from the previous album.) Alan Wilson has remastered both albums for SoulMusic Records. Following Love Connection’s No. 45 R&B/No. 204 Pop, The Dells parted ways with Mercury, feeling the company hadn’t given their albums sufficient promotion. Norman Harris, prominent PIR expatriate, returned to Gamble and Huff's fold in 1980 with a solo collection also entitled The Harris Machine after his production group.
The Dells finally made it to Philadelphia International proper in 1992 for I Salute You, celebrating the group’s 40th anniversary. But with the Dells celebrating their 60th anniversary and Philadelphia International Records now celebrating its own 40th, the time has never been better to revisit The Dells’ collaborations with some of PIR’s finest alumni. You can order both albums below!
The Dells, They Said It Couldn’t Be Done, But We Did It (Mercury SRM-1-1145, 1977 – reissued SoulMusic SMCR 5046, 2012)
- Our Love
- Could It Be
- Rich Man, Poor Man (Peace)
- They Said It Couldn’t Be Done (But We Did It)
- Waiting For You
- Get On Down
- Betcha Never Been Loved (Like This Before)
- Could It Be (U.S. Single Edit – Mercury single 73909-B, 1977)
- Our Love (U.S. Single Edit – Mercury single 73909-A, 1977)
- Betcha Never Been Loved (Like This Before) (U.S. Single Edit – Mercury single 73901-A, 1977)
The Dells, Love Connection (Mercury SRM-1-3711, 1977 – reissued SoulMusic SMCR 5047, 2012)
- Private Property
- God Helps Those (Who Help Themselves)
- I’m In Love (I Can’t Explain What I Feel)
- Don’t Trick Me, Treat Me
- How Can One Man Be So Lucky
- Should I Or Should I Not
- Love Connection
- Wasted Tears
- Private Property (Single Edit – Mercury single 73977-A, 1977)