Stranger To The Dells

“Hello Stranger,” by Barbara Lewis, drifted its melancholy way into the pop charts in 1963, breaking the top forty in May and staying there for ten weeks, peaking at number three.  “Hello Stranger” remains one of the great songs about a certain type of nearly-universal post-relationship loneliness, even though Lewis apparently wrote the song about walking around with her father, not about encounters with an ex-lover.

The situation Lewis describes in “Hello Stranger,” despite being inspired by her father, is instantly recognizable as a post-romantic mind state.  Lewis’s hushed voice curls around a simple organ riff; eminently fragile and whispy, it aches in a matter-of-fact way that makes it extremely poignant.  She seems to exist like most of us do – break-ups suck, but unlike Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin, it doesn’t feel like Lewis is about to explode in a fiery ball of vocal pyrotechnics; she’ll keep on going, but be sad for a while.  Lewis does not deceive herself or the listener, and we admire her for the strength of honesty that she displays (something most of us don’t bring into play in these type of moments), as she sings, “If you’re not going to stay/ please don’t tease me like you did before/ because I still love you so. . . .”  As she is gently but commandingly evoking a feeling of mournful reminiscence, a sturdy bed of backing vocals works in the background.  These voices are the manifestation of how things used to be, singing “shoo-bop shoo-bop, my baby, oooooh.” The backing vocals are sung by a long-standing R&B group from Chicago, the Dells.

The Dells are not just any  backing group — while their participation in “Hello Stranger” marks one of their most successful collaborations, the Dells also had a lengthy recording career of their own. The Dells formed in 1952 as a doo-wop group.  Vocal groups with a long life often undergo many personnel changes, dissolving and incorporating new members (i.e., Curtis Mayfield left the Impressions and was replaced by Leroy Hutson; I saw the Four Tops and the Temptations in concert last year and both groups had only one of their original singers) but the Dells were remarkably consistent: they did not change their lineup between 1960 and 2009.  Although they started doing doo-wop, they followed the path of the pop market. In addition to singing back-up for Lewis, they worked with Dinah Washington and Ray Charles.  By 1966, they were doing Motown-inflected soul.

The Dells released There Is in 1966 and it contained several pop hits, most notably the title track and “Stay In My Corner,” a re-working of a song they had put out in 1965.  But it’s other songs on There Is that make it an entertaining album.  “Wear It On My Face” is a steady Motown-esque march, with strings, horns, and a lead sung by a man who bellows in David Ruffin’s style.  “Show Me” and “Run For Cover” both work with a more streamlined swing.  Best is the beginning of “O-O I Love You,” which is composed of a bass vocal monologue from Chuck Barksdale and the easiest (and most sample-able) of piano twinkles.  That twinkle and a bass line compose the back bone of the song, showing the beauty of simplicity.  The Dells are capable both of playing second-fiddle and shining in their own spotlight.

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