Johnny Carter: Doo-wop and R&B singer who was twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The singer Johnny Carter was one of the few two-time inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for his membership of two influential vocal groups, the Flamingos and the Dells. Carter was the last surviving founder member of the Flamingos, the Chicago doo-wop group best known to British audiences for their appearance performing the ballad "Would I Be Crying" in Rock, Rock, Rock, the 1956 movie starring the disc jockey Alan Freed and teenage star Tuesday Weld, and also featuring the Moonglows, Chuck Berry, the Johnny Burnette Trio and La Vern Baker, as well as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

In 1960, Carter replaced Johnny Funches in the Dells, also from Illinois, and became a mainstay of the group whose personnel remained unchanged for nigh on half a century. With him on board, the Dells went on to have 45 hits in the R&B charts – an achievement only bettered by the Isley Brothers – and had US Top Ten pop success with "Stay in My Corner" in 1968 and "Oh, What a Night" in 1969, a remake of one of their earlier hits with Carter's soaring falsetto very much to the fore.

Nominally a tenor but blessed with a multi-octave range, Carter formed a mighty "one-two" combination with the gritty baritone of co-lead singer Marvin Junior, as evidenced on their sole UK Top 20 entry, a medley of "I Can Sing a Rainbow" and "Love is Blue" in 1969. The Dells inspired, served as creative consultants and sang on the soundtrack of the engaging musical drama The Five Heartbeats, co-written and directed by Robert Townsend, who also inducted the finest exponents of "Chicago soul" into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

Born in 1934, Johnny Carter grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Age 18 he formed the Swallows with members of the choir at the black Jewish Church of God and Saints of Christ, a denomination known for singing hymns in a minor key, which accounts for the group's subsequent penchant for ballads. They played house parties and talent shows but, with another Swallows from Baltimore plying their trade, Carter's mother suggested they change their name to El Flamingos, the 5 Flamingos and finally, the Flamingos.

Over the next five years, they scored local hits on the Chicago label Chance,

and the Chess subsidiary Checker, including "If I Can't Have You", "That's My Desire", "Golden Teardrops" – a breathtaking, almost a cappella number co-written and arranged by Carter – and the poignant "I'll Be Home", written from the point of view of a serviceman, which Pat Boone saw them perform live and quickly recorded for the pop market. Coincidentally, Carter was drafted in September 1956 and, when he returned from Germany two years later, found that the Flamingos had become a sextet and that he was surplus to requirements, though his contribution was recognised when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Dion in 2001.

For a while he worked as a plasterer before joining the Dells, another doo-wop group from neighbouring Harvey in 1959. With Verne Allison (second tenor), Chuck Barksdale (bass) and Michael "Mickey" McGill (baritone) backing the two lead vocalists, Junior and Carter, they became equally at ease tackling gospel, jazz, orchestrated soul or Broadway standards. In the 1960s they toured with Dinah Washington and Ray Charles and over the next two decades issued records on Vee-Jay, the Chess subsidiaries Argo and Cadet, Mercury and ABC.

Carter's first recording of note with the Dells was a novelty number "The (Bossa Nova) Bird" in 1962, which made the US Top 100, as did "O-O, I Love You", "There Is", "Wear it on Your Face" and "Stay in My Corner", first recorded in 1965. At over six minutes, with strings arranged by Charles Stepney and production by Bobby Miller, who had co-written it with Wade Flemons and Motown defector Barrett Strong, the expanded "Stay in My Corner" broke the R&B mould yet topped the R&B charts in 1968.

Following the crossover singles "Always Together", "Does Anybody Know I'm Here" and "I Can Sing a Rainbow/Love is Blue", their re-recording of "Oh, What a Night", at the behest of Leonard Chess, became a million-seller. The Dells remained a regular fixture on the R&B and pop listings well into the 70s, most notably with "The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)", "Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation", "My Pretending Days Are Over" and "I Miss You".

Their move into funk, disco and contemporary R&B came naturally to a group whose harmonies had inspired the Stylistics, the Delfonics and the Dramatics, with whom they made The Dells vs the Dramatics album in 1974. Having, like Labelle, passed on the Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff composition "If You Don't Know Me By Now", a hit for Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in 1972, they eventually collaborated with the architects of the "Philly sound" on the I Salute You album 20 years later.

The Dells visited the UK in 1999, headlining a Northern Soul weekender at Trentham Gardens in Stoke. Their last performance in Chicago five years ago coincided with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Carter attributed their longevity "to love, determination and God's will. I hate a quitter."

"Johnny Carter was second to none. In my opinion, the Dells' opinion, and the opinion of many, many people around the world, he was the greatest tenor in the world," said Dells member Barksdale in tribute. "This guy was phenomenal. 75 years old when he passed, he missed nothing. He got it all; whatever "all" was, he got that. He was the happiest cat around – infectiously good humoured. His radiant smile and impish wink will remain etched indelibly in our minds and hearts. Mostly, Johnny Carter lived fully and applied his God-given talent aptly up to the last day of his life."

Pierre Perrone

John Edwards Carter, singer and songwriter: born Chicago, Illinois 2 June 1934; married (five daughters); died Harvey, Illinois 21 August 2009.