Oh, What a Station!

Remembering Oldies AM with the Dells and Dramatics

For about a year, Oldies AM (540/1260) pleased thousands with a revolutionary all-oldies format. It was Indie 103.1 for the hot-rod set—those of us who stubbornly cling to an era when songs about love weren't a joke, but best expressed by Smokey Robinson or Ashford & Simpson. Station owner Saul Levine—the man who still lets classical music play without end on his other station, KMZT 105.1—dipped into a collection of more than 5,000 singles from the early '50s to the late '60s and let his DJs go nuts. But one weekend in June, an Oldies announcer said the station would now play "oldies and more." That was the warning: one year after KRLA made the same announcement in 1998, that station died. Oldies AM's death came quicker: a week. Now it plays only standards—Frank Sinatra; mostly bad Frank Sinatra—and advertises itself as "Unforgettable."

As the decades pass and the once-rigid oldies format now includes Carly Simon and Hall & Oates, oldies artists seem destined to join almost all pre-1920 American popular music in the Smithsonian. Lovers of this music can no longer find it on the radio. So don't be surprised if more people than usual show up this Friday, when R&B stunners the Dells and the Dramatics appear at the Grove.

Of the two groups, the Dells maintain more oldies cred: members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the quintet began in the '50s under the tutelage of Harvey Fuqua—of Harvey and the Moonglows fame—who discovered the Spinners and Marvin Gaye. In 1956, aided by Fuqua's careful producing, the Dells recorded one of doo-wop's true standards, "Oh, What a Night"—featuring Marvin Junior's raspy, sensuous baritone and the flaying falsetto of Vern Allison—and later followed with "Stay in My Corner," a song so slow and weepy it almost sounds like a dirge.

The group never did much after that, though—save for their 1969 remake of "Oh, What a Night"—and to tell you the truth, I don't know any other song that the group recorded. Still, it's a testament to "Oh, What a Night" and "Stay in My Corner" that the Dells' reputation has not soured even as they tour in their old age—unlike, say, the Beach Boys.

The Dramatics share a similar story. Much like fellow Detroiters Jackie Wilson and Iggy Pop, this quintet could never quite crack the Motown roster. But it didn't matter: during the late '60s the group headed south to Memphis, landing on the city's own race-music label, Stax, and joining their label mates in creating proto-funk, most excitedly on 1971's "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get."

"Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" remains a neglected classic: rich, dueling harmonies, harsh horns, dark lyrics that capture the beleaguered, cynical view of Afro-America at the time. The Dramatics memorably performed the track at Wattstax—the 1972 Watts Riots anniversary concert that brought more than 100,000 people to the Los Angeles Coliseum in a celebration of black power—but shortly after, the group frayed. A splinter group formed, but youngsters today probably know the group best for their hilarious cameo on Snoop Dogg's 1993 Doggystyledebut.

Both the Dells and the Dramatics rarely crack the KRTH/KOLA behemoth, so seeing them live is really the easiest way to enjoy them. And do go see them—in about a decade, these groups will probably be condemned to a life of no radio play, feeling the same as those who adore them: abandoned.

THE DELLS AND THE DRAMATICS PLAY AT THE GROVE AT ANAHEIM, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700. FRI., 8 P.M. $58-$68. ALL AGES.

 
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