THE SPANIELS (By Steve Walker)

Thornton James "Pookie" Hudson (lead tenor) (born 11 June, 1934, Des Moines, Iowa), died 16 January 2006, Capital Heights, Maryland.
Ernest Warren (tenor)
Willie Jackson (tenor)
Opal Courtney Jr. (baritone)
Gerald "Bounce" Davis Gregory (bass) (born 10 June, 1934, died 12 February, 1999, Gary, Indiana)

Christmas 1952 saw the stage debut of Pookie Hudson & The Hudsonaires at a school talent show held at Roosevelt High School, Gary, Indiana where the above-named boys were attending the eleventh grade. The show was a success and the group stayed together and started performing locally at c hurches and talent shows. When it came to finding a snappier name for the group, they noted that many of the currently successful r&b groups were using "bird" names, so the boys simply thought laterally and decided to opt for "The Spaniels". Pookie Hudson, as well as being a lead singer blessed with a gloriously smooth and smoky vocal delivery, was also a talented song-writer who would write much of the group's material.

Fast-forward to the spring of 1953, when the boys visited Vivian's Record Shop, a local store owned by James Bracken and Vivian Carter Bracken, who was also a dj at WWCA. The group's singing convinced the Brackens to start their own label named after the couple's first-name initials (V.J.). The Brackens recruited Vivian's brother Calvin Carter as a&r manager, moved their operation to Chicago and, on 5 May, 1953, recorded their first disc - the Spaniels' "Baby It's You" and "Bounce". The record, issued as Vee-Jay 101 in July 1953, had a bouncy piano, bass, and melody line that would surface in numerous later recordings such as the Capris' "Oh My Darling" (1954) and the Jesters' "So Strange" (1957). As the record began to sell in large numbers locally, it became apparent that Vee-Jay needed help in the distribution area, often a major stumbling block for aspiring talent on small local labels. Chance Records of Chicago came to the aid of the quintet and Chance 1141 became the biggest seller to date for Art Sheridan's label. Ironically, in later years, Vee-Jay would own and distribute all of Chance's recordings. On 5 September, 1953 "Baby It's You" hit number 10 on the national R&B Best Seller and Jukebox charts.

The follow-up, "The Bells Ring Out" (Vee-Jay 103, October 1953) was a mellow bluesy ballad with lots of vocal harmony but it received only some local play. The flip-side was the jump tune "House Cleaning", featuring bass Gerald Gregory on lead vocal.

In March 1954 Vee-Jay released "Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite" (c/w "(Get Away Child) You Don't Move Me") on Vee-Jay 107, about which Billboard's reviewer wrote: "Almost pop-like piece of material. The imitation of the sounds of a sax by the bass singer gives this side a gimmick which helps greatly. Strong wax." (In a 1970's interview with Alan Lee and Donna Hennings, Pookie Hudson stated that Gregory was not attempting to imitate a sax but rather trying to keep the guys on pitch). The success of "Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite" prompted the McGuire Sisters to cover it for the pop market, where it reached #7, stealing a lot of the Spaniels' sales. But their version still managed to peak at number five R&B in the summer of 1954 and in the future, it would become one of the most requested records on oldies radio.

Now the Spaniels were on the way to becoming the first of the successful mid-western r&b groups. They were one of the first (if not the first) r&b groups to perform with the lead singer on one mike and the group on another and they also initiated a trend toward using tap-dance routines in live shows. In terms of original material, Pookie's songs did not come about through the traditional formula. Normally the group would just walk down a street and harmonize till something came together.

In June the Spaniels played the Apollo Theatre in New York with Big Joe Turner and the Arnett Cobb Orchestra. They then signed on for a major R&B road show which also featured the Counts, the Drifters, King Pleasure, Roy Hamilton, Faye Adams, Lavern Baker, Rusty Bryant, and the Erskine Hawkins band. When the show hit Cleveland in August 1954, it was hosted by Alan Freed who took the opportunity to announce his forthcoming move to New York City. The tour wound up on 12 September at the Brooklyn Paramount. With the phenomenal success of "Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite", the follow-up record, "Play It Cool" c/w "Let's Make Up" (Vee-Jay 116) was held back until October 1954. An interesting feature of "Play It Cool" is its use of many cigarette brand names in the lyric content, and in the delivery of the number in a quasi-narrative style as almost a historic forerunner of the rap style of song presentation. The record's sales paled in comparison to the previous outing by the group, but that should not have come as a surprise. However, "Let's Make Up" made significant figures in Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

The Spaniels' next single coupled "Do Wah" with "Don't 'Cha Go" (Vee-Jay 131, May 1955). "Do Wah", with its slight Caribbean lilt, was different from anything else the group had previously attempted and did do much business outside their home mid-west territory. In July of that year, the Vee-Jay roster was strong enough to support a tour of exclusively their own artists - the Spaniels, the El Dorados, Billy Boy Arnold and Tommy Dean.

In August 1955, Vee-Jay released "You Painted Pictures" (written by local store owner Barney Roth) c/w "Hey Sister Lizzie" (Vee-Jay 154). Cash Box magazine picked the record as the pick hit of the week and it charted in October, peaking at #13. Now, as is so often the case in these stories, Uncle Sam took a hand in events. Opal Courtney, Jr. was drafted and replaced by Vee-Jay a&r man Cal Carter for a few months until James "Dimples" Cochran took over. Shortly thereafter, Ernest Warren was also drafted and the group continued recording as a quartet. Two subsequent singles, "False Love" c/w "Do You Really?" (Vee-Jay 178, February 1956) and "Dear Heart" c/w "Why Won't You Dance (Vee-Jay 189, May 1956), drifted off into obscurity. However, the group kept touring throughout 1956, especially with the Vee-Jay Cavalcade, now joined by label-mate Jimmy Reed.

With their records not selling well, Pookie Hudson and Willie Jackson left the group. The roster now read Carl Rainge (lead), Gerald Gregory (bass), James Cochran (baritone), and Don Porter (second tenor). The next single was Buddy Johnson's "Since I Fell for You" (from their very first Vee-Jay session in 1953) c/w "Baby Come Along With Me" (Vee-Jay 202, July 1956). During the summer of 1956, the Spaniels appeared on a star-studded rock'n'roll spectacular tour headlined by Carl Perkins and also featuring Chuck Berry, the Teenagers, the Cleftones, Al Hibbler, Bobby Charles, Shirley & Lee and the Illinois Jacquet band. Pookie Hudson rejoined late in 1956 and began creating some of the group's most outstanding sides. The beautiful and soulful "You Gave Me Peace Of Mind" c/w "Please Don't Tease" (Vee-Jay 229) was released in December 1956 and became a major seller in the early months of 1957. To follow this, they released the equally fine "Everyone's Laughing" c/w "I.O.U." on Vee-Jay 246 (April 1954) and to see the year out in finest style, the group recorded and released my favourite Spaniels number "You're Gonna Cry" (c/w "I Need Your Kisses) on Vee-Jay 257, featuring Pookie in finest pleading form, guaranteed to melt the hardest heart.

"You're Gonna Cry", despite being such a great record, failed to sell in significant numbers, nor did the follow-up record "I Lost You" c/w "Crazee Baby" (Vee-Jay 264, January 1958). The next record, "Tina" c/w "Great Googley Moo" (Vee-Jay 278, April 1958) did a little better and was a moderate r&b seller in their mid-west home territory. In late August, another great record bit the dust sales-wise. Their mighty influential up-tempo version of the r&b group favourite, "Stormy Weather", c/w "Here Is Why I Love You" (Vee-Jay 290) failed to register and, despite a few more valiant attempts at resurrecting the magic throughout 1959 and 1960, their time with Vee-Jay ran out. At least they had the satisfaction, with their final Vee-Jay release, "I Know" c/w "Bus Fare Home" (Vee-Jay 350), of seeing their name in the lower reaches (#23) of the national R&B charts again.

Thereafter, the fortunes of the group followed that of so many of their contemporaries. Swept aside by rapidly changing musical tastes in the pop and r&b markets, the Spaniels witnessed a bewildering number of changes to their line-up, always revolving around the magic of lead singer Pookie Hudson. Records were released on Neptune (1961), on Jamie (Pookie as a solo artist) and on Parkway (1962). Pookie linked up with the Imperials (minus Little Anthony) for Lloyd Price's Double-L label, then there was a long gap until the end of the decade when "Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite" was re-recorded for Buddah in 1969.

In 1970, Pookie formed his own North American Records and issued "Fairytales" (with the Imperials backing again). It was picked up by Nat McCalla's Calla Records (distributed by Roulette), becoming Pookie's last chart single (#45 R&B) in the autumn of 1970. The Spaniels' last release was for Henry Farag's Canterbury label of Gary, Indiana (the boys had come full circle), in 1974 when they recorded a contemporary version of "Peace of Mind" and two B sides, "She Sang to Me" and an a cappella arrangement of "Danny Boy".

Gerald Gregory, one of the great bass voices of r&b group harmony, died in February, 1999. He had joined Sonny Til's New Orioles in the early 60's when the original Spaniels first started breaking up. Pookie and the Spaniels remained active and are one of the more in-demand acts on the oldies circuit. Though they never had a major pop hit, oldies radio made them popular far beyond the r&b audience. Their recordings remain excellent examples of fine vocal group r&b, and Pookie's sound remains unique.

In 1992, Pookie Hudson was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. Today he continues to perform with two Spaniels groups, one in Washington, D.C. and the original group still based in Gary. Pookie is raising money to open a Doo Wop museum in Washington, D.C. where he resides with his wife, Delores.

Further reading: "American Singing Groups", Jay Warner (Billboard Books)

Recommended CD's:

Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite (Charly CDGR 173) [1997] offers most of their important Vee-Jay records on a single CD, including some unissued tracks. It includes a great version of "Red Sails In The Sunset".

The Very Best Of The Spaniels Vol. 1 (Collectables 7243) and Vol. 2 (Collectables 7244) [2000]

Various Spaniels tracks are sprinkled around on Vee-Jay Doo Wop Volumes 1-4 (Famous Groove FG 1001, 1002, 1010, 1011) [1997]

Their a capella recording of "Danny Boy" mentioned above, together with an a capella recording of their early release "The Bells Ring Out" can be found on Volume 1 of James Cullinan's excellent "Finbarr Golden Treasury of Doo Wop".

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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