By Todd Baptista
The Spaniels are recognized as true originals, one of the most revered 1950s vocal groups among their peers, successors and generations of group harmony fans. The group’s mainstay? The romantic tenor of lead singer Thornton James “Pookie” Hudson.
“I was noticed for my singing when I was about 11,” Hudson said. “My teachers started hearing things in me and said my voice was exceptional, so I knew that I had something that people liked to listen to.”
Hudson, who sang in local church choirs in his hometown of Gary, Ind., also lived off and on in Davenport, Iowa, with his aunt, whose home provided additional inspiration.
“When The Ink Spots, ‘King’ Cole, or any of those artists came through the Rock Island (Ill.)-Davenport area, they would stop at her house and rehearse. I used to watch all those artists that would come through,” he recalled.
Hudson carried these influences back to Gary. Before long, many churches in the city were seeking Hudson for their choirs. In one, he was befriended by Billy Shelton and Calvin Fossett. Calling themselves the Three Bees, the trio also sang while attending Roosevelt High in the early 1950s, harmonizing to pop and gospel tunes in school halls, churches, the glee club and at talent shows.
When Shelton and Fossett graduated, the trio dwindled to a single. Hudson’s vocalizing came to the attention of classmates Gerald Davis Gregory and Willie C. Jackson, who asked if they could sing with him during the Christmas season in 1952.
“There was a talent show at the school, and Gerald and Willis C. approached me at my locker the night before. They wanted to sing with me, and I didn’t want to sing. I didn’t know them, but I didn’t know how to say no. I said, ‘We’ll, go ask the teacher and see what she says.’ On the way back, we picked up Ernest Warren, and we ran through a tune by The Four Buddies called ‘I Will Wait.’ It sounded pretty good, and we ended up doing it.”
Initially, the quartet was called Pookie Hudson and The Hudsonaires, a name Hudson detested, so the search for a new one commenced.
“I had about five names,” Gregory recalled. “I liked the name Hemlocks, but I didn’t know what it meant. I went and found out that hemlock was a poisonous plant, and I didn’t want the group to be named after a poisonous plant. So I asked my lady what she thought. She said she liked ‘the Spaniels,’ that she thought it was catchy. She said it was fitting, since we sounded like a bunch of dogs.”
The Spaniels gained a full-time baritone when 16-year-old Opal Courtney Jr., a Roosevelt High junior, heard them rehearsing at the center where he had gone to play basketball and immediately joined in.
In spring 1953, Vivian Carter, a Gary record shop owner and WGRY disc jockey, and her boyfriend, James Bracken, launched their own record label. One of Vivian’s employees told her about The Spaniels, who became the first artists signed to the new Vee-Jay label and whose initial session took place on May 5, 1953, at Chicago’s Universal Recording.
With the debut, “Baby It’s You,” The Spaniels’ basic sound was in place. Hudson’s smooth, romantic lead blended effectively with Gregory’s booming bass phrasings and the three tenor/baritone voices, rounding the soulful harmony with plaintive ‘ooohs’ and a haunting call-and-answer pattern. Equally effective was Warren’s high falsetto tenor at the top of the harmony, a pattern first utilized in R&B by The Orioles.
The flip, “Bounce,” featured an alcohol-laden lyric and was the first of many Gregory-led songs. “I used to listen to the bass (Orlandus Wilson) in the Golden Gate Quartet,” he recalled. “Then I started listening to Jimmy Ricks and Jimmy Jones and The Harmonizing Four. That’s who I learned from.”
Gregory’s efforts with The Spaniels earned him a reputation as one of the most powerful and lowest basses among 1950s vocal groups, second only to Jimmy Ricks of The Ravens. The unique sound and onstage excitement generated by The Spaniels was a product of the interplay of the talents and personalities of Hudson and Gregory, known as “Bounce” to his friends.
“Baby It’s You” brought the group instant attention. Less than a month after its releas
e, orders outstripped Vee-Jay’s production capability, forcing Carter and Bracken to lease the disc to Chance. Late that summer, “Baby It’s You” peaked at No. 10 on Billboard’s R&B chart. The follow-up, the pretty Hudson-penned and led ballad “The Bells Ring Out,” sold lightly.
“I wrote most of the songs The Spaniels sang, but it was not because I decided to become a songwriter, ’cause I didn’t know there was such a thing. We just needed material,” Hudson said. “If it reached Billboard or something, they’d show it to me, but I never thought about them that way. All I wanted to do was sing.”
Searching for an A-side for the group’s third single, Vee-Jay selected “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite,” recorded on Sept. 23, 1953.
“That was the only song that they (ever) made us do. We didn’t want to do that,” Hudson confessed. “I wrote ‘Goodnite, Sweetheart’ about 1951, ’52. I was going with this girl named Bunny Jean Davis. I would go to her house, and I’d stay until her mother got tired of that. She said, ‘Look, son, your mama might not care about you being out after 12 o’clock, but she didn’t mean for you to be here.’ So I had to leave. As I walked home from her house, I put ‘Goodnite, Sweetheart’ together. I took it to the group, and they put it together, but we never thought it would be a song. We went into the studio at 9 o’clock one night, and we didn’t get out until the next morning ’cause we really didn’t want to do it!”
“Speaking of ‘Goodnite Sweetheart,’ five notes were given to me from God Himself,” Gregory remarked of his trademark “do do do do doo” riff. “Simply because it didn’t come through my head the way I knew it was coming, and what it would sound like; He just let it run all through me.”
Issued in March 1954, response to the record was immediate and nationwide. On May 1, it debuted on the R&B chart where it remained all summer, peaking at No. 5. “Goodnite” became an R&B standard, closing countless dances and record hops. At least eight pop artists churned out cover versions that spring. The McGuire Sisters’ take was most successful, hitting No. 7 on Billboard’s pop chart, while the original peaked at No. 24.
“White radio stations didn’t play black records then,” Hudson said. “They played white artists, and so we were limited to the black audience and black stations.”
In Ohio’s major markets, Cleveland and Cincinnati, where WJW’s Alan Freed had already developed a strong following, The McGuire Sisters’ version won out. According to Hudson, Freed approached him in 1954, wanting his name included as a songwriter. When Hudson refused, Freed barred the group’s records from his program, played The McGuire Sisters’ cover, and forbade the group from appearing on his stage shows.
On June 11, 1954, Hudson’s 20th birthday, The Spaniels debuted at New York’s Apollo Theater with Joe Turner and Arnett Cobb’s Orchestra. Although Turner had the No. 1 R&B hit with “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” Hudson proudly remembered The Spaniels stole the show with “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.”
The Spaniels’ fourth single, issued late that summer, was “Let’s Make Up,” a ballad Hudson wrote after a breakup with a girlfriend. The flip, “Play It Cool,” was a roughhouse rap-style vocal led by Jackson. On Aug. 6, 1954, The Spaniels joined its first national tour, the second annual Biggest Rhythm and Blues Show, a five-week tour through 18 states and the Washington, D.C., concluding in mid-September with five days of sellouts at the Brooklyn Paramount. The tour also boasted Roy Hamilton, Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters, Faye Adams and LaVern Baker. The Spaniels drove a 1954 Buick station wagon with the group’s name emblazoned on the sides.
“It was us, and The Drifters and LaVern Baker, and we all used to follow each other down south,” Hudson recalled. “We used to stop and buy cherry bombs. We’d get in front and drop our cherry bombs and see if they would explode under their car! Then they’d get down in Atlanta, they’d stop and they’d drop their cherry bombs and see if it’d explode under our car. We used to do things like that on the road.”
The thought of The Spaniels and The Drifters exploding cherry bombs under each other’s cars on the highway paints a surrealistic portrait of life on the road, a stark contrast to the hardships and racial prejudices the black artists experienced as they toured the South. “You could find a place to eat, go and pay for it inside and go stand outside, and they’d slide your food down a chute, and if you missed it, you were in trouble,” Hudson said. “They wouldn’t even let you use their rest rooms.”
On one occasion, group members were forced to empty their wallets on the ground and eat watermelon for the local police. The Spaniels rode the tour bus on subsequent extended tours.
“We had a white bus driver. We started outside of Washington,” Hudson said. “Everybody in the bus was black but him. In Virginia, he got off to get us food out of this restaurant. Somebody saw all of us were black on the bus, and they chased him out of the restaurant with baseball bats, sticks and chains.”
By the end of October 1954, Courtney, who had quit school just before graduation when The Spaniels were booked into The Apollo, left the group under pressure from his father. (Courtney went on to complete school, join the Air Force, return to singing briefly with The Dells in 1963 on the Argo single “If It Ain’t One Thing It’s Another,” and later became a hairdresser.)
Only four voices were available for The Spaniels’ July 1955 session that produced “You Painted Pictures,” written by Barney Roth, a Gary grocer.
“His family was rich, but he aspired to be a songwriter,” Hudson said. “His family didn’t want him to. He wrote ‘False Love,’ ‘Dear Heart,’ ‘Painted Pictures’ — about four or five songs. ‘Painted Pictures’ almost did it for him.”
The song — the group’s third charter in two years — hit No. 13 on Billboard’s R&B chart later that year. Calvin Carter tried unsuccessfully to fill the baritone vacancy. One 1955 promotional photo of The Spaniels included Carter, but according to Hudson, Carter “couldn’t sing a note” and never participated in anything beyond the photo session.
In summer and fall 1955, The Spaniels endured a grueling schedule of personal appearances. The quartet returned to the studio in January 1956 to cut five new tracks; “False Love” and “Do You Really,” which were released by month’s end. In March, Warren was drafted, leaving just three members. A permanent replacement was soon found in James “Dimples” Cochran, a singer in another group that had hoped to sign with Vee-Jay.
This new quartet soon hit the road with the Cavalcade of Vee-Jay Stars package tour for shows in the Midwest, South and West Coast. By April, the group had reached Seattle, and Hudson and Jackson were disconsolate.
“I had gotten married and had a baby,” remembered Hudson. “We were getting $100 apiece a week and had to pay our own transportation, our own meals and expenses. We were making no money. We ran out of money for food.”
Jackson, whose wife was pregnant and unable to work, quit the group when it returned home; he took a job in a steel mill. Hudson also quit and began working at General American in East Chicago, building railroad boxcars. Gregory and Cochran, who recently had added first tenor Carl Rainge, realized quick recruiting and rehearsal was necessary to honor the group’s performance schedule. Donald “Duck” Porter, a Chicago native who had grown up in Gary singing with Cochran, joined as second tenor right after graduating from Roosevelt High.
“Everybody was gone, and I had to keep the group going by myself,” Gregory recalled. “So I got Dimp, Carl and Donald.”
Porter and Rainge were familiar with the group’s material, and yet another incarnation of The Spaniels hit the road, with Rainge singing lead. Fan reaction was mixed.
While away from the group, Hudson went through a difficult time. He and his wife broke up, and by his own admission, he drank heavily.
“While I was working at the boxcar company, I went out and looked up at the stars one night during my break and wrote ‘You Gave Me Peace of Mind.’”
On Nov. 5, 1956, The Spaniels entered the recording studio for the first time in 10 months, but Rainge was ill and unable to sing lead. The group went to Hudson, asking if he would lead “Please Don’t Tease,” a new Otis Blackwell song. Hudson consented. At session’s end, Hudson led the group through “You Gave Me Peace of Mind,” which he had first sung for the group in the back of its station wagon. A spiritually-flavored ballad, “Peace of Mind” was issued shortly after Thanksgiving 1956, and it marked Hudson’s return to the group, and Rainge remained as first tenor.
Although Hudson had written “You Gave Me Peace of Mind,” it actually belonged to Vee-Jay president Jimmy Bracken.
“I was in one of those binds in Gary with my first wife, and the man told me I had to give X amount of dollars, which I didn’t have,” Hudson explained. “So I went to Chicago (and) stopped at Vee-Jay and told them I needed $50. At the time, you could get a hotel room for $21 for the whole week. They hemmed and hawed, and so I said, ‘Well, I’ll sell you ‘Peace of Mind,’ which I did to Jimmy Bracken. So I sold him ‘Peace of Mind’ and he gave me $50.”
Billboard raved, and by year’s end, the disc was a top seller in Chicago. An alternate take issued in 1993 indicates Hudson had originally intended a more obvious spiritual lyric, as he sings “He gave me peace of mind.”
The Spaniels returned to the studio in March 1957, with Lester “Doc” Williams, a Gary native and friend of Rainge, filling in on bass. “Gerald had gone to jail,” Hudson said. “He had a nonsupport charge, and they sent him up for it. He had to do six months, and we ended up doing ‘Everyone’s Laughing,’ ‘I Lost You’ and ‘I.O.U.’ without Gerald.”
Released in April, the infectious, upbeat “Everyone’s Laughing” featured a tightly-knit background that blended magically with Hudson’s lead and Williams’ bass riffs. One of the hooks in the tune was the sung laughter conceived by Cochran. It peaked at No. 13 R&B and No. 69 Pop that summer. These later recordings set the second Spaniels group apart from the first.
“The second group was more technical,” Hudson said. “The first group kind of went by feel, but these guys knew their notes.”
Despite scoring four national chart hits, The Spaniels were, essentially, broke. “‘Everyone’s Laughing’ went on the charts,” Hudson said. “And they came to us and told us ‘Somebody’s counterfeiting this, and that’s why it’s on the chart.’ I really think they were trying to keep us in the hole.”
More than a dozen of the group’s recordings were credited, in part or in full, to Calvin Carter, who wrote none of the material. These were management edicts; there were no negotiations. Hudson was in no position to argue.
“I was in the bottle real heavy. I didn’t remember day one from day two half the time,” Hudson said. “I’m sorry that if I hadn’t, my mind would have been a little clearer and maybe things would have been different.”
“At that time, it was wine, women and song,” agreed Gregory, who returned for The Spaniels’ July 1957 session.
“You’re Gonna Cry,” another of Hudson’s fine lost-love tales, was issued in September. Opening with a powerful low bass line from Gregory, “You’re Gonna Cry” showcased the group’s fine harmony with Porter’s sweet, high tenor.
In November 1957, Vee-Jay scheduled another session, but only one song, the uptempo “Crazee Baby,” was cut. “Carl took ill and he was not on the session,” Hudson said. “The one song we did was with Verne (Allison) of The Dells. He sang the top part.”
On Feb. 27, 1958, the group cut a doo-wop reworking of the classic “Stormy Weather.”
“The Cadillacs were singing ‘Stormy Weather,’ but their company would not let them record it,” Hudson said. “(Josie Records) felt that it was like a shrine, and they would be killing it. So all they did was sing it for us, and we took the same arrangement they had.”
Vee-Jay left “Stormy Weather” on the shelf until summer, opting instead to release “Great Googley Moo” — an uptempo novelty written by Hudson and Cadillacs’ tenor Charles “Buddy” Brooks — backed with “Tina” in April.
“There was a young girl I met in Philadelphia,” Hudson explained. “She was about 15 or 16. I was coming out of the theater and she just walked up to me and said, ‘My name is Tina; would you write a song about me?’ And for some reason that just stuck. When I got back to Gary, I wrote the song called ‘Tina.’ As far as I know, I never saw her again.”
While appearing at the Casbah Club in Washington, D.C., in early 1958, The Spaniels were approached by Joseph Wallace of The Sensational Nightingales. Wallace had come up with “The Twist,” a rocking variation of The Drifters’ “What’cha Gonna Do,” which he offered to sell to The Spaniels. Since The Nightingales were strictly a spiritual group, members never copyrighted the tune and had no intention of recording it. The Spaniels asked to come back to Chicago to cut the song, but Vee-Jay felt it was too suggestive. Instead, it wound up in the hands of Hank Ballard.
In summer 1958, “Stormy Weather” became The Spaniels’ biggest seller since “Everyone’s Laughing,” racking up impressive regional sales and airplay despite missing the national charts. The group returned to the studio with a string of standards.
“Those were tunes that we had wanted to do,” Hudson said. “Gerald wanted to do ‘Heart and Soul’. ‘Lovely Way To Spend an Evening’ was Dimples Cochran’s idea. ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’ was Gerald’s idea. He loved that song. These were tunes we wanted to do. Calvin Carter had nothing to do with them.”
Gregory’s bass-led “Heart and Soul,” the group’s next single, bore a strong resemblance to The Four Buddies’ 1951 version and had been a part of The Spaniels’ stage repertoire since 1954.
After a string of Southern club dates resulted in an extended recording hiatus, The Spaniels finally got back to the studio on Aug. 27, 1959, cutting eight songs in a single-day session.
“While we were staying in Atlanta, a young man came to me with the tune — he had this arrangement,” Hudson remembered of “100 Years From Today.” “I’ve always liked it. I remember it from when I was a kid.” That song and “These Three Words” became the group’s new single a month later.
By mid-1959, The Spaniels’ national tour bookings had ebbed, a result of diminished record sales. “We were doing some clubs and things around Chicago,” Hudson said. “In the summer of ’59, we started going back to The Apollo, and we ended up in Washington through the Christmas season.”
Gregory’s version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “People Will Say We’re in Love” became the group’s Christmastime release. In early 1960, The Spaniels began playing clubs in Washington, D.C., and Hudson decided to call the city home. Fresh out of the service, original first tenor Ernest Warren rejoined The Spaniels. Rainge left shortly thereafter, followed by Porter and Cochran.
In turn, Hudson reorganized the group with three eager Washington vocalists.
“They had been bugging me even when I had the group with me in Washington. These dudes were following me around. I guess they must have sensed something was happening,” Hudson said. “So I picked up Robert “Pete” Simmons, Billy Carey, and Andrew Magruder (former lead of the Five Blue Notes on Sabre). We ended up being The Spaniels and did ‘I Know’.”
“I Know,” a catchy calypso-flavored tune written by Luther Dixon, broke onto Billboard’s R&B chart on Aug. 1, and peaked at No. 23 during a six-week stint. Encouraged, Vee-Jay issued the group’s second album; it contained several previously unreleased tracks including “So Deep Within,” a soulful ballad composed and led by Gregory and singled out by the bass as his favorite and finest effort.
When Vee-Jay ran into financial difficulty, it decided against recording The Spaniels again. In 1961, the group shifted to Lloyd Price’s Neptune label. The Spaniels’ Neptune single, “For Sentimental Reasons”/“Meek Man,” was issued in July 1961. “Turn Out The Lights,” also recorded for Price, appeared on Parkway the following April.
Discouraged by a lack of success, The Spaniels dissolved, and Hudson moved to Philadelphia. Gregory left The Spaniels’ fold to join The Orioles, where he sang on the 1962 sides the group cut for Charlie Parker Records; he also spent time as a bass with an Ink Spots group in the 1960s.
By the end of 1962, Price decided to start another label. One of the first artists signed, Hudson went to New York to launch his solo career on Price’s and manager Harold Logan’s Double-L imprint.
“I was destitute then,” Hudson said. “I was going to record, so I caught the bus out of Philadelphia, and when I got to New York, I had $7. I called Lloyd, and they had gone on Christmas vacation! So here I am in New York with seven dollars, and I didn’t know anybody. It was the week before Christmas, and I slept in Central Park. A paper kept me warm. I slept on benches. I’d walk to Union Station and change clothes. I’d go in the lockers down there, and you could wash up in the place, and it would cost me a quarter for the locker and things. I’d walk from there to 125th Street to see if I could run into anybody I knew. I truly had better times. But I had the faith that it was going to work out, so I held onto it.”
Intended as a solo recording, the session became a group effort. Lloyd hired Imperials manager Richard Barrett to do the session. Imperials tenors George Kerr and Sammy Strain, second tenor Ernest Wright and baritone-bass Clarence Collins, all of whom had split from Little Anthony in 1961, were present.
The group ended up recording “I Know, I Know,” which Sammy Strain wrote. “I Know, I Know” was issued by Double-L in spring 1963, credited to Pookie Hudson and The Spaniels. The Imperials’ tight, soulful harmony provided the perfect backdrop for Hudson’s stirring lead. On May 25, it reached No. 96 during a one-week stay on Billboard’s Hot 100.
“The killer part about that (was) after we did ‘I Know, I Know,’ Lloyd Price and them sent me to Pittsburgh to do a hop for some disc jockey,” Hudson recalled. “They don’t give me any money. They put me on a plane. They think the disc jockey was going to give me money. The disc jockey thought they gave me money. Now they got this hotel they put me up in downtown. I never could understand why they got it for the week. They got me in this hotel, and it’s got a kitchen, it’s got pots and pans and dishes and everything, and I had no money. I didn’t know the disc jockey, so I couldn’t call him. Lloyd Price had gone on vacation again. And here I am in Pittsburgh, and I didn’t know a soul. I just walked the street, and I drank water for a whole week until they came back and sent me some money.”
Down on his luck, Hudson ran into The Coasters while the group appeared at the Apollo in 1964. As old friendships were renewed, the group brought Hudson to Chase Records on West 144th Street, where Hudson and The Coasters — Carl Gardner, Billy Guy, Earl Carroll and Dub Jones — recorded as The Individuals. The unison-led “Wedding Bells” was backed with “Pillow Wet With Tears,” featuring Hudson. After returning to Philadelphia, Hudson cut a solo record for Jamie, “All The Places I’ve Been.”
In 1969, rekindled interest in the music of the 1950s led to The Spaniels’ re-emergence. Hudson, Simmons, Sonny West, Alvin Wheeler and Charles Douglas re-recorded “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” with strings and “Maybe,” an overlooked soul gem, for Buddah Records. On Nov. 29, 1969, the group was featured at Madison Square Garden along with Bill Haley, Gary U.S. Bonds, The Five Satins and Shep and The Limelites.
In 1970, Hudson, Simmons and John Prowse launched their own North American label, issuing “Fairy Tales,” which had been recorded at the “I Know, I Know” session in 1963. That fall, it reached No. 45 R&B — a full 10 years after “I Know.”
In early 1974, Hudson reunited with Rainge, Porter and Lester Williams to record “She Sang To Me,” a contemporary soul remake of “Peace of Mind,” and an a cappella rendition of “Danny Boy;” the songs were released on an extended-play single by the Gary-based Canterbury Records. During the remainder of the 1970s and ’80s, Hudson bounced between Gary and Washington, dividing his time between the Gary-based Rainge, Porter, Cochran and Gregory group and his Washington-based Spaniels. In 1987, Hudson recorded a solo single, “Love Songs (On The Radio),” on his own Tacamtra label.
Over the years, The Spaniels went to court on several occasions in an effort to collect owed royalties.
“I never lost the rights to ‘Goodnite, Sweetheart’,” Hudson explained. “They tried not to pay me for it. When the lawyers really started getting into these things, they came out with papers that said I sold all my songs for $50. They put all of my songs under ‘Peace of Mind,’ saying I sold all of them for $50. I finally got a lawyer that killed that.”
Until his death, Hudson still received songwriting royalties from his other songs, including “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.” In recent years, The Spaniels and their families have received performance royalties through Sound Exchange.
Hudson also made his peace with Vivian Carter, who had divorced Bracken after Vee-Jay went bankrupt in 1966. She returned to WWCA as a disc jockey in the early 1970s. Bracken died in 1972. When Vivian died of diabetic complications in 1989, it was without any of the riches that Vee-Jay had reaped.
“I was angry for a while. They had been having the hog, and I was on welfare, and they were living off my talent,” Hudson said. “But when she went into the nursing home, and, as I got older, I realized when you hold grudges, you only hurt yourself. You take away your life trying to hope that something happens to somebody else. So I went to the nursing home and we talked. She forgave me and I forgave her. I never looked back.”
In February 1991, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation honored the original Spaniels with its Pioneer Award. Along with a plaque, the group received a check for $20,000. Hudson, Warren, Courtney, Jackson and Gregory reunited for the first time since 1955 for the ceremony, although they did not perform. Still, the honor motivated four of the original members to regroup. Ernest Warren, who had been serving as a preacher for 15 years, declined. With a vacancy to fill, Hudson selected Billy Shelton, his boyhood friend from the Three Bees.
The reorganized Spaniels traveled to England in 1991. That August, the group recorded two a cappella songs for the Street Gold Entertainment Christmas CD “Street Carols.” “Santa’s Lullabye,” arranged by Shelton and written by Hudson in tribute to his asthmatic daughter, was a superb showcase for the sweet harmonies of the new group. Hudson also co-wrote “Little Red Shoes,” which former label mate Jerry Butler cut for the album. In 1992, the group returned to England for another week of appearances with LaVern Baker.
In November 1992, the Spaniels recorded a full-length CD at the Chicago Music Complex. Released in June 1993 on the JLJ label, “The Spaniels 40th Anniversary 1953-1993” was a celebration of the group’s history and a declaration of their enthusiasm and ability. Battling his lifelong addiction to alcohol, Gregory was away from the group at the time; he returned in spring 1993.
When Hudson headed back east in 1993, The Spaniels again regrouped. Hudson and Gregory teamed up with a Washington-based group, Sonny West, Moe Warren and Sonny Pate, to sing as The Spaniels. Later, West was replaced by George Spann.
Hudson recorded on two occasions in 1995, joining Jimmy Beaumont of The Skyliners, Drifters’ bass Bill Pinckney and Hank Ballard to record Beaumont and Joe Rock’s “Christmas Isn’t Christmas (Without You)” for the “Street Carols II” CD. The Washington-based lineup also recorded “Sloppy Drunk,” originally recorded in 1953 but never issued, and “All The Places I’ve Been,” first cut in 1964 as a Hudson solo for Jamie, for Classic Artists.
Despite the number of personnel changes over the years, the key to The Spaniels’ successful sound — the dynamic interplay between Hudson and Gregory amid a strong harmonic background — remained intact for 45 years. During live performances, the colorful bass was the group’s heart and soul. In 1998, Gregory suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He and Hudson last worked together in New Jersey that November. On Feb. 12, 1999, Gregory died at the age of 64. The Spaniels served as honorary pallbearers, and The Rev. Warren delivered one of the eulogies.
Hudson, Courtney, Jackson, Shelton, Rainge and guitarist Wilton Crump gathered in front of the casket to sing “Danny Boy” and “You Gave Me Peace Of Mind.” Standing in front of Gregory’s coffin, Hudson made several brief statements, finally admitting, “I guess I’m prolonging this, but I just can’t bear to see Gerald go.” Crump played Gerald’s familiar five-note intro to “Goodnite Sweetheart” and the group broke out into song. “Goodnight, my friend, it’s time to go,” they all sang. Reaching the “3 o’clock in the morning” verse, Pookie sang, “It’s just about that last hour, and, Gerald, we hate to see you go, but we know the joy that you’ve found. Oh — you know I miss you so.”
After Gregory’s death, Hudson worked tirelessly to keep The Spaniels’ name in the limelight. In 1999 and 2000, he made several appearances in Indiana with Courtney, Jackson, Shelton and Crump. On most occasions, he worked with a Washington-based quartet of Steven Wade, Preston Monroe, Dexter Combs and Wellington Robinson.
The Spaniels appeared in PBS’ 1999 blockbuster, “Doo Wop 50” and a 2005 follow-up, “Doo Wop Vocal Group Greats Live.” In 2002, Hudson joined Bobby Lewis and Lewis Lymon on the Mad Hands CD, “American Masters Sing The Blues.”
Diagnosed with thymus gland cancer in 2004, Hudson never stopped looking toward the future.
“I ain’t gonna slow down until they start throwing the dirt in my face and say, ‘You’re through,’” he said. In 2006, Hudson and the group recorded three songs for Bill Carpenter’s 12-track CD “Uncloudy Christmas.”
By fall 2006, Hudson’s cancer had progressed. Declining further treatment, he died at his Capital Heights, Md., home on Jan. 16, 2007, at age 72. His funeral was held at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., where guests listened to his last recording, “The Angels Watching Over Me.” The Washington-based Spaniels sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord;” the Indiana Spaniels offered “You Gave Me Peace Of Mind”.
Opal Courtney died of a heart attack in 2008, and Carl Rainge died in 2011 after a long illness. Today, Willie C. Jackson and Billy Shelton keep the sound of The original Spaniels alive with new members.