Regarded as one of the best doo-wop groups of the 1950s, the Spaniels were one of the first groups signed to the African American-owned Vee-Jay label in 1953, when its members were just out of high school. Like many other black performers of the era, their greatest success, the 1954 single “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight,” could have been an even bigger pop hit if not for a cover version by the McGuire Sisters, who turned it into a top-ten hit. The first leg of the Spaniels’ recording career lasted until 1960, when the group’s poor chart performances led its members to disband and pursue solo careers. Re-formed in 1969 under the leadership of original member James “Pookie” Hudson, the Spaniels found receptive audiences on the oldies concert circuit and brought their music to a new generation of doo-wop fans. As the group approached the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, the Spaniels were still making concert appearances with their hits “Baby, It’s You,” “Everyone’s Laughing,” and the now-classic “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight.”
The Spaniels were a group first formed by five friends at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana, during the early 1950s. Hudson, a cousin of jazz pianist Fats Waller, had been singing in church choirs and other neighborhood groups when he was approached by Ernest Warren, Opal Courtney, Jr., Willie Jackson, and Gerald Gregory to form a new vocal group. With Hudson as the lead singer, the group made one of its first public appearances as Pookie Hudson and the Hud-sonaires at Roosevelt High’s Christmas talent show in 1952. The following year the group took a new name, the Spaniels, after Gregory’s wife allegedly said that the quintet sounded like a pack of dogs.
As the Spaniels, the group auditioned for Vivian Carter Bracken and her husband, James Bracken, who worked for Chicago radio station WWCA and owned a local record shop, Vivian’s Records. Vivian Bracken was also a disc jockey on Gary’s WGRY radio station. The Brackens had just launched their own label, Vee-Jay Records, and were searching for local talent. With an act that was far more polished than most groups just out of high school, the Spaniels impressed the Brackens enough to earn a record contract. Various sources cite either the Spaniels or blues guitarist Jimmy Reed as the first artist signed to Vee-Jay Records.
Vee-Jay was the most successful African-American-owned record label in the era before Motown, releasing records by Gene Chandler, Betty Everett, and Dee Clark. In the 1960s it even held the American rights to several Beatles recordings after other labels turned down the chance to release the tracks in 1963. The unexpected success generated by Beatlemania was not enough, however, to keep the chaotically managed label afloat. Vee-Jay Records closed in 1966.
The Spaniels’ first recording sessions took place in May of 1953, and Vee-Jay released “Baby It’s You” as the group’s debut single in July of that year. By the following month it had hit number ten on the R&B charts and the group began making concert appearances throughout the Midwest, usually appearing on weekends to avoid interfering with the members’ day jobs. None of their next few singles were hits, but a track from an early 1954 recording session, “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight,” put them back on the charts. Released in March of 1954 the single slowly climbed to number five on the R&B chart and crossed over onto the Billboard pop chart, where it rose to number 23. The record might have been even more successful if it had not been covered by the McGuire Sisters, a white vocal group, who took the song to number seven. (Because some radio stations refused to play music by black artists, white singers often released R&B songs, frequently using the same arrangements. The McGuire Sisters were far from alone in rushing to cover an R&B hit; Pat Boone was perhaps the best-known singer to make “white bread” versions of R&B hits, a habit that slowly died away in the 1960s.)
Hudson, who wrote “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” along with producer Calvin Carter, discovered an even more sinister side of the music business in an encounter with famous disc jockey Alan Freed (who popularized the use of the term “rock ‘n’ roll”) in the early 1950s. Freed demanded that Hudson list him as a cowriter of the song, even though he’d contributed nothing to it. Such strong-arm tactics were not
For the Record…
Members include James “Dimples” Cochran (joined group, 1956), baritone; Opal Courtney , joined group, 1956), baritone; Gerald Gregory , bass; James “Pookie” Hudson (born Thornton James Hudson), lead vocals; Willie Jackson (born Willis C. Jackson; left group, 1956), baritone; Ernest Warren , first tenor.
Group formed in Gary, IN, 1952; signed with Vee-Jay Records, 1953; released first single, “Baby, It’s You,” 1953; had biggest hit with “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight,” 1954; disbanded, 1961; re-formed in early 1970s under leadership of James Hudson with new lineup; toured on oldies concert circuit, 1990s-.
Addresses: Record company—Collectables Records, P.O. Box 35, Narbeth, PA 19072, phone: (800) 446-8426, website: http://www.oldies.com. Website—The Spaniels Official Website: http://www.pookiehudson.com
uncommon among music business figures in the era, but Hudson refused to give credit to Freed, who then allegedly refused to play the Spaniels’ records on his program. Freed was later disgraced in the payola scandal, which exposed such corrupt music industry practices, and his career ended in infamy.
After some personnel changes, the Spaniels’ mid-1950s lineup consisted of Hudson, James “Dimples” Cochran, Ernest Warren, and Willie Jackson. In 1955 the group had another R&B hit with “You Painted Pictures,” which reached number 13. The group also made its Apollo Theater debut in June of that year, proving they were no longer just a Chicago-area phenomenon. The group hit a slump the following year, however, and Hudson briefly left the group before rejoining in 1956. The following year, the Spaniels’ first full-length album Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight, was released by Vee-Jay. In 1958 the group passed on the chance to record a song that was being shopped around. Vee-Jay’s management considered “The Twist” a bit too suggestive and the Spaniels declined to record it. After being passed to Hank Ballard, who released one version of it, the 1960 release of the song by Chubby Checker became a worldwide hit and one of the most successful singles of all time.
The Spaniels had another brush with music history in 1959 as part of a national tour headlined by Buddy Holly. While touring the upper Midwest, Holly and singers Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper decided to charter an airplane to get to the next concert date sooner, a decision that ended with a deadly plane crash. The Spaniels, along with Frankie Lymon, the Drifters, Paul Anka, and LaVern Baker, had to carry on with the tour in the wake of the tragedy.
The Spaniels made their last chart appearance in 1960 with the single “I Know,” which hit the R&B top 30. As the group’s chart impact was diminishing, its members decided to disband around 1961. Hudson’s subsequent career was the most notable; after singing with the Imperials in the early 1960s he released a solo single in 1970, then put together a new Spaniels lineup and released two more singles in 1973 and 1974.
After a resurgence of interest in doo-wop music in the mid-1970s generated by the popular movie American Graffiti and the television show Happy Days, the Spaniels began touring again. Still making occasional concert appearances, they observed their fiftieth anniversary as a group in 2002. Pookie Hudson remains an inspiration for generations of other singers, including Aaron Neville.
“Baby It’s You,” Vee-Jay, 1953.
“The Bells Ring Out,” Vee-Jay, 1953.
“Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight,” Vee-Jay, 1953.
“Let’s Make Up,” Vee-Jay, 1954.
“Don’cha Go,” Vee-Jay, 1955.
“You Painted Pictures,” Vee-Jay, 1955.
“False Love,” Vee-Jay, 1956.
“Dear Heart,” Vee-Jay, 1956.
“Since I Fell for You,” Vee-Jay, 1956.
“You Gave Me Peace of Mind,” Vee-Jay, 1956.
“I.O.U.,” Vee-Jay, 1957.
“You’re Gonna Cry,” Vee-Jay, 1957.
“I Lost You,” Vee-Jay, 1958.
“Tina,” Vee-Jay, 1958.
“Stormy Weather,” Vee-Jay, 1958.
“Heart and Soul,” Vee-Jay, 1958.
“Trees,” Vee-Jay, 1959.
“These Three Words,” Vee-Jay, 1959.
“People Will Say We’re in Love,” Vee-Jay, 1959.
“I Know,” Vee-Jay, 1960.
“For Sentimental Reasons,” Neptune, 1960.
“John Brown,” Parkway, 1961.
Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight, Vee-Jay, 1957.
The Spaniels, Vee-Jay, 1960.
Spaniels, Calla, 1968.
Great Googley Mool, Charly, 1981.
16 Soulful Serennades, Charly, 1984.
Recorded Live , New Rose, 1993.
Golden Hits, Juke Box, 1994.
40th Anniversary, 1953-1993, Collectables, 1995.
The Spaniels 40th Anniversary, 1953-1993, Collectables, 1993.
Very Best of the Spaniels, Volume 1, Collectables, 2000.
Very Best of the Spaniels, Volume 1, Collectables, 2000.
Legendary Spaniels, Collectables, 2000.
Allan, Tony, with Faye Treadwell, Save the Last Dance for Me: The Musical Legacy of the Drifters, 1953-1993, Popular Culture Ink, 1993.
George, Nelson, The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Pantheon Books, 1988.
Graff, Gary, Josh Freedom du Lac, and Jim McFarlin, editors, MusicHound R&B: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Dawson, Jim, The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World, Faber & Faber, 1995.
Nite, Norm N., Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1974.
Rosalsky, Mitch, Encyclopedia of Rhythm and Blues and Doo-Wop Vocal Groups, Scarecrow Press, 2000.
Werner, Craig, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, Plume, 1999.
“The Spaniels,” KCXL Radio, http://www.kcxl.com/html/spaniels.html (March 27, 2003).