Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Sad but compelling account of doo wop greats

This is the biography of one of the great doo wop groups who, as Logan Pearsall Smith said of Edmund Waller, floated to immortality on the strength of a phrase - or maybe a few bass notes. Gerald Gregory, the original singer of those notes, died a few years ago, and now lead singer and creative force Pookie Hudson has gone (with, in the UK at least, what appeared to be brief and grudging obituaries).

As one who was turned on to doo wop by the Spaniels I'm writing this review in the hope that someone in the UK apart from Spencer Leigh (who wrote the only halfway decent obit) might read this book, which is not a hagiography but a particularly saddening example of the exploitation of African American performers in the early days of rock'n'roll; even if you're not particularly interested in doo wop, this tells you a great deal about 50s America. (See the biography of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick or Sweet Soul Music by Gerri Hershey for more about exploitation in this period, or seek out the novel The Day the Music Died by Joseph C Smith aka Sonny Knight).

Given all the opportunities missed and all the rightful earnings withheld - especially as Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight has been exploited in film after film, so someone's obviously profiting - it is astonishing that the group persisted over the decades and that Pookie Hudson, even after a battle with cancer, continued to perform while in remission. The fact that there were two distinct groups of Spaniels (with Pookie at the helm in both) is also down to exploitation, as there was pressure on the original members to look after their families by taking regular jobs when it became clear after a couple of years that they weren't getting the rewards from singing. According to the book, the earlier group were more spontaneous, instinctive and the later one more technically able and correct but perhaps less warm (compare the two versions of Baby, It's You).

This book relies almost exclusively on the testimony of the members of the original group and their take on the others in their lives, so it's not a Peter Guralnick job, seeking out a variety of viewpoints, and there's not much analysis of why the Spaniels' records are so good - that's taken as a given - but what gives this account its strength is the sad consistency of the story the individuals have to tell, and the fact that there seems little attempt to whitewash the characters of group members - Gerald Gregory's problems with drink are discussed in detail and everyone seems frank about personal conflicts.

More than thirty years on, the original members came together to be inducted into a Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame (I don't know whether they were finally honoured by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and to perform again; the pressures to support families having eased, this second chance was an unexpected bonus after so much disillusion. It must have been this version of the group I saw around 1992 in London and I recall that they stood out from the other acts in seeming still involved in the material: unlike the glitzy incarnation of a Frankie Lymon-less Teenagers or a Dion-less Belmonts, for example, Pookie, still at the centre, sang as though he was still feeling and exploring the songs. Now I know why: the original memmbers had no idea they were going to get a chance again, and the acapella version of Danny Boy which Pookie announced as having first sung with his friends at High School almost forty years before as a vocal warm-up must have felt as nostalgiac for them as it did for us.

In view of all the missing riches I don't know whether Pookie Hudson died a happy man, but I hope he did: he certainly continued to perform and to find an audience; the book even recounts how he made his peace with Vivian Carter (one of the owners of the 50s R&B label Vee Jay who issued Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight) on her deathbed. And those Spaniels recordings on Vee Jay - now, ironically, public domain in the UK, so they can be reissued and reissued without the current owners profiting - ensure that James Pookie Hudson's tremulous voice will live on.

More on the Spaniels' London concert in Doo Wop Dialog[ue]: 20 plus a link to an interview with Pookie.

The review above was written for work then added to a well-known shopping website. I regret implying that the Spaniels will be remembered solely for Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight. There's no denying its ubiquity, but the strange gentleness with which Pookie handled Red Sails in the Sunset on one of those horrible pressings I picked up early on in my doo wop quest meant almost as much to me - to say nothing of the sort of cloudy cushioning provided by the other voices. Interesting to compare it to the impassioned, almost out of control account by Rudy West and the Five Keys - but please don't make me choose. It's not a Crewcuts/Chords situation. Or a Maguire Sisters/Spaniels one, come to that. I felt it as a personal affront when some girls at my former place of work were idly singing Goodnight, Sweetheart Maguire Sisters style. But I didn't say anything.

As mentioned in the Doo Wop Dialog[ue] post, Pookie did say in an interview with Matt the Cat of XM Radio that he had been getting some money, at least, from Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight since 1978 but the clear implication was nowhere near what he was due. The fact that he was reduced to asking the public for help with his final medical fees when that song can still be heard everywhere is a disgrace.

Edmund (not Thomas) Waller's carpe diem:
Go, Lovely Rose. Does anyone remember or read Logan Pearsall Smith's Trivia collections these days? I loved them as a teenager and even read his autobiography where he talked about religion leaving him like leaves blowing off a tree (or something; apologies to the shade of one who cared so much about precision). I think there were three collections. Project Gutenberg will lead you to two of them (Trivia and More Trivia) but not, it seems, the final collection, which must have been the one which had the Waller piece and the aphorism which ran (forgive me, thou shade) something like:
All our lives we have been putting our goldenest pennies into penny-in-the-slot machines which invariably turn out to be empty.

One entry which I did, however, find in one of the Gutenberg books has a bearing on the Doo Wop Dialog[ue] and the tantalising promise of all those Sweet Dreams of Contentment in so many songs:

Among all the ugly mugs of the world we see now and then a face
made after the divine pattern. Then, a wonderful thing happens
to us; the Blue Bird sings, the golden Splendour shines, and for
a queer moment everything seems meaningless save our impulse to
follow those fair forms, to follow them to the clear Paradises
they promise.

Plato assures us that these moments are not (as we are apt to
think them) mere blurs and delusions of the senses, but divine
revelations; that in a lovely face we see imaged, as in a
mirror, the Absolute Beauty--; it is Reality, flashing on us in
the cave where we dwell amid shadows and darkness. Therefore we
should follow these fair forms, and their shining footsteps will
lead us upward to the highest heaven of Wisdom. The Poets, too,
keep chanting this great doctrine of Beauty in grave notes to
their golden strings. Its music floats up through the skies so
sweet, so strange, that the very Angels seem to lean from their
stars to listen.

But, O Plato, O Shelley, O Angels of Heaven, what scrapes you do
get us into!

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