Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Spaniels

After seeing the current version of the Spaniels in the BBC's Rock 'n' Roll America I resolved to find out a bit more about the group's various lineups. The above is a videocap from the programme; all I can say for certain is that Billy Shelton is on the far left.

From my memory of Richard G Carter's biography of the Spaniels there were two main lineups of the group which recorded on Vee Jay, and the original members were more instinctive singers than the Mk II version. It was the originals who were reunited in the 1990s and whom I saw perform in London.

Detailed information about personnel changes can be found online in Unca Marvy's R&B Notebooks, an invaluable resource for the doo wop fan. His page about the Spaniels, based on interviews with Pookie Hudson, can be read in its entirety here. Pookie's first group was formed in 1949 at Roosevelt Junior High in Gary, Indiana, when he was fifteen. Billy Shelton was a member of this, though the group which were to become the Spaniels were a separate entity:

Pookie joined with Billy Shelton and Calvin Fossett to form the 3 Bees (they were occasionally the 4 Bees, with the addition of bass William Dooley) ... they sang together until the spring of 1952, when all except Pookie graduated. ... Some other classmates approached him about joining them ... and the result was the Hudsonaires: Ernest Warren (first tenor), Willie C. Jackson (second tenor), and Gerald Gregory (bass).
Opal Courtney later joined as baritone, and a remark by Gerald Gregory's wife that they sounded "like a buch of dogs" led to the namechange. So these were the original Spaniels, responsible for the their early records on Chicago-based Vee Jay Records including Baby, It's You, Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight, and the atypical Play It Cool, a sort of nicotine-crazed recitation by Willie C Jackson packed with references to cigarette brands.

Marv continues:
Opal Courtney quit the group at the end of October 1954  ... Opal's permanent replacement was baritone James "Dimples" Cochran. Another member during this period was guitarist Jerome Henderson, who was a friend of Gerald. He was with them for about a year.

In February 1956 Ernest Warren was drafted and the group continued as a quartet. Willie C Jackson quit shortly afterwards. Not long after Willie C left, Pookie Hudson also decided to quit. He too was married and the money wasn't exactly rolling in. Instead, Pookie opted for a paying job (helping to make boxcars for a company called General America). As a replacement, Gerald brought in Parmaley "Carl" Rainge, another friend of Cochran's. Cochran, Rainge, and Porter had been a trio who had hung around with the Spaniels from the very beginning. They'd been used as fill-in members over the years, so it was only natural that they'd inherit the job. Therefore, by June, the Spaniels were Carl Rainge (lead tenor), Donald "Duck" Porter (second tenor), James "Dimples" Cochran (baritone), and Gerald Gregory (bass).
Soon afterwards, however, Pookie was prevailed upon to come back, and I suppose this was the Mark II version of the group.
By the fall of 1956, the Spaniels weren't doing well. Gerald was the only original member left and fans missed Pookie's voice. They all came to entreat Pookie to return and caught him at just the right time: his marriage had broken up and he had just written "Peace Of Mind." Therefore, by the time of their November 5 session, Pookie was back in the lead and the Spaniels had five voices once again. The four songs recorded that day were: "Please Don't Tease," "Jessie Mae" (led by Gerald), "I Need Your Kisses," and "You Gave Me Peace Of Mind."
Ernest Warren came back from the army, and for a time the group were a sextet:
Ernest came back just in time for the March 1958 session, at which the Spaniels recorded their classic version of "Stormy Weather" ... Therefore, for this session, the Spaniels were Pookie Hudson, Gerald Gregory, Donald Porter, Carl Rainge, James Cochran, and Ernest Warren.
In 1959 the group were Pookie Hudson, Gerald Gregory, Ernest Warren, Donald Porter, and James Cochran, and recorded songs including Red Sails in the Sunset, a particular fave of mine. You can read about subsequent permutations on Unca Marvy's Spaniels page, but regarding the 90s reunion of the original group Marv says:
In 1993, some of the originals got back together for a few shows: Pookie, Opal Courtney, Willie C. Jackson, baritone Billy Shelton (from Pookie's original group, the 3 Bees), and Billy's son, Teddy (a baritone/bass). They were occasionally joined by Gerald Gregory, but he's not on any of the tracks they did for JLJ Productions (owned by Pookie) that year. The only single issued at the time was "Someone" and "One Day At A Time," but many of the other tracks found their way onto the Collectables CD called The Spaniels: 40th Anniversary.
This is still easily obtainable and includes some acapella tracks. Presumably this was essentially the version of the group I saw in 1992 in London, although Gerald Gregory was most definitely part of the lineup: once seen, not easily forgotten. Marv concludes his Spaniels page with a sad roll call:
Gerald "Bounce" Gregory, booming bass voice of the Spaniels, passed away on February 12, 1999 from brain cancer. Pookie Hudson, the heart and soul of the Spaniels died on January 16, 2007 from cancer. Other original members Opal Courtney, Junior passed away on September 18, 2008 and Ernest Warren on May 7, 2012. 
A Goldmine article by Todd Baptista, readable here, also notes that Carl Rainge died in 2011 after a long illness. And sadly, I have just seen, in the Chicago Tribune here, that Willie C Jackson died earlier this year - the last survivng member of the orignal Spaniels. When was the clip in Rock 'n' Roll America (videocap below) filmed and was he still in the group? 

It's hard to be ceartain. Todd Baptista's article written in 2012, reports he was still involved at that point, and Marv Goldberg's article ends:
In 2010, original member Willie C. Jackson is keeping the Spaniels alive. The other members are: Billy Shelton, Senior (one of the 3 Bees), Hiawatha Burnett and Charles Colquit (both from the Goldenrods), and Wilton Crump. 
Any enlightenment about the precise lineup in Rock 'n' Roll America will be gratefully received. There is a photo in the Chicago Tribune, below, of the group being honoured in Gary, Indiana in 2014 with Willie C Jackson on the far right. Is that the same person who appears second from the right above?

Here is my review of Richard C Carter's book about the Spaniels:

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 onlookers' 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.

Goldmine article by Todd Baptista on Ernest Warren here. Warren said in Richard G Carter's book, published in 1994, that he left the Spaniels by his own choice because of the conflict when he was ordained as a minister, though he did attend when the Spaniels were given a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation of the Smithsonian.
 We tuned up at the Smithsonian Awards and sounded good. But I don't think no one could ever really take my place as far as that's concerned because that's the original.

Although Warren never performed with The Spaniels publicly after being ordained in 1976, he was understandably proud of the group’s legacy. - See more at: http://www.goldminemag.com/article/spaniels-founding-member-warren-dies-at-78#sthash.fjeahpU7.dpuf

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