DURING the 1950s, hundreds of instant pop groups sprang up from street corners and high school dances. They made a few records, toured a few cities, then melted back into the woodwork.
Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels emerged from a high school glee club in 1953 and worked for almost 20 years before they faded away. Now they get work on oldies shows, but lead singer James (Pookie) Hudson remembers the early days with a mixture of wistfulness and pride.
Hudson and the Spaniels will appear for two shows at the Warner Theatre tomorrow on an oldies bill with the Coasters ("Yakety-Yak," "Charlie Brown"); Marv Johnson, who met Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. while working in a record store and wrote his first hit, "Come to Me," with Gordy, and the Contours, remembered for hits like "Do You Love Me" and "First I Look at the Purse" for Motown.
All the group members came from Roosevelt High School in Gary, Ind., (the same school as Motown's Jackson Five). Hudson was singing at talent shows and high school dances, and a group gradually formed around him. "We were originally 'Pookie Hudson and the Hudsonaires,' " he recalls. "Then bass singer Gerald Gregory heard us, and we asked him how we sounded. He said 'You all sound like a bunch of dogs!' " Hudson laughs. Gregory joined the group and the name changed to the Spaniels, in part, he says, because there were so many groups around with bird names--the Orioles, the Ravens and the Crows.
"At that time we were into that thing called 'race music,' " Hudson says. "There were 'black records' and 'white records,' and the white radio station didn't play the black records and vice versa. What happened was, the white artists would cover the black songs."
That's what happened with the Spaniels' biggest hit, "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight," written by Hudson and Calvin Carter and recorded in 1954 on disc jockey Vivian Carter's Vee Jay label. The McGuire Sisters recorded the song, and turned it into their first and biggest hit, the one that got played on the radio stations.
Hudson says the Spaniels played Baltimore's Royal Theater, Washington's Howard Theater and the Apollo in New York, and estimates that the group sold about 30 million records and cut about 100 singles. But the money from those records has dried up--the group signed away most of its rights to the songs, and many of the records long ago faded from the bargain bins.
After the Spaniels broke up, Hudson moved to the District, where he was assistant superintendent of the Mayfair Mansions apartment complex in Northeast. While he was here, Hudson formed a new Spaniels and sang in the Washington-Baltimore area.
Hudson and the rest of the Spaniels, first and second generation, are all in Gary now. Bass Gerald Gregory is a cab driver, first tenor James Cochran is a steel-mill electrician, second tenor Donald Porter is a paper cutter and baritone Carl Rainge is a caseworker for the county.
"We would love to still be able to be singing for a living," says Hudson, who is now a garage attendant. "But we all have families to support, and it just doesn't put food on the table." The group does several oldies package tours a year, and occasionally works nightspots around home. Although Hudson says it can be frustrating to sing the old songs again and again, he is realistic about it. "People won't let us sing new stuff. That's not what they pay for. But it beats doing nothing."
But Hudson continues to write songs, and although they go unrecorded, he still has hope. "I don't make enough money that I can walk into a studio and put these songs down on wax and send copies out to people. Maybe someone will hear us and be interested again."
Until then, he says, "I have all these hit songs--they're all here in my head."