THIS EVENING is the first of three free summer concerts that the Weekend section is sponsoring at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. This week's program features doo-wop pioneers the Legendary Orioles, the Swallows and Pookie Hudson & the Spaniels, who are credited with originating the "doo-wop" name.
Amazingly, all three groups experienced their greatest successes 50 or more years ago with songs that remain canonical in vocal group histories and as staples of oldies radio. Like most long-lived ensembles, all have gone through multiple cycles of retirement, re-formation and renewal and have experienced losses along the way. Fortunately, international interest in doo-wop and classic R&B has kept them active, and the current group leaders all have astounding longevity: Albert "Diz" Russell has been an Oriole since 1954, Pookie Hudson has led the Spaniels since 1952 and Eddie Rich has been a Swallow since 1948.
Though Hudson has lived in the Washington area for extended periods since the early '60s, the Spaniels hailed from Gary, Ind. That's where Pookie (born Thornton James) Hudson put together a group with fellow students at Roosevelt High School in the early '50s, including the great bass singer Gerald Gregory. Like most black vocal groups of that era, the Spaniels had been influenced by the smooth sounds of the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots -- until the arrival of Sonny Til and the Orioles, the first superstar group in R&B.
In fact, Hudson's group (originally the Hudsonaires) often sang Orioles and Swallows hits when they were still in the nest of high school. "Then it came around to our era, what they named 'doo-wop,' " he explains. "That was something we started as a group, making up harmony words like 'doo-wop, doo-wop,' which groups before weren't doing because they were just singing straight harmony."
In 1953, the Spaniels had been signed by record-shop owners Vivian and Jimmy Bracken just as they were forming Vee-Jay, which would become the first significant independently owned black label. The Spaniels' debut, "Baby It's You/Bounce," was also the label's. Hudson, whose smooth, effortless tenor remains intact, wrote many of the group's songs, including 1954's classic "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight." It became the Spaniels' biggest hit and signature song. The inspiration was simple, Hudson recalls.
"I was going with this girl, and I used to walk home from her house late at night. As I walked, I put the song together in my head because that's what her mother was always telling me -- 'Well, it's 3 in the morning, and it's time for you to go.' "
"Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" rose to No. 5 on the R&B charts and crossed over to No. 24 on the pop charts at a time when black music still wasn't played on white stations. The Spaniels also scored with such hits as "You Gave Me Peace of Mind," "Everyone's Laughing" and "Let's Make Up," and they became headliners on the black theater circuit that included New York's Apollo, Chicago's Regal, Baltimore's Royal and Washington's Howard.
By the late '50s, things had slowed, and though the Spaniels continued to record, there were no more hits. In 1962, Hudson moved to Washington for the first time (he was married here), and he stayed until 1976, returning to the Midwest for a few years before coming back in the late '80s. He worked a variety of jobs, including as a trash collector in Riverdale. "Anything I could do to eat," Hudson says. "It's a trying life, the area of music I was in."
During the '70s and '80s, Hudson performed on the oldies circuit with two Spaniels, one using a Washington-based vocal group called the Fellows, the other featuring the original lineup from Gary. In 1991, the Spaniels were honored by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation with a Pioneer Award and a year later were inducted into both the Rhythm and Blues and the Doo-Wop halls of fame. For years, Hudson has sought to raise money to open a doo-wop museum in Washington, "not just a museum but a place where those groups that are still remaining could come and sing. We'd like to help them and their families. We all need help," he says.
THE LEGENDARY ORIOLES
In 1995, 40 years after the original Sonny Til-led lineup of the group disbanded, the Orioles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, rightfully honored as founding fathers of R&B and one of the most influential black vocal groups of all time. Through recordings they made in the late '40s and early '50s, the Orioles laid the groundwork for the waves of R&B vocal ensembles that followed with a sound marked by close-harmony singing and a vibrant fusion of pop, blues and gospel sensibilities.
The Orioles were led by tenor Til (Erlington Tilghman), one of the greatest voices in R&B history. They had formed in 1946 as the Vibranaires and soon caught the ear of Deborah Chessler, a Baltimore sales clerk who also wrote songs. Chessler became the group's manager and got them booked on Arthur Godfrey's "Talent Scouts" television show in 1948. Though they lost to jazz pianist George Shearing, the group signed to Jerry Blaine's Jubilee label, where they recorded a Chessler ballad titled "It's Too Soon to Know" under a new name that honored Maryland's state bird (and was easier to spell). The Orioles' single went to No. 1 on the R&B chart and No. 13 on the pop chart, the first time a black group entered the top-15 pop charts with what was then called a "race" record. The Orioles followed up with what have become seasonal standards, "(It's Gonna Be a) Lonely Christmas" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"
In 1950, the group suffered tragedy when three of its members were severely injured in a car crash that killed guitarist Tommy Gaither. A new lineup had a hit in 1952 with "Baby Please Don't Go," and in 1953, the Orioles enjoyed their biggest hit with "Crying in the Chapel," which topped the R&B chart and went to No. 11 on the pop chart. Their last national hit came that same year with "In the Mission of St. Augustine."
Til brought in a new cast of Orioles in 1955, hiring an existing modern harmony group called the Regals, which included bass-tenor Albert "Diz" Russell. Til marshaled various incarnations of the Orioles off and on until his death in 1981. That's when Russell took over the group, renaming it the Legendary Orioles, continuing to celebrate its legacy and that of the vocal group tradition in general. The group now consists of Russell, Reese Palmer (who sang with Marvin Gaye in the Marquees), Larry Jordan and George Spann. Another longtime Oriole, Skip Mahoney, who had a number of solo hits in the '70s, is recovering from heart surgery.
The Swallows are best remembered for the double-sided single "Dearest/Will You Be Mine," which went to No. 9 on the R&B chart in August 1951. By then the group was already five years old, having started out (as 13-year-olds) as the Oakateers before becoming the Swallows. The group's original tenor lead, Lawrence Coxsen, was replaced in 1948 by Eddie Rich, who lived across the street from Sonny Til.
"Back then, wherever you'd go, all you could hear was the Orioles and that Orioles sound," Rich recalls. "We were singing the Orioles songs -- I had the same tenor range as Sonny, and I could sing just like him. He was my idol, the first one after Harry Mills of the Mills Brothers and Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots. Sonny put a brand-new thing on the map. We had to change our style so we didn't sound like them!"
The Swallows did exactly that and in 1951 came to the attention of Cincinnati's legendary King Records. Their first single, "Dearest," would their biggest hit, but they're also fondly remembered for "Will You Be Mine," "Since You've Been Away" and "It Ain't the Meat (It's the Motion)," a raunchy romp that became a big seller in the South. The group toured into the mid-'50s, then went through a familiar cycle of breakups and re-formations. Rich, whose lead tenor remains smoothly distinctive, says he's been "carrying on with the group off and on for decades." The current lineup includes bass Albert Smith (with the group 42 years), baritone Theodore Estep (30 years), tenor Leroy Miller (18 years) and "newcomer" Joe Gaines (15 years). Herman "Junior" Denby, who joined the Swallows in 1948, left last year to join the Ink Spots.
"We still sound good," Rich promises. "We still got that '50s sound."
Hudson, Rich and Johnny Reed (now retired and the only surviving founding member of the Orioles) will be honored next weekend as part of the "Salute to the Pioneers of Rhythm & Blues, Rock and Roll and Doo Wop" at Howard University. Several associated events at Howard's Blackburn Center are free, including "Doo-Wop: From the Street Corner to the Stage," a photographic and memorabilia exhibit (at the gallery Thursday through July 24); "From Jitterbug to Hand Dance," the documentary "Swing, Bop & Hand Dance" followed by a discussion and hand-dance performance (June 25 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.); and a doo-wop workshop (June 25 from 1 to 5) On June 26 from 1 to 3, the Blackburn Center will host "Doo-Wop and DC: DC's R&B Musical Past Through Discussion and Song," focusing on the region's contribution to the genre. Panelists include Rich, Russell, Palmer, Ronald "Poosie" Miles of the Rainbows and Sandra Bears of the Jewels. Reservations required; call 301-839-2833.
The main event is the June 25 buffet dinner and "sock hop" from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. at the Blackburn Center Ballroom. Many pioneers of the genre will be honored. The awards will be followed by performances by the Legendary Orioles; the Mellows, featuring Lillian Leach and Baby Washington; the Chords; the Velons; and the Swallows, as well as local oldies DJs. General admission $40. Tickets are available at Howard's Cramton Auditorium (202-806-7198), Road House Oldies in Silver Spring (301-587-1858) and all Ticketmaster outlets. For more information, visit http://hometown.aol.com/doowopindc/kendallproductions.html.