It was the R&B and rock and roll sound of The Spaniels that brought about the formation of one of R&B’s legendary labels, Vee Jay Records.
Gary, Indiana, natives Ernest Warren (first tenor), Opal Courtney Jr. (baritone), Willie Jackson (second tenor), and Gerald Gregory (bass) met and started singing in Rosevelt High School. The unnamed quartet had heard schoolmate James “Pookie” Hudson sing, and they convinced him to sing with them for the school talent show. They debuted as Pookie Hudson and The Hudsonaires for the Christmastime 1952 show and fared so well they decided to continue as a quintet.
The 11th graders rehearsing and performing Pookie-penned songs like “Baby It’s You” at local churches and talent show performances, with Pookie’s smooth and smoky leadmarvelling the masses. The group was looking for a new name when Gregory’s wife heard them singing and told them they sounded like a “bunch of dogs”. Not wanting to join the bird group club they went for The Spaniels.
In the Spring of 1954 the group visited a local record shop owned by James Bracken and Vivian Carter Bracken of WWCA. The groups singing convinced the Bracken’s to start their own label named after the couple’s first name initials (V.J.) The Brackens moved their operation to Chicago and on May 5, 1953, had a bouncy ballad piano, bass, and melody line that surfaced in numerous later recordings started getting enough radio response and sales in Chicago area to interest the larger Chance label. (In later years Vee Jay would own and distribute all of Chance’s recordings.) On September 5th, “Baby” hit humber 10 on the national R&B Best Seller and Jukebox charts.
The follow up, “The Bells Ring Out” was a mellow bluesy ballad with lots of vocal harmony but it received only some local play.
The Spaniels were the first of the successfull midwestern R&B groups. They were also one of the first (if not the first) R&B groups to perform witht he lead singer on one mic and the group on another, and they initiated a trend torward using tap dance routines in live shows. In terms of the original material, Pookie’s songs did not come about through the traditional formula. Normally the group would just walk down a street and harmonize till something came together.
In March 1954 Vee-Jay released “Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight” about which Billboards reviewer wrote “Almost pop-like peice of material. The imitation of the sounds of a sax by the bass singer gives this side a gimmick which helps greatly. Strong wax.” The sucess of “Goodnight” prompted the McGuire Sisters to cover it for the white market, stealing a lot of The Spaniels thunder. But their version still managed to peak at number five R&B in the summer of 1954. It became one of the most requested records on oldies radio.
Pookie and the company’s next single “Let’s Make Up”, earned more for writer Hudson as someoen else’s B-Side that it did as his A-Side. That’s because the voice of Walter Schumann had it on the flip of the hit “The Ballad of Davey Crocket”.
On June 11th, 1954 The Spaniels made the first of numerous appearances at The Apollo in New York, along with Joe Turner and Arnett Cobb’s Orchestra. In Auguste they toured with the second annual “Biggest R&B Show” through the midwest with The Drifters, The Counts, Erskine Hawkins, Roy Hamilton and King Pleasure, winding up on September 12 at the Brooklyn Paramount.
Their mid dash tempo “Do Whaa” single of May of 1955 failed, but the follow-up “You Painted Pictures” reached number 13 R&B in October and kept The Spaniels working.
Opal Courtney Jr. was then drafter and replaced by a Vee-Jay A&R man Cal Carter for a few months until James “Dimples” Cochran took over. Shortly thereafter, Ernest Warren was drafted and the group continued recording as a quartet. Two subsequent singles, “False Love” and “Dear Heart” drifted off into obscurity.
With records not selling Pookie and Willie left. The roster now read Carl Rainge, Gerald Gregory, James Cochran, and Don Porter this contingent lasted for only one single in 1956 until Pookie rejoined and began creating some of the groups most outstanding sides: “Peace Of Mind”, “Everyone’s Laughin”, the solid rhythm number “Tina”, and an exciting fast version of the standard “Stormy Weather”. The story goes that in 1958 Pookie Hudson was performing with the group at the Casbah Club in Washington D.C., at the time when a gospel act, The Nightingales, were also there. The’Gales had a song called “The Twist” that they offered to the Spaniels since they coudln’t record secular songs and still kept their gospel following. The Spaniels passed on it and Hank Ballard put it out shortly thereafter. When Chubby Checker had his hit version of it, The Spaniels must have kicked themselves for leting it get away. It’s unclear how the Nightingales came upon the song, though they probably had heard Hank and The Midnighters performing it before it was released since Hank is acknowledged author of the song and the Nigthingales never publicly claimed to have created it.
By 1960 The Spaniels were Hudson, Ernest Warren, Gerald Gregory, Bill Carey, and Andy McGruder. They recorded the groups last Vee-Jay single, “I Know”, in 1960, and it reached number 23 R&B that summer.
By 1961 McGruder and Gregory had left. Road manager Ricky Burden took over on bass for “For Sentimental Reasons”. Pookie did a few solo sets for Jamie and in 1962 cut “I Know, I Know” backed by The Imperials minus Little Anthony for Lloyd Price’s double-L label. In the late 60’s Pookie formed his own North American Records and issues “Fairy Tales” becomeing Pookies last chart single in the Fall on 1970.
Two more North American singles were issued in the early 70’s with a new Spaniels lineup of Hudson, Charles Douglas, Alvin Wheeler, Alvil Lloyd, and the groups former guitarist Pete Simmons. Douglas was replaced by Andrew Lawyer and the group recorded a remake of “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” for Buddah.
Their last release was for Henry Farag’s Canterbury label of Gary, Indiana, in 1974 when Hudson, Rainge, Cochran, and Porter recorded a contemporary version of “Peace of Mind” and two B-Sides, “She Sang To Me” and a cappella arrangement of “Danny Boy”.
Pookie and The Spaniesl remained active and were one of the more in-demand acts on the oldies circuit. Though they never had a pop hit, oldies radio made them popular far beyond the R&B audience. Their recordings remain excellent examples of fine R&B and Rock and Roll, and Pookies sound remains unique.
– Jay Warner
Opal Courtney Jr. an original member of the Spaniels passed away on September 18, 2008, at his home in Gary, Indiana from an apparent heart attack. He was 71 years old. He was wwith the group when they recorded their first hits ” Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight” and “Baby It’s You” He also spent some time singing with the Dells, recording “If It Ain’t One Thing, It’s Another” and other songs. Opal also sang back up on “Baby I’m Yours” and “Hello Stranger” with Barbara Lewis. In 1987, the Original group reformed to receive the Smithsonian Pioneer Award and they were inducted into the Doo-Wopp Hall of Fame in 2005. With the Spaniels, Opal was performing “Oldie Shows” until his death. Funeral services will be Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 11:00 am at Christ Baptist Church 4700 E. 7th Avenue, Gary, Indiana.