“When you kiss me baby, oh, you make me feel so good. Well, I know I love you baby, baby cause I should…”-
The Spaniels, “Baby, It’s You” (Vee-Jay Records, 1953)
Five years ago, on Jan. 16, 2007, the great James “Pookie” Hudson-the best lead singer in original Black rhythm and blues-passed away at 72. Over the last 16 years of his life, we became close personal friends and he inspired my 1995 authorized biography, “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight: The Story of the Spaniels.”
Known far and wide simply as Pookie, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004, and music organizations provided financial help for his treatment. The Clifton, N.J.-based United in Group Harmony Association, run by the late Ronnie “I” Italiano, led the way.
Hudson had resumed performing with the legendary vocal group after undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. He made a special New York appearance on Oct. 21, 2005, at Queensborough Community College in a doo-wop and oldies variety show sponsored by Chief Osceola Townsend and his National Alliance of Native Americans.
Billed as “A Tribute to Pookie Hudson of the Spaniels,” the show was hosted by famous DJ Bobby Jay of WCBS-FM, who was the dynamite bass man of the Laddins and later with the Teenagers. Jay warmly and lovingly introduced Hudson from the stage.
Two weeks earlier, on Oct. 8, 2005, in my hometown of Milwaukee as my wife Susan looked on from the wings, I was privileged to introduce Hudson with the original Spaniels in “The Ultimate Doo-Wop Show” at the venerable Pabst Theater. I loved it.
On Jan. 21, 2007, I took part in a two-hour radio tribute to Hudson and the late Gerald Gregory, the Spaniels’ matchless bass singer, on Ken Held’s “Doo-Wop Shop” live on the Internet via WLVJ-AM in South Florida. In 1989, Held and I talked by phone on his show, prompting a call from Hudson, which led to my authorized biography of the group.
In recent years, Hudson’s most notable national gig was on December 1999’s PBS telecast of “Doo-Wop 50,” marking 50 years of original Black rhythm and blues. Jerry Butler’s introduction bespeaks how he was revered in the R&B community.
To wit: “This man, who is going to head this group, is the prototype of Aaron Neville. He is the original ice man. He is unbelievable. So join me for one of the real legends of doo-wop and any other music you can think of. Welcome Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels.”
Hudson burst forth at 19 in 1953 with the Spaniels’ haunting “Baby, It’s You”-still R&B’s finest record. His silky smooth voice set the standard for male group lead singers.
I first met Hudson on Feb. 21, 1991-proclaimed by Mayor David Dinkins as “Rhythm and Blues Day in New York”-when the Spaniels received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. We got together again June 8, and finalized plans for the book prior to the “25th Royal Doo-Wop Show” at Radio City Music Hall, where my wife Janice and I watched the Spaniels wow an almost all-white audience.
That summer, I spent a week researching in Gary, Ind., with the original group and learned Hudson wrote some 200 songs, 120 of which they recorded. I’ll never forget them singing a cappella for me in Willie C. Jackson’s basement rec room, as well as the hospitality of Hudson and Opal Courtney Jr., with whom I stayed. And we talked about everything.
Hudson loved to mimic novelties such as Amos Milburn’s “Bad, Bad Whiskey”; “Bacon Fat” (Andre Williams); “Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy Floy)” (Slam Stewart and Slim Gaillard); “Open the Door, Richard” (Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five); “Rag Mop” (Lionel Hampton); “Mack the Knife” (Louis Armstrong); “Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard); “Moody’s Mood” (King Pleasure); and “I Don’t Know” (Willie Mabon).
Over the years, Hudson and I shared many special moments. On August 9, 1991, he invited Janice and I backstage at the Apollo as the Spaniels stole the show in a “Rhythm & Blues Reunion.” On April 25, 1992, at Symphony Space, I hobnobbed with Hudson and the group prior to their entry into the UGHA Hall of Fame.
On June 20, 1992, my pal George Sanders and I arranged a Spaniels “Father’s Day Eve Concert” on the Marquette University campus in Milwaukee, which I emceed. That afternoon, I took Hudson and the group to my father’s church for lunch. During the show, my friend John Givens gave him a proclamation from the Milwaukee County Executive. Afterwards, Givens and his wife, Rosa, hosted a reception for all of us at their home.
Then there was Nov. 11, 1994, when Hudson stayed at my home in Milwaukee before jamming with Al Jarreau in the studio for “The Carter-McGee Report” on WNOV-AM radio; March 1, 1997, when Susan and I mingled with Hudson and the group, along with some of their wives and friends, at a UGHA Spaniels’ concert in New Jersey.
Incredibly, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame still has not inducted the hit-making Spaniels, despite their influences. This includes 1954’s smash “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight,” which introduced white America to Black R&B. What a shame.
One of Hudson’s last recordings was a stunning version of “At Last” in 2005-made famous by Etta James-one of his former flames. So goodnight again, Hudson, I guess it was time to go. You were a true gentleman. And that’s the name of that very sad tune.