Pookie Hudson towered among the premier talents of the doo wop era -- the longtime lead singer of the Spaniels, he also wrote their genre-defining 1954 classic "Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight." Born Thornton James Hudson in Des Moines, IA, on June 11, 1934, Hudson spent the vast majority of his childhood in Gary, IN, earning the nickname "Pookie" from a doting aunt. His colorful family also included cousins Josephine Baker and Thomas "Fats" Waller, both occasional visitors to the Hudson home. While in high school he co-founded the R&B vocal group the Hudsonaires, renamed the Spaniels when the wife of bass Gerald Gregory opined that the quintet sounded like "a bunch of dogs." In early 1953, WGRY radio personality Vivian Carter heard the group, and upon borrowing $500 from a Gary pawnshop, she and future husband Jimmy Bracken founded Vee-Jay Records, which would emerge as one of the key independent labels in postwar American popular music.
The Spaniels were the first act to record for Vee-Jay, cutting their debut single, "Baby It's You," in May 1953. The record quickly entered the national R&B Top Ten, galvanized by Hudson's velveteen lead and its inimitable quiver. "The Bells Ring Out" followed by year's end, and in early 1954 the Spaniels issued their third single, "Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight." Written by Hudson for then-girlfriend Bonnie Jane Davis, the song gradually climbed to number five on the R&B charts while crossing over to number 24 on the Billboard pop charts, although one could argue its classic status was not officially cemented until it was prominently featured in George Lucas' 1973 feature blockbuster, American Graffiti.
The Spaniels never recaptured the commercial success of "Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight," however, and while 1955's "You Painted Pictures" reached number 13 on the R&B countdown, the original lineup's days were numbered -- first tenor Ernest Warren was drafted the following year, and with the subsequent resignation of second tenor Willie C. Jackson, Hudson decided to break ranks as well. The remaining Spaniels continued touring for close to a year, and by the fall of 1956 Gerald Gregory was the only founding member still remaining; by this time Hudson was divorcing his wife and writing new songs, and he agreed to rejoin the group, which issued his newest composition, "You Give Me Peace of Mind" in December 1956. Its follow-up, "Everyone's Laughing," reached number 13 R&B, although subsequent efforts, including "You're Gonna Cry" and "Crazee Babee," merited little attention.
The Spaniels spent the remainder of the decade touring relentlessly, but their Vee-Jay output continued faring poorly on radio, and in late 1960 the label terminated their contract. The group continued recording for Neptune ("[I Love You] For Sentimental Reasons") and Parkway ("John Brown") before splitting in 1963, although upon signing as a solo act to Lloyd Price's Double L imprint, Hudson recruited at least some of his former bandmates to contribute to his solo debut, "I Know, I Know." The follow-up, a re-recorded "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," also featured his fellow Spaniels alums.
Hudson spent the next several years out of the spotlight, finally resurfacing in 1966 with the Jamie label single "This Gets to Me." Though little noticed on its official release, the record later caught on as a firm favorite of Britain's Northern soul revival culture. Another three-year hiatus anticipated a new 1969 version of "Goodnight Sweetheart," issued on Buddah and credited to the Spaniels, although only Hudson remained from the classic lineup. A year later he founded his own label, North American, and scoured the vaults to uncover a pair of unreleased Spaniels masters originally cut for Double L in 1963 -- when "Fairy Tales" proved a surprise hit, climbing to number 45 on the Billboard R&B charts, Hudson reassembled the Buddah lineup for a handful of contemporary follow-ups, including 1971's "Lonely Man" and "Come Back to My Arms."
A 1974 Canterbury label remake of Hudson's "Peace of Mind" signaled the end of the latter-day Spaniels' recording career, although various incarnations of the group continued performing in conjunction with oldies tours and doo wop showcases. In 1987 the tiny Tacamtra label released Hudson's final solo single, "Love Songs (On the Radio)," and in 1992 he was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. A year later Hudson assembled original Spaniels members including Willie C. Jackson and Opal Courtney for something resembling an official reunion, although this incarnation proved short-lived and soon he was again fronting makeshift lineups, including one based in Gary and another based in Washington, D.C. After a long battle with cancer, Hudson died at his Capitol Heights, MD, home on January 16, 2007; he was 72 years old.