While the seminal recording was eclipsed by the McGuire Sisters' cover which reached the US Top Ten, film-makers know that the Spaniels' original version gives the true flavour of the period. "Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite" is thus one of the gems featured on the soundtracks of George Lucas's American Graffiti (the original Fifties nostalgia movie of 1973) and Floyd Mutrux's American Hot Wax (the 1976 biopic of the American DJ Alan Freed who coined the expression rock 'n' roll). Indeed, over the course of a 25-year career, the Spaniels proved a more versatile and prolific harmony group than the Crests, the Del-Vikings, the Diamonds, the Heartbeats, the Moonglows and the Monotones who faded away into obscurity.
Born in 1934, Gerald Gregory attended the Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana, where fellow students nicknamed him "Bounce" for his uncanny ability to make his incredibly low voice resonate around the corridors. Soon, Gregory, Ernest Warren (1st tenor), Willie C. Jackson (2nd tenor) and Opal Courtney Jnr (baritone) were blending their delicate harmonies and emotive singing in the glee club and on street corners. They talked another pupil, the talented vocalist James "Pookie" Hudson, into joining them as lead tenor and named their fledgling vocal ensemble Pookie Hudson and the Hudsonaires.
In 1952, the quintet's performance at a local Christmas talent concert went down a storm, though Gregory's young wife was heard muttering that they sounded like a bunch of dogs. The Spaniels' name stuck; perhaps it was better than the various birds, flowers or makes of cars favoured by the likes of the Ravens, the Laurels or the Edsels.
Further bookings at local hops followed and, in the spring of 1953, the group gave an impromptu a cappella performance in a Gary record store belonging to the DJ Vivian Carter and her husband Jimmy Bracken. The couple had already thought about starting their own label and were so impressed by the outfit that they toyed with the idea of calling their new imprint Spaniel. Eventually, they plumped for the initials of their Christian names and set up VeeJay Records in neighbouring Chicago.
On 4 May 1953, the Spaniels became the first act to record for VeeJay, cutting two Hudson-Gregory compositions, "Baby It's You" and "Bounce", at Universal Recording Studio in Chicago. Ironically, they had to settle for the catalogue number Vee-Jay 101 as the bluesman Jimmy Reed jumped the queue. Leased to the Chance label, "Baby It's You" reached the Top Ten in the R&B charts and, in September 1953, the Spaniels recorded two follow-up singles, "The Bells Ring Out/House Cleaning" and the perennial ballad "Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite".
Written by Hudson and Calvin Carter, Vivian's brother who had joined the company as A&R man, "Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite" owes much of its appeal to Gregory's basso profundo uttering the immortal duh-duh, dit, duh-duh. In fact, the track is so distinctive because the Spaniels were pioneering a new technique, using two microphones, one picking up the lead while the remaining vocalists gathered around the second.
Dave Marsh, the Rolling Stone journalist and compiler of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 greatest singles ever made, considers "Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite"
the greatest all-time sign-off song. The first couple thousand times you hear it, the secret seems to be the sweet tenor lead; the next couple thousand, it seems like it must be the harmonies. After that, you realise it's that slow, soloing bass voice, really deep, which makes the record.
Simple yet effective, the Spaniels' cool teen song reached the US Top Thirty in 1954 despite competition from the pop version by the McGuire Sisters. In these segregated times, the vocal trio started the trend of white artists covering R&B hits which snowballed when Pat Boone and Elvis Presley got in on the act.
The Spaniels should have capitalised on their early success. They played the Apollo Theatre in New York with Joe Turner, toured with the Drifters and even worked tapdancing into their live act. But, try as they might, following up "Goodnite Sweeheart Goodnite" proved a problem. "Let's Make Up" and "You Painted Pictures" were only regional hits and, in 1955, Calvin Carter stepped in briefly to replace Opal Courtney, who had been called up in the army.
Several personnel changes followed, briefly leaving Gerald Gregory at the helm as the sole founding member of a Spaniels line-up which headlined the 1956 VeeJay cavalcade of stars alongside the El-Dorados, the Dells and the Magnificents. Later that year, Hudson rejoined the group now also comprising James "Dimples" Cochran (baritone), Carl Rainge and Donald Porter (both tenors).
The quintet soldiered on, recording many more sides such as the poignant "(You Gave Me) Peace of Mind", the gorgeous "You're Gonna Cry", the nonsensical "Great Googley Moo" and the uptempo "Everyone's Laughing", the group's last pop hit in 1957. Further compounding their run of bad luck, the Ravens turned down the chance to do "The Twist". Sharing the bill in Washington with the Nightingales, a gospel group, Hudson was offered the infectious ditty but passed it on to Hank Ballard, whose version was in turn overshadowed by Chubby Checker's rendition.
Gregory continued with the Ravens until 1960 when "I Know" became their swansong on the VeeJay label. (The first large independent record company owned by black Americans, well before Berry Gordy's Tamla Motown, it went on to release the Beatles' early recordings in North America after Capitol had passed on the option.) The bass singer often rejoined "Pookie" Hudson, who led various line-ups of the Ravens recording for Parkway, Buddah and North American (1970). In 1991, they were awarded the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm 'n' Blues Foundation of the Smithsonian Institute.
Gregory last performed with the Ravens in December 1998 but his inimitable bass-line lives on in the original and the myriad versions of "Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite" by Sha-Na-Na, Chuck Berry, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and even Mantovani.
Gerald Gregory, singer, songwriter; born Gary, Indiana 1934; married; died Gary 12 February 1999.