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Willie C. Jackson, a Gary native and the last original member of the singing group The Spaniels, died last week at age 79.

The musical group debuted in late 1952 and is best known for the hit "Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite," which rose to No. 5 on Billboard's R&B chart.

"Willie continued to keep his group's music and hit songs alive and remembered for future generations by performing regularly until just a few months ago," said Henry Farag, of Crown Point, one of the original members of the singing group Stormy Weather who was also a friend of Jackson and served as his booking agent.

Farag said Jackson, who died Feb. 18, had been in declining health in recent years and required kidney dialysis treatments.

"It was the music and memories that continued to keep him going," said Farag, who has a tribute show to The Spaniels and other doo-wop music groups called "The Signal" at Munster's Theatre at the Center on April 4.

"Willie wanted to be on stage for The Spaniels segment but would likely have been in the audience ready to be introduced to take a bow," Farag said.

Jackson's funeral will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Unity Baptist Church, 2019 Connecticut St. in Gary. Jackson, who still lived in Gary, was a charter member at Unity Baptist and served as chairman of the Deacon Board.

When Jackson and the musical group debuted in late 1952 at Roosevelt High School in Gary, they went by the name Pookie Hudson & The Hudsonaires. They changed their name to The Spaniels that spring and, upon graduation, became one of the first two artists to sign with Vee-Jay Records — the first large, independent African-American owned record label. The group recorded their initial release, "Baby It's You" on May 5, 1953. The Spaniels played all of the prime stage spaces of Chicago and around the country, including The Apollo, The Regal and other large theaters.

The group's other members included Gerald Gregory, who died Feb. 12, 1999; Opal Courtney Jr., who died Sept. 18, 2008; Thornton James "Pookie" Hudson, who died Jan. 16, 2007; and Ernest Warren, who died May 7, 2012.

David Cerda, a 1979 graduate of Hammond High School who lives in Chicago, said his mother loved the music of The Spaniels.

When his mother, Merle L. "Bea" Cerda, 73, of Hammond, died in November 2013, Jackson agreed to sing at the funeral as a musical send-off.

"I got doo-wop legend Jackson and The Spaniels, my mother's favorite group of all time, to sing 'Goodnite, Sweetheart,'" Cerda said.

"They were so lovely, not a dry eye in the house."

Farag said fans like Cerda will help to keep Jackson's music and memory alive, along with the tribute stage shows help tell the story of The Spaniels.

"Jackson was very involved with this production called 'The Signal,' at Theatre at the Center coming in April because it tells the story of him and his music as well as the the other musical legends from Northwest Indiana," Farag said.

"It's a freestyle vocal rendezvous of old friends on their neighborhood corner in a 21-song, 80-minute presentation, reminiscent of radio, steel mills, gangs, family and most importantly, Gary's Vee-Jay Records. Within that legacy, it creates a canvas of hits by The Spaniels, Jerry Butler, Jimmy Reed, and The Dells, as well as hits from around the country. From gospel to rock, from doo-wop to the King of Pop, the coal-fired harmony endures and uplifts in an innovative blend of music and story, all of the music, memories and details that meant so much to Willie and so many other musical pioneers."​

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