Even though school is out, there's still a homecoming to celebrate.

This weekend, the Inkspots, a legendary singing group and one of popular music's most enduring institutions, returns to the Maryland Inn's King of France Tavern in Annapolis for the first time in six years.

"It was by popular demand," said member Artie Dix, an Annapolis resident. "The people kept asking for the Inkspots, so we finally worked something out through (Paul) Pearson of the Maryland Inn, who brought us here in the first place. We finally got an opportunity to comeand perform for the people, to see all our old friends, and have a good time with them again, because the Maryland Inn is sort of home tous."

Their first visit was such a success, Dix recalled, that thegroup was brought back several times that summer.

"When we came here, we thought we'd take the town by storm," Dix said, "but the towntook us by storm." Dix was captured by the city's ambience and has been living here for the past five years.

"In our travels around the country and in Canada, this city sort of reminds me a little of every place we've visited. Plus, it's a very historical town -- a lot ofgreat scenes and a lot of great people." Dix said, explaining the city's attractions.

In existence on and off since the mid-1930s, theInkspots were one of the first black musical groups to achieve popularity with both black and white audiences. Among their hits were the songs "My Prayer," "Whispering Grass," "If I Didn't Care" (in 1939, their first big hit), "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Java Jive."

Formed in Indianapolis in 1933, the Inkspots released 42 albums during their peak years, had 85 hit songs and sold more than 7 millionalbums and 48 million singles. The current membership (Artie Dix, Rodney Preston, Smokey Watson and Roy Pollard) also plans to go into the recording studio later this year.

The group was best known for its smooth harmonies, combined with the then-novel gimmick of speaking, rather than singing, the second chorus.

Then as now, the Inkspots perform what Dix called love music. "We call ourselves the Ambassadors of Love. We sing beautiful ballads and torch songs that have gotten a lot of people together. Everywhere we go, we like to spread thatcore of love, and the light of peace."

The original members of the group, including Bill Kenny, Ivory "Deak" Watson, Hoppie Jones and Charles Fuqua, are dead. Kenny died in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1982.

The group now includes what Dix, 58, calls the "second andthird generations" of the Inkspots. "It is about 8 years old in thisform.

"There are two of us who are the second generation. He's 58,and I'm 58," Dix said. "Then there's the other two, the third generation, in their early 30s and early 40s. We did that mainly to try andreach all age levels, from 8 to 80. And we've had kids in our audience as young as 8 years old really enjoy the music and try to sing along with it."

Dix candidly described the current Inkspots as a nostalgia group.

"We're like Sears and Roebuck," he said. "We try to keep the legend going and stay as true to the original sound as possible. And the people like us.

"But we're not exact clones. We do ourown variety show as well, with other tunes such as 'Mack the Knife,"Goody Goody,' 'On Broadway,' 'Stand By Me' -- tunes that some otherartists made famous. We add a little of that to give variety and tryto reach a broader spectrum of people."

Dix sang on and off with the group before he officially became a member in 1982. He is a lifelong musician who came from a gospel background but "chose to go with the pop side of things" early on.

In recent years, the group usually has toured about 30 to 40 weeks a year. Dix attributed this relaxed career pace to the fact that "a lot of the big clubs have closed down. Some rooms went into the other styles of music like disco and Top-40 and all that."

In addition, the group has been slowed by "the economy, the war, and all that, but the winter pace is over. Things are picking up now."

Semi-retired now, Dix said that one of his fondest memory of working with the group was a concert in Canada, with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Hamilton, Ontario.

"That wasone our finest hours," he recalled, "to have an 80-piece orchestra behind us, playing the Inkspots music. It was really thrilling. And then to go Rochester, N.Y., after that and play with the orchestra there was really a thrill."

But while the group has been away from theMaryland Inn since its memorable gigs in 1986, Dix said that they haven't exactly been strangers to the county. They performed in 1989 atthe Maryland Seafood Festival at Sandy Point State Park and at the Annapolis Fine Arts Festival.

The Maryland Inn is at the top of Main Street, overlooking Church Circle in Annapolis. Friday and Saturdayshows are at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., and Sunday's single show starts at 8:30 p.m.

Reservations: 263-2641, 269-0990 or (301) 261-2206.

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