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Emile Ford & The Checkmates

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Although they're not too well-remembered today, Emile Ford & the Checkmates accomplished the serious feat of charting a number one British single in 1959, opening up a recording career that lasted four years. Ford was born Emile Sweetman on October 16, 1937, in Castries, St. Lucia in the British West Indies. He came to England in the mid-'50s from the Bahamas with the hope of becoming a sound engineer, and his knowledge in that field contributed directly to his subsequent success fronting a band. Changing his name to Emile Ford, he put together a combo called the Checkmates, whose members included his two half-brothers, George Sweetman and Dave Sweetman, on sax and bass, respectively, along with Ken Street, Pete Carter, Les Hart, Alan Hawkshaw, and John Cuffley. As Emile Ford & the Checkmates, they won a talent contest sponsored by Pye Records and were awarded an audition and a contract that resulted in their first single, "Don't Tell Me Your Troubles" b/w "What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For," which was produced by the legendary Joe Meek. Fortunately for all concerned, Pye's management liked the proposed B-side better and flipped the single before release, and "Why Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For" hit the number one spot in England, immediately establishing the band as a major act. They followed this up in 1960 with five singles, three of which charted in the U.K. Top 40, two in the Top Ten, and one of those -- "On a Slow Boat to China" b/w "That Lucky Old Sun" -- at number three. That was the last year in which the group enjoyed that kind of appreciation or recording success, though three of their records released in 1961 and 1962 did brush the lower regions of their charts, one of them ("What Am I Gonna Do") just nudging into the Top 40. The truth is that Ford wasn't really a very good singer, but he had a good band behind him, and unlike every other rock & roll act in England during this period, the group only used their own sound system -- devised by Ford -- at their performances, rather than the usual PA-system level equipment; as a result, they sounded better than any of the competition, sufficiently so to keep them working for years. The Checkmates themselves got to record separately on Pye, even doing an album of their own. By the end of 1962, however, Emile Ford & the Checkmates found themselves brushing up against the earliest recordings of what proved to be a new wave of British rock & roll, represented by the Beatles, among other acts. Their record of hits and their sound were enough to keep the band going until late 1963, and the Checkmates later recorded on their own for Britain's Decca Records (under Joe Meek) and Parlophone Records, sometimes using the name the Original Checkmates. Founding members George Sweetman and Dave Sweetman (who sometimes billed themselves as Sweetman-Ford to remind people of their familial connection with Emile Ford) and drummer Barry Reeves later formed the core of the psychedelic-soul group the Ferris Wheel, while Hawkshaw ended up working in film music. Emile Ford kept his hand in singing for a few more years before returning to audio engineering -- by that time, rock & roll had caught up with Ford's real talent; it was routine for bands to travel with their own sound systems, and Ford found lots of other acts happy to avail themselves of his technical abilities and use his audio systems. At last report, he was living in California after residing in Scandinavia for several years. ~ Bruce Eder

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