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On the pic Left to right: Herb Alpert, Bill Van Bus Kirk, Marvin Smith, Bobby Stevens, Sonny Charles, Harvey Trees, Jerry Moss and Jay Cooper


Part 2 (1968 – 1975)

Sonny Charles: “The first thing Phil Spector said was ‘let’s get one thing straight. This is my album until we’re finished. When we’re finished and it’s released, it can be yours.’ He pretty much made it clear that he was the boss.”


1968 was a very busy year for the Checkmates Ltd., who in the line-up of two lead singers - Bobby Stevens (baritone) and Sonny Charles (tenor) - along with Marvin “Sweet Louie” Smith (drums, vocals), Bill Van Buskirk (bass) and Harvey Trees (guitar), had become a big draw mainly in Las Vegas but also in other nightclubs and casinos around the U.S. However, their recording contract with Capitol Records had expired. Within that contract, enabled by Nancy Wilson, they had released four singles and one album, Live! At Caesar’s Palace, which was a good reflection of their shows. Furthermore people bought it in such quantities that it even hit the national charts at # 36 on Billboard’s “Best Selling Rhythm & Blues LP’s” charts.

The group certainly didn’t suffer from lack of work, but for a recording contract they were in need of outside help; perhaps a new patron. The trumpeter, conductor and singer, Herb Alpert (, who has turned 85 this year and who’s still touring, had his first commercial peak period in 1962 with The Lonely Bull, the second one in 1965 with Taste of Honey and Zorba the Creek and his third one in 1968 with This Guy’s in Love with You. There were still more to come, such as Rise in 1979 and Diamonds in 1987. Also a couple of his numerous gold albums – Sounds Like and The Best of Brass – fell on that third peak period.

Bobby Stevens: “We met Herb Albert, when we were in Hawaii. It’s another place we played a lot. Duke Kahanamoku was a famous person in Hawaii.” Duke (1890-1968) was a five-time Olympic medallist in swimming, a surfer and also an actor. “He had a small nightclub named after him, and it was made famous by Don Ho. We were playing there one night and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass happened to be doing a concert there. So he came in and brought the band with him. Afterwards he approached me, because I was the leader of the group, and asked who managed us. The next day Jay Cooper contacted him and signed us to a contract. Herb gave us a signing bonus, and we didn’t have a record at all at that time, so he was very good to us.”

Jay Cooper is a long-time distinguished entertainment lawyer and manager, who also plays alto saxophone. Nancy Wilson had been one of his clients and by the end of the 1960s he managed The Checkmates Ltd. as well. Don Ho (1930-2007) was a Hawaiian singer and entertainer, who had a small pop hit with Tiny Bubbles in 1966.

The Checkmates Ltd. signed with A&M Records in April 1968. The label was founded by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss in 1962, and those days, six-seven years later, A&M was riding high with releases by American pop artists - besides Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass themselves – such as Nick De Caro, Burt Bacharach, Chris Montez, Liza Minnelli, the Sandpipers and Evie Sands, among many others. There were also representatives of the second British invasion, i.e. Joe Cocker, Procol Harum, Long John Baldry the Move etc., and a couple of names from the r&b/jazz side: George Benson, Tamiko Jones and Quincy Jones.

Sonny: “Jay Cooper finally took us over to A&M Records. We sort of puttered around them for almost a year before we came up with anything. Herb tried to record us, a few months he kept running songs with us. They were all pretty much like Tijuana Brass songs, and it just wasn’t what we were.” Bobby: “When we signed with Herb, he took a little time trying to produce us and he felt he wasn’t right for us. That’s one of the great things about him: he’s very honest, a very straightforward person. He said ‘I’ll find somebody to do what you guys need.’ I think he had in mind giving us the same shot as the Righteous Brothers and any other major group – and he went out to get Phil Spector.”



The commercial failure of Ike & Tina Turner’s stunning River Deep - Mountain High was a stagnating blow for Phil Spector. In 1969, after a two-year-plus hiatus, he, however, struck a deal with A&M Records, which gave him a free hand in picking up artists to produce. Additionally on all his records alongside the A&M emblem they placed the “Phil Spector productions” logo.

Not all, but some of the recordings were cut at the new A&M Hollywood studios, which were opened in August 1968, and by his side Phil had his old engineer buddy from the earlier Gold Star days, Larry Levine. The very first Phil Spector/Checkmates Ltd. collaboration was supposed to be a John Sebastian song, Baby Don’t You Get Crazy, which John himself released in 1970. For the Checkmates Ltd. it was slated for release under the # of A&M 1006 (b/w Spanish Harlem) in February 1969, but for some reason it remained unreleased, although allegedly the record was finished.

However the actual first release was a masterpiece, a much underrated and ignored “Spector gem” called Love Is All I Have to Give. Perry Botkin, Jr.’s arrangement on this pleading big ballad is close to perfection with mandolins, sweeping strings and a choir accompaniment. Especially in this case I urge you to follow Phil’s advice: “back to mono!” So please choose the single version of this song, because on the stereo version on the album the full power is diminished.

Love Is All I Have to Give was composed by Phil Spector and Bobby Stevens, who’s also the lead vocalist on the song. Bobby: “Phil was not hard to work with at all as far as I’m concerned. He had the genesis of Love Is All I Have to Give. He invited me one night up to his house, where we trifled with it. Of course, the music is all his. I co-wrote the lyrics with him. He was enthusiastic with it. He took a shot at it, and it came out nicely. I think it was the time, when Phil and I were going through the same emotional thing with partnerships.”  The B-side, Never Should Have Lied, is a standard dancer, written by Bobby Baugh – aka Bobby Stevens – and his younger brother Charles Stevens and produced by Bobby under his Even-Stevens Productions.

Similarly to River Deep – Mountain High, also in this case a monumental record got lost. In early May it peaked only at # 65 on Billboard’s “Hot 100” charts. In Australia at least it went up to # 31. Almost at the same time Phil released another single, the stimulating You Came, You Saw, You Conquered by the Ronettes featuring the voice of Veronica, and in spite of its high quality and catchiness it fared even less well. It remained bubbling under Hot 100, at # 108.



You Came, You Saw, You Conquered was composed by Phil along with Toni Wine and Irwin Levine. Throughout the 1960s Irwin and Toni had been co-writing with other partners songs, and some of them became hits. Already in 1961 Irwin Levine (1938-97) had co-written popular songs for Roy Hamilton (You’re Gonna Need Magic) and the Shirelles (A Thing of the Past) and four years later for Tom Jones (Little Lonely One), but his most successful contribution was This Diamond Ring, released first by Sammy Ambrose but taken to # 1 by Gary Lewis & the Playboys in 1965.

Toni Wine was born in 1947, and she was a recording artist in her own right, too. She had teeny pop single releases on Colpix in the early and mid-1960s. She also co-wrote for the Shirelles as well as the Ikettes and Lesley Gore, but as a writer A Groovy Kind of Love, which she co-wrote with Carole Bayer, was her breakthrough. This song with origins in classical music was first released by Diane and Annita, but the Mindbenders turned it into a # 2 hit in 1966. Soul music fans remember Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles’ cover on the B-side of Over the Rainbow, produced by the great Bert Berns in 1965. Still in 1970, after Phil had moved on, Toni and Irwin co-wrote together Candida for Dawn, and then Toni soon after that married the producer Chips Moman and moved to Memphis.

The very same trio of Phil, Toni and Irwin wrote Black Pearl, which was released as the second official Spector-produced single for the Checkmates Ltd. in April 1969, only one month after Love Is All I Have to Give. One explanation is that they rush-released it by “popular demand”, because of its hit potential. It indeed became A&M’s biggest single of the year and ranked # 66 in Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 singles. In early July on Billboard’s charts it peaked at # 13 – hot, and # 8 - rhythm & blues. It sold well also in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, but in the U.K. only Horace Faith’s speeded-up reggae version appeared on charts at # 13.

Toni Wine tells in Carl Wiser’s 2007 interview on the Songfacts blog that Phil and Irwin came to her apartment, where the song was written. It was inspired by the difficult times at that point, segregation and differences, and this couple in the song is dreaming of better times, putting black women on a pedestal. Black Pearl is Toni’s favourite song.


Sonny: “Black Pearl was initially recorded at Gold Star studios, and some overdubs were also done at Gold Star.”  On Black Pearl Sonny Charles is on lead, and actually the single is credited to Sonny Charles & the Checkmates Ltd. Phil, however, did a small trick in mixing. Sonny: “We were working in Las Vegas and we had a night off and I was supposed to record then the lead for Black Pearl. I was sick then. I had flu or something, so Phil slowed the track down so that I could sing it. ‘We got to get your voice on it, working vocal, so that we can finish with overdubs and all that stuff.’ When he sped the record back up to the original speed, to me I sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks. My voice was so high. He said ‘I love it. This is the magic we want. We want to keep this vocal.’ I said ‘that’s not me. I can’t sing it like that,’ and he said ‘it doesn’t matter. It’s just a record. This is not your personal stuff.’ So he went on and released it that way.”

“When I was doing the promotion for Black Pearl, going from a radio station to a radio station with it, we came to Detroit. We passed a nightclub ‘featuring tonight Little Sonny Charles singing Black Pearl.’ I went to see this kid, 13-14 years old, and he sang it just like the record. I never could. I never liked the record myself, because it wasn’t a true replication of my voice... and the fact that I never got paid for it, either. But PR-wise it was a good record for us.” On the B-side there was Harvey Trees’ light rhumba-like, poppy instrumental titled Lazy Susan, another Even Stevens Production.



In September 1969 A&M released both the album, Love Is All We Have to Give, and the third single, Proud Mary, which was also the opening track on the album. Produced by Phil and arranged by Dee Barton and Perry Botkin, Jr., this thunderous and fiercely rolling track was a revelation. It differed a lot from the original single by Creedence Clearwater Revival eight months earlier and also from Solomon Burke’s soul cover, which was co-produced by his fiancée, Tamiko Jones, and released in April. Ike & Tina Turner’s from-easy-to-rough version was released in January 1971. Sonny: “It pretty much has the same arrangement, and it was a huge hit for her” (# 4 – pop, # 5 – soul). In her book, I, Tina, she writes that “in the beginning Ike hated the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, but then he heard the version by the Checkmates and took notice. We started working on it in the back seat of the car, and continued to work on it for quite some time before we started to play it onstage.”

Dee Barton (1937-2001) was born in Houston, Texas, and became a trombonist in Stan Kenton’s orchestra in 1961. After moving to Los Angeles in the late 1960s he started writing scores for movies, including Clint Eastwood’s films in the 1970s. On Spector’s tracks he was the co-arranger not only on Proud Mary, but did string and horn parts also on two other tracks, Spanish Harlem and I Keep Forgettin’. In spite of innovative arrangement, Proud Mary stalled at # 69-pop the first of November in 1969. In the U.K. it fared better by climbing up to # 30.

The Proud Mary single was this time credited to “The Checkmates Ltd. featuring Sonny Charles”, and on the flip there was a beautiful and smooth version of Spanish Harlem with Dee’s and Perry’s dreamy arrangement. The success of Proud Mary in the U.K. called for a follow-up, and they released the only remaining track off the album’s A-side, the fully orchestrated, to say the least, and booming version of Chuck Jackson’s 1962 hit, I Keep Forgettin’. Still in the U.S. for some reason they re-released Proud Mary almost immediately after its first release, only this time on the flip there was Sonny Charles’ mediocre and short funky number, Do You Love Your Baby (again Even-Stevens Prod.).



The movie score specialist, Dee Barton, is in fact the creative force behind B-side of the album titled The Hair Anthology Suite, or as it reads on the album cover: “The Hair Anthology Suite was adapted by Phil Spector, and every note of music was brilliantly, ingeniously and magically arranged by Dee Barton.”  It also says that the Suite “was recorded as one total twenty-minute production – designed to be heard as one complete work, rather than in parts.”

Sonny: “That’s the all-time favourite recording experience for me. I love that whole experience. They had the track already done. A gentleman by the name of Dee Barton was the arranger on that, and he put together such a terrific arrangement that I was just really, really happy singing it.” You can hear such familiar Hair songs as Let the Sunshine In, Aquarius and Ain’t Got No. “The B-side we did in two evenings. Vocal was done in one evening. I just walked in. I knew all the songs. It was pretty much done the first night.”

Phil Spector still wrote on the jacket “special thanks to the hundreds of musicians and vocalists who played and sang their hearts out and assisted the Checkmates Ltd.”  He also dedicated the album “to the memory of a very dear friend of mine, Mac Mashourian.” Mac acted as a bodyguard in a movie called Easy Rider in 1969, and actually in that movie Phil also made a cameo appearance as a cocaine buyer. The Armenian Mac was also Phil’s real-life body guard.

This album went practically unnoticed. It barely reached the bottom of Billboard’s Top Pop Albums and went only up to # 178 at the end of October in 1969. I’ve also noticed that many so-called experts on Spector’s music find it trendy to give disparaging reviews to this album, but I find it fascinating and exhilarating. It was re-released in a CD format on Hip-O-Select in 2004.


The A&M recording sessions were also the cause for the first break-up of the Checkmates Ltd. in 1969. One reason was that after Love Is All I Have to Give flopped commercially and Black Pearl hit big, Sonny became the lead vocalist almost on the whole album. Sonny: “During that time our band was dissolving. We had had a big conflict over who was the lead singer. Egos got in the way and drifted us apart. We were pretty much at odds with each other over that. It was basically the fact that Bobby was no longer the lead voice. He was pretty much the leader of the band and he was the lead voice. Then all of a sudden my voice was the one everybody wanted to record.”

There’s also another reason. Bobby: “At that time our agreement with A&M was that Phil would produce the ‘A’ sides and we would produce the ‘B’ side of all of our recordings, like I produced Never Should Have Lied in Palo Alto, where I lived. When it came to the ‘B’ side of the album, they didn’t honour it. Phil was an excellent person, but I was always about keeping our words. My opinion was that Phil did not want what he felt would be ‘inferior’ music to what he was producing on the ‘A’ side or that he just had a musical concept and sound in his head and just did not want anything else on the production involving his name on it. We did record Black Pearl together and I think I share vocals on one or two tracks on the album, because at that time it was common to do a little speaking or storytelling within a record.”

The agreement between Phil Spector and A&M lasted only for about half a year, and already in early 1970 Phil was working with John Lennon. Sonny: “Phil was a major eccentric. He was like nobody else I’ve ever met. He has some issues. But he was pretty much a genius at producing records. He had had a big string of hits, and as a result we came through with Black Pearl. We did that whole album and we never got a dime. Everything went to Herb Alpert, A&M and those people. That’s why I didn’t want to have any contact with him after that. It was quite an experience working with Phil.”

Bobby: “When they were doing that album, I left and I took the guys with me to perform, because there was a performing contract that had to be honoured in the name of the Checkmates Ltd. We were mostly a performance group. Harvey Trees left pretty soon after that.” Sonny: “Harvey eventually went to Las Vegas in 1970, right after he left the band. He got a job in the gambling part of Las Vegas, doing casino stuff. Bill Van Buskirk stayed with me for a few months and then sold insurance for a while, before he went into real estate. Marvin Smith went with Bobby. When I was playing as a single, Roland Bautista would play guitar and we toured around for about a year and got a chance to go with Earth, Wind & Fire.” At that point also John Calvin Thomas, known as “Sloopy” from the Continentals days (see the first part of the feature), played drums with Sonny.



Not only separate performances and tours, both Bobby and Sonny also released records under their own name during the next couple of years. Sonny continued with the A&M Records. Sonny: “Herb Alpert and those guys sent me down to Memphis. Chips Moman was a big hit producer at that point. He had done some stuff for Aretha Franklin.

Lincoln Wayne “Chips” Moman (1937-2016) was an important figure in Memphis and Nashville music scenes. Born in Georgia, in the late 1950s he had worked as a session guitarist at Gold Star studios in Los Angeles before moving to work with Stax and after that forming his own American Music Studios in Memphis. He revived Elvis’ career in the late 1960s and also co-wrote many immortal songs like The Dark End of the Street and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man. You can read more about him at

Sonny: “I went down there and just stayed the weekend. He brought this song, and I didn’t think the song fit me at all, but we recorded it, and it got a little airplay.” The song was It Takes a Little Longer, a memorable, mid-tempo, sing-along number that was written by Gary Wright and Christina Uppstrom and was cut also by Tim Rose two years later. Reggie Young plays sitar on Sonny’s track.

Released in March 1970, on the flip there was a tune called Welfare Man, a slow and simple song with touching lyrics about living in poverty, and here the writing credits go to Sonny and Johnny Christopher, who also plays acoustic guitar on the track. Mike Leech is on bass. Sonny: “I don’t know how Johnny got his name on there. I wrote the song. I thought it should have been released as the A-side, because it would have touched. There was a message in there. But it never happened.”



As a follow-up A&M released a nice mid-tempo toe-tapper called Half as Much, which was written by Curley Williams, who ironically passed away in September 1970, one month after the release of Sonny’s single. In 1952 the song had been a hit both for Hank Williams (# 2 – country) and Rosemary Clooney (# 1 – pop). Sonny’s version was produced by George Tobin, who is better known for his production work for Kim Carnes, Natalie Cole, New Edition, Smokey Robinson and especially Tiffany in the 1980s. Sonny: “Herb Alpert called George Tobin in to see if he and I could work together. I think Tobin chose the song. Herb pretty much just delegated these guys to work with me, trying to find a producer that worked well with me.” The single remained “Bubbling under the Hot-100” at # 116 in October 1970, and it was backed with Louie Shelton’s plodder called Will You Be Easy.

Sonny’s third solo single in 1970 came out in November, and it was an irresistible, driving version of Bless You, a song that at the same time was riding on the charts but hidden on the B-side of Chairmen of the Board’s Pay to the Piper. Sonny’s version was again produced by George Tobin and richly orchestrated by Gene Page. On the flip there was a live record imitation of Joe Seneca’s song Talk to Me, Talk to Me, which was one of Little Willie John’s hits in 1958.


Although Sonny’s stint with A&M ended with that third solo single, there was still one more single to pop up and this time on RCA in 1972. Sonny: “It was through the management, Jay Cooper’s office. He put it together.” Produced by a jazz man, Jack Pleis, It’s Alright in the City is an aggressively strutting, rocky funk, written by Don Dunn and Tony McCashen. Sonny: “RCA didn’t have any r&b producers. The gentleman, who produced it, had no idea what to do with r&b. He’d come into the studio. We got the musicians together and he’d go the get a cup of coffee and we would do whatever we did.”

A slow and dreamy song called Nicasio was placed on the flip. It was a dedication to a small and beautiful village in California and was actually written there. “I wrote it with a gentleman named Mike Jarrett. Mike and I wrote also the Elvis song, I’m Leavin’.” Elvis took that single up to # 36 on the pop charts in the summer of 1971. Mike Jarrett had already co-written with Bobby Stevens a big ballad titled Walk in the Sunlight for the Checkmates Ltd. in 1967. In a 2016 interview conducted by Arjan Deelen, Michael Jarrett recalls his Vegas days, when he first met the Checkmates Ltd. in the 1960s and how he became a B3 Organ player for Sonny in 1970. When he got tired of travelling long distances, he started playing in Bobby Stevens’ big band at the Hilton in Vegas. He came up with the idea for I’m Leavin’ in a shower booth, finished it with Sonny, published it under Bobby’s Oten Music, cut a demo at Gold Star and pitched the song to Elvis, who loved it and recorded along with his other song, I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day.



Bobby: “When I went on my own, I started my own label.” In late 1970 Bobby set up Rustic Records. “I have always liked country music and I tried to think of a name that would fit any product released under it, so I came up with Rustic.” Rustic operated out of Beverly Hills. “At that time I rented an office in Jay Cooper’s suite of offices.”

Bobby’s first single release in early 1971 was Mike Jarrett’s song titled All Goin’ down Together. It was a frantic, funky stormer, produced and arranged by Bobby and co-arranged by Tommy Tyko. On the intense and soulful beat-ballad on the flip, To Keep from Loving You, Mike Terry is the co-arranger. “I think I used Nancy Wilson to get him. He respected her and I think, when he found out that Nancy managed us at one time, he agreed on doing it.”  This passionate song is credited to Bobby Stevens & Friend and is co-written and co-led by “friend”, Rich Buckland. “He is a young writer that I had signed to our publishing company (Oten Music Pub. Co.). One day in the office we were messing around with music, and it was his idea. That is one of my favourite songs, by the way.”


Bobby’s first solo album called Life was released on Rustic (RR2001) in September 1971, and it was credited to Bobby Stevens and the Checkmates Ltd. Produced and rhythm arranged by Bobby, John True arranged the music for the 4-piece horn section and the 3-piece string section. Among the total number of fifteen musicians, there are Sweet Louie and Russell Lee on drums, Michael Jarrett on piano and acoustic guitar, Clint Mosley on bass, Joseph Ramirez on guitar and Albert Steen on congas. Engineered by Randy Fuller, the record was cut at Wolfman Jack’s studios in Los Angeles. Wolfman, aka Robert Weston Smith (1938-95), was one of the most iconic disc jockeys as well as a part-time actor and TV host. He also wrote a few lines for the Life album jacket.

Another writer of the notes on the sleeve was Sonny Charles, who wrote that “this album is a milestone in the life of a man called Love. It’s as warm and generous as the man himself.” Sonny: “It was a courtesy thing. I wrote notes, because it was his solo effort, but I don’t think I ever heard any of the songs.” Bobby: “We’ve been friends since high school. We weren’t enemies.”

The album offers not only ten tracks of mostly cover songs but also six poems and two monologues between the music tracks. “I wrote all the poetry, because I wanted to do an album a little different from most. There’s poetry and music.” One of those poems, What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt You Is a Lie – written and performed by Bobby - was used on the soundtrack to a 1970 biker movie called Black Angels. Also on that soundtrack, Tom Markham sings one of Bobby’s songs called What’s Going On?, also produced and arranged by Bobby and released as a single already in 1969 on Tower Records.

On Life there are hit songs from the 1960s – My Girl, Turn Back the Hands of Time, Walk on by & MacArthur Park – and also a couple of Neil Diamond’s songs, I Am I Said and Sweet Caroline. Two of the covers derive from 1970. Teegarden & Van Winkle hit the pop charts with God, Love and Rock & Roll and Gladys Knight & the Pips recorded If I Were Your Woman. “A lot of those songs were in the stage show. One that wasn’t that I wrote was Mary Was Born on the Bayou.” That bayou song could be described as a raw and rocky “swamp funk” number, whereas All That I Am is a tender ballad.

Among those first Rustic releases in the early 1970s there were also all three earlier albums by the Checkmates, Inc./Ltd. – Live at Harvey’s (2-LP, Rustic RR2000), Live! At Caesar’s Palace (RR2002) and Love Is All We Have to Give (RR2003). Originally they had been released on Ikon, Capitol and A&M labels in 1965, ’67 and ’69 respectively. Bobby: “At that time I was also into the business side of the industry. I just did my homework and followed it up. I got the rights, because I wouldn’t have released them otherwise.”

Bobby also produced one country album that was released in early 1972 under the title of The Professor in Skip Town U.S.A. The “professor” was Pat West, a blind country & western singer that Bobby had discovered. “It was just a labour of love for country music. It was the first country music directed album I produced for Rustic Records.” On the LP there are two beautiful c&w ballads that Bobby wrote – Put My Heart Back Like You Found It and Someone Forgot to Care – while the third slow and wistful song, Teardrops Are Fallin’, was written by Pat himself. The rest of the material consists of honky-tonk numbers and hilarious raps. Bobby had planned to put on the album one more of his own songs called That Ain’t Country, That’s Corn, but in the final edition it was replaced. He had planned to release it not only on Pat but on himself, too. “Originally I wrote the lyrics, sang and produced it, but it was never released. It was going to be my first excursion into country music, when I became a single act.” Pat West was born in Arkansas in 1933. “We just lost track of each other after I closed the label.”



As mentioned in the first part of the feature, the Checkmates members were sporty fellows. Bobby: “On one occasion in Los Angeles, the Checkmates Ltd. combined with the original Jackson Five, including Michael, to form a basketball team, which took on the team of Fred Williamson, Richard Pryor and other celebrities to raise money for a local black group. The Checkmates Ltd. provided the uniforms for their team, and they won. While in Lake Tahoe, I played a charity indoor tennis match in Harrah’s hotel with Buddy Rich against Bill Cosby and his partner. Also during another engagement in Lake Tahoe, the Checkmates Ltd. and Kenny Rogers’ band made up a basketball team for a charity match.” Later Bobby concentrated on coaching. “For 14 years I coached the girls Junior Varsity basketball team at John F. Kennedy High School and had an overwhelming won/lost victory record.”

In 1974 in the Billboard magazine there were several announcements about business activities involving the Checkmates Ltd.  There already existed Oten Music Publishing and Even Stevens Productions. Bobby: “Even Stevens was headed primarily by me. I was running it, when we signed with A&M. It produced almost all of our music, when we were on our own.” In September 1974 Neil Ames became Bobby’s partner in Rustic Records, and one month prior to that the group had founded Charisma Public Relations. “Originally Charisma P.R. was a Checkmates Ltd. company. I ran the business of the group and at that time I wanted to get everybody involved. We had office at 6430 Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Sonny was in charge of music, and I think Louie and Bill Van Buskirk were in charge of Charisma P.R. Everybody had a primary focus.”

Under the holding company called Chessboard Corporation there was still one firm named Associated Video Artists. “It released material that I produced independently.” One movie project was titled Gramma’s Gold, and we’ll have a closer look at it in the third part of the story.

During the second half of the 1960s you could watch the Checkmates Ltd. in different TV shows, such as Las Vegas TV series, Operation: Entertainment, The Hollywood Palace, The Toast of the Town, The Joey Bishop Show, Della and The Tommy Leonetti Show

In the 1970s Sonny and Bobby first performed as separate acts but since 1974 as the Checkmates Ltd. again in numerous shows like Playboy after Dark, The Smothers Brothers Summer Show, The Soul Train, The Virginia Graham Show, Get It Together, The Real Tom Kennedy Show, The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Bob Braun Show and Dinah.

One foray into business was Bobby’s night restaurant. “It was in East Palo Alto, California, and it was called The Checkmate Inn. It was 30 miles outside of San Francisco – just a twenty minute ride from San Francisco - and a lot of 49ers came through there. Muhammad Ali came there, and a lot of the celebrities on their trips back and forth to various performances from the San Francisco airport. Lou Rawls and many other major artists performed there.”



After five years of working as separate acts the group reunited in 1974. Sonny: “I was playing in Lake Tahoe as a single, and Bobby and Marvin Smith were playing at Reno, which was about thirty miles apart. After I finished, I drove over and Bobby and I sat down and we talked about it and decided to reunite.” In spite of going their separate ways, Sonny and Bobby have remained good friends throughout all these years. Bobby: “My brother, who’s also a good friend of Sonny, started bringing us back together.”

Next the group ventured into the movie business. They had shortly appeared already in Gason Kanin’s 1969 comedy called Where It’s At doing The Temptation Walk, but now they would be actually in charge. Bobby: “We were in Las Vegas performing and the gentleman, who actually wrote and produced the movie, came in to our show. He liked our music and said ‘I’d like to put your music in the movie.’ I said ‘we will do the music, if you put us in the movie.’ At that time movies were very prominent, almost everybody was in a black movie. We needed the movie also. After hard negotiations he agreed to put us in the movie. At that time he also allowed me to co-write the film. Harry Weed and I rewrote the movie. Once we had that done, I found Sonny to do the score, and he did a marvellous job on it.”

Sonny: “Bobby hooked up with these guys over doing this movie, sort of gangster type, one of those blaxploitation movies. They filmed the stuff, and I think I was in one scene. When we finished it, they said ‘okay Sonny, write the score.’ They gave me a 16 mm film reel that I showed on my kitchen wall, and I wrote the score for that. I got it on Friday, and we recorded it on Monday. I had no idea what I was doing. I don’t read music and none of that stuff. I was just going by watching the pictures and tried timing with the stopwatch, which was something they did in Charlie Chaplin days. It was interesting” (laughing).

Directed by Michael Finn and filmed in Las Vegas, The Black Connection – subtitled Run Nigger Run – was released in May 1974. Bobby plays a drug dealer and pimp, while Sonny is a bruiser. The score was released as the next official album by the Checkmates Ltd., their fourth joint effort.


The album on Rustic Records was titled F/S/O, which means “furnishing the services of.” Bobby: “It was a mistake from my part. That album should have been named Soundtrack to the Black Connection. Sonny did a great job with the soundtrack.” Sonny: “It didn’t take us very long to record. We were self-contained. We had our own band. We just went into the studio.” Bobby: “We pretty much bounced ideas off each other.”

Produced and rhythm and vocal arranged by Sonny – Joe Romano arranged strings and horns – the LP was cut at Mystic Sound Studio in Hollywood. Sonny also practically wrote all the songs, only on the stomping Louie the Piper Sweet Louie Smith (vocals, drums) contributed and Bobby co-wrote the hammering Might Get Betta. Paul Maturkanic (guitar) and Joe Romano (piano, trumpet) composed the ethereal Coming Down. Many of the songs are rocky funk items and the only slow numbers are the soft I Must Be Dreaming and the tender Pretty Balloons.

The first single, Got to See “U” Soon, however, is a gentle and relaxed songs with a Latin touch. The follow-up, Sexy Ways, is a slow and hammering funk number. Besides Bobby, Sonny, Sweet Louie, Joe and Paul, still Clint Mosley and Mario Panvini were on bass and Albert “Chip” Steen on congas and percussion, and there was a 3-piece horn section.  Neither the album, nor the singles charted.

There was still one more single release on Rustic, Pardon Me (Transcription of the 18 Minute Gap) by Keith Green. Released in September 1974, Pardon Me is a novelty, ragtime type of a song. Bobby: “Keith Green came into our office one day and that was the time, when the Nixon thing was going on. We had this small Rustic label and there were walk-ins all the time, because they couldn’t get on a major label. He walked in one day, presented it to me and I said ‘I love it.’ After that I dissolved Rustic (see the Neil Ames connection above). I had tried. I released several singles, but financially it became not feasible.” Keith came from New York and he turned into a Christian singer & songwriter, but he died in a plane crash in 1982 at the age of 29.



On October the 1st in 1975 in Manila in the Philippines, Don King promoted and Ferninand Marcos sponsored the third boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and the Checkmates were chosen to be one of the entertainers. Bobby: “We had an African-American publicity company at that time, and this guy was responsible in securing the booking and bringing it to fruition. We were well-known in the entertainment community, because a lot of the entertainers, who played Vegas, were our friends. He asked us to give it a shot and that was our biggest performance at that time. Lloyd Price was also on the trip.” Sonny: “We went over to that fight and we did the National anthem for the fight.”

Already in February 1975 Bobby experienced a nice gesture from his buddies, when he was handed The Golden Check of 1001 dollars for “The Best Manager of the Best Lounge Act for Many Years.” Bobby: “During my management tenure, the group won many ‘Lounge Act of the Year’ awards, so Sonny and Louie presented it to me in front of a live gathering at the Vegas awards show.”

The next single by the Checkmates Ltd. would chart in 1976; not very high, but it’s their first charted record in seven years and it was produced one of the living legends in our music.




(Label # / titles / Billboard placing, pop/soul / year


A&M 1039) Love Is All I Have To Give (65/-) / Never should Have Lied (1969)

A&M 1053) Black Pearl (13/8) / Lazy Susan

A&M 1127) Proud Mary (69/-) / Spanish Harlem

A& M 1130) Proud Mary / Do You Love Your Baby

A&M – Forget Me Nots 8560) Black Pearl / Half As Much (1973)

A&M – Forget Me Nots 8578) Black Pearl / Love Is All I Have To Give (1974)


A&M 1177) It Takes A Little Longer / Welfare Man (1970)

A&M 1214) Half As Much (116/-) / Will You Be Easy

A&M 1232) Bless You / Talk To Me, Talk To Me

RCA 0645) It’s Alright In The City / Nicasio (1972)



Rustic RT-1002) All Goin’ Down Together / To Keep From Loving You (1971)



Rustic 501) Got To See “U” Soon / Might Get Betta (1974)

Rustic 502) Sexy Ways / Run Nigger Run



LOVE IS ALL WE HAVE TO GIVE (A&M 4183) # 178-pop / 1969

Proud Mary / Spanish Harlem / Black Pearl / I Keep Forgettin’ / Love Is All I Have To Give // The Hair Anthology Suite: Ain’t Got No / I Got Life / Let The Sun Shine In (Overture) / Aquarius / Let The Sunshine In & Ain’t Got No (Finale)



LIFE (Rustic, RR2001) 1971

Poem: Life / My Girl / Poem: Criticize / Mary Was Born On The Bayou / Poem: Will I ever love again / Turn Back The Hands Of Time / God, Love And Rock & Roll / Poem: What you don’t know won’t hurt you is a lie / All Goin’ Down Together // Poem: You never said you loved me / All That I Am / Poem: Reminiscing / Walk On By & Mac Arthur Park / I Am I Said / Monologue: Nice & easy / If You Were My Woman / Monologue: Peace talk / Sweet Caroline

-          NOTE: re-released on Gucci (G301) in 1977 under the title of SOULD OUT with tracks in a different order




RR2000) Live At Harvey’s (2-LP) 1971

RR2002) Live! At Caesar’s Palace

RR2003) Love Is All We Have To Give - 1972


F/S/O (Rustic, RR2004) 1974

Louie The Piper / (Ain’t A) Goddamned Thang Going On / I Must Be Dreaming / Street Of Dreams // Pretty Balloons / Sexy Ways / Might Get Betta / Coming Down / Run Nigger Run / Got To See “U” Soon


© Heikki Suosalo

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