On the pic left to right: Joey Ramirez, Rus Lee, Bobby Stevens, Clint Mosley, Sweet Louie
THE CHECKMATES LTD. – “ALL ALONE BY THE TELEPHONE”
Part 3 (1976 – present)
Sonny Charles: “We were very, very popular back then. I’ve always said that the struggles to make it never break up an act but success breaks up acts. We were just all over the place. We were caught up in a whirlwind. We were so busy that we couldn’t do Woodstock.”
After Bobby Stevens dissolved the Rustic label in late 1974, the Checkmates Ltd. had no recording home but had to wait for almost two years before they could introduce new recorded music to the market. But it wasn’t just any music. It was produced and arranged by the renowned and highly acclaimed H.B. Barnum. Sonny: “We had known H.B. from back in the Las Vegas days. He was the musical director for Lou Rawls at that point. We would bump into each other on the road, because we used to hang out with Lou Rawls a lot. In fact, week after we came back from ‘Thrilla in Manila’ we recorded with H.B.” The group sang the National anthem in Manila, where they organized the third boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and which Ali won, on the first of October in 1975. Besides Sonny and Bobby, the third core member of the group in that H.B. Barnum session was Marvin “Sweet Louie” Smith. Bobby Stevens: “H.B. directed the Caesars Palace band for us, when we opened for Woody Allen in the main room for one week, while also headlining the lounge.”
Hidle Brown Barnum was born in Houston, Texas, on July 15 in 1936. I did a short insert on H.B.’s career in 2005 for my Al Wilson story and below I copy the main points from that article. In his youth H.B. was known as “The Barnum Wonder Boy” due to his singing, acting and ability of playing nine different instruments. Under the name of Peewee Barnum he released two singles – Two Timin' and For Crying out Loud – on Imperial as early as in 1950 – that is 70 years ago!
His next singles came out five years later as a member of the Dootones, and further with the Robins as many as seven singles on the Whipet label between 1956 and ’58. His second solo stint from 1958 till the mid-70s included releases on such labels as Mun Rab, Fidelity, Arvee, Ultra Sonic, Eldo, Dot, RCA, Imperial, Capitol, Decca, UA and Power Exchange. On RCA there were two albums - The Big Voice of H.B. Barnum and Everybody Loves H.B. Barnum...That Is! - both in 1962, and on Capitol Pop & Ice Cream Sodas in 1966 and two instrumental albums a year earlier, The Big Hits of Detroit and The Golden Boy. When asked, why there are no more solo recordings after the early 1970s, H.B. answered laughing “I can’t sing. It was just fun, but I’m not a singer. I like to be the support person.”
H.B. Barnum with Aretha Franklin
H.B. is best known as a producer and above all an arranger extraordinaire, with rich and imaginative orchestrations. He has worked with hundreds of artists ever since the mid-1950s, and in the 60s he became also a Motown mainstay. “I was working on stuff for almost all of their acts including the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Martha & the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, the Marvelettes,
Shorty Long etc. I arranged the last Supremes single, Someday We’ll Be Together. That was also my last arrangement for Motown. I went on to do arrangements for Holland-Dozier-Holland on their new label. I did the Freda Payne stuff and some Chairmen of the Board. I did Johnny Bristol’s arrangement on Hang on in There Baby and other productions with him.”
“On Capitol I did arrangements on most of Dave Axelrod’s productions, including Lou Rawls, David McCallum and the Hollywood Strings. I was the arranger of Don Ho’s Tiny Bubbles” (see the second part of the Checkmates Ltd. story, at the beginning). “I have so many people to thank. As I start to remember, there were Little Walter, Chuck Higgins, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Anthony Newley, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, the Jacksons, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, John Rawls (a New Zealand pop star), Maryla Rodovich (a Polish pop star), Imelda Papin (a Filipino pop star), Miriam Makebaand Fela Ranson Kuti.”
“I was very fortunate that I only worked with people that I liked and got along with. Little Richard was great, so were Tennessee Earnie Ford, the O’Jays, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson, Phil Collins, Tony Bennett, O.C. Smith... I’ve always worked with nice people.” Add to that list still Aretha Franklin, as H.B. was her musical director for many years before she passed.
ALL ALONE BY THE TELEPHONE
H.B.: “We first probably met on a basketball court. I was never the Checkmates’ musical director, although I did work with Sonny Charles and his group individually after they had split up.” Although the Checkmates Ltd’s first session with H.B. took place in October 1975, the resulting single was released only half a year later, in the spring of 1976. All Alone by the Telephone is a nice mid-tempo floater, which turned into a small northern soul favourite. The single entered Billboard’s Hot Soul charts in the middle of May for two weeks and peaked at #96. The flip titled Body Language was written by H.B. and Walter Johnson. It was an upbeat dance tune featuring Sweet Louie.
H.B.: “Those both songs were written for either Jimmy Norman, or the O’Jays, but they wound up with different people recording them. I didn’t write songs specifically for the Checkmates, but I wrote them for my Little Star label... Jimmy Norman, Dorothy Berry...” All Alone by the Telephone was co-written by H.B. and Joyce Ann Clay. “She was a writer, who was working with us at the time. I don’t even know where she is now.” Interestingly, two months later the same song was released by J.B. Bingham on United Artists, and produced – surprise, surprise! – by H.B. Barnum and Steve Binder.
I’M LAYING MY HEART ON THE LINE
The A-side of the follow-up single in March 1977 was again produced, arranged and co-written by H.B. Barnum. I’m Laying My Heart on the Line is a beautiful ballad with fascinating arrangement and Sonny on lead vocals. The co-writer was Sylvia Vanderbilt. Bobby Stevens handles the lead on the B-side, Bill Withers’ mid-tempo song from 1975 titled Make Love to Your Mind. Sonny produced it and Joe Romono did the horn-heavy arrangement.
The single was released on the Greedy label and unjustly missed the national charts. Greedy was a label out of Los Angeles. It was established by Scott Lavin and Henry Grumpo Marx – now, who do you think is behind that name? – in the mid-70s and for three years it released a lot of mainly dance and funk records. On the Checkmates Ltd. single it reads “from the Greedy LP G 1003.” There was a promo album under that number, but it was called Released, and it was not by the Checkmates Ltd. but by Cook County. Bobby Stevens: “I think we recorded an album, but we never got it out. Barnum produced the kind of music that I like. He made big songs. He made them funky and they were really catchy. He had a good style. He was a recording genius. He could play pinochle or whatever and write music at the same time.” Sonny: “I don’t know what happened with that album. I think Marvin “Sweet Louie” did a song on there, Crazy for Your Love, but I don’t remember all the songs.”
H.B.: “I probably have all the tapes in my storage, but I have so many tapes I’ve never gone through. But I’m in the process of doing that right now.” The collaboration between H.B. and the Checkmates Ltd. in 1976-77 produced only those two released singles. Sonny: “I think we went in and started singing with H.B. because of our friendship and by the time they tried to work out the business part of it, it just didn’t work out.”
H.B.: “The Checkmates Ltd., they were one of the best groups in the world. They were the number one live act in Vegas. They were really good – Sweet Louie, Sonny and Bobby – they were great! Right now I’m writing my book, and I’m doing a new Broadway show on the Four Tops. I’m working with Holland & Dozier on it, and Paul Lambert, the producer. I’m going to be writing some of the songs and doing all the arranging.” (Interview with H.B. conducted on March 28, 2020).
WE GOT THE MOVES
Bobby: “Jimmy Bee was a black indie record promo man, who operated out of the Bay area. I met him in my role as the manager and leader of the group, when I used to live in East Palo Alto, California, 30 miles outside of the Bay area. I had my nightclub there, The Checkmate Inn. He was involved with labels in that area like Fantasy, so he was the reason we signed with Fantasy Records.”
On those Fantasy recordings the line-up of the group was Sonny Charles, Louis (sic) Smith and Bobby Stevens. We Got the Moves in 1977 was the fifth and actually the last officially released album under the name of the Checkmates Ltd. During the next forty years there was still a lot of music coming from Sonny, Bobby and Sweet Louie, but those records were either solo sets, songs in the role of a lead vocalist in another band or tracks from the vaults.
We Got the Moves was cut in Los Angeles and the main producer, arranger and conductor was Richie Rome, a native of Philadelphia (b. in 1932), who has worked, among others, with the O’Jays and the Ritchie Family. On this album he also plays keyboards and the other musicians include Greg Poree and David Williams on guitars, Greg Middleton on bass, Fatback on drums and Shonde on percussion. Rochelle, Tricia, Janice and one Phil Hurtt are the background singers. Phil also did the vocal arrangements and co-wrote with Richie seven out of the eight new songs on the album.
Phil Hurtt, the writer of many Philly soul classics, pictured in 2018
Phil: “I was headed to Hawaii and with Richie Rome we stopped at L.A. There they asked, if we could give a hand in a project, which happened to be the Checkmates. I said ‘sure, I’m happy to.’ That’s how I got involved. I’ve known Richie Rome for years. We were part of the same Philly sound. Richie was one of the arrangers and writers long before he worked for Cameo-Parkway and Swan Records. Richie is a well-known musician and an arranger in the city.”
Phillip Levi Hurtt was born in Philadelphia on April the 12th in 1942. After his first tentative steps in church music, Phil became a member of the doo-wop group called Sarah & the Dreams in 1954, which metamorphosed into the Swinging Phillies, and they debuted with a novelty dancer titled Frankenstein’s Party on DeLuxe. “I was fifteen years old. A gentleman named Charles Comon is on lead, and I was doing the high parts in the background.”
“My first writing partner was Fred Smith with whom I began writing while we were both in the Air Force. When I came out of the Air Force in 1963, I started writing songs with Howard Ravitsky for local artists like Ann Byers.” Ann’s I’m Happy without You is co-written by Phil and Howard, whereas Dead End is composed by Phil and Fred. The singles were released on Academy in 1964 and ’65. “At the same time I ran into Leon Huff. I went to school with Thom Bell and Bobby Eli. As a matter of fact, Huff was playing keyboard for us – Howard Ravitsky and myself – when we decided to record some tunes together.”
“Eventually we wound up in the same spot with Kenny Gamble, Leon, myself and Bunny Sigler. That was before there was Philadelphia International. Gamble had his own label, Gamble Records. We did well with Honey & the Bees, which later became the Ritchie Family. It was the time, when musicians were coming together, initially the rhythm section: Roland Chambers, Karl Chambers, Thom Bell, Bobby Eli, Gamble and Huff. Eventually we evolved into an awesome conglomeration of musicians, writers and arrangers. It was magical.”
THE YOUNG PROFESSIONALS
“The Young Professionals happened, when I left PIR. I had an invitation to go with LeBaron Taylor, who was then signed as vice-president and A&R of Atlantic. He liked what Bunny and I were doing.” Those days Phil and Bunny wrote and produced together and some of the artists to record their songs were Jackie Moore (Sweet Charlie Baby) and Sister Sledge. “Bunny was signed to Gamble. I was a free agent, so I was able to move to Atlantic Records as a staff producer. I needed musicians to work with and Thom Bell told me about his younger brother, Tony. So we signed with Atlantic in 1973, and Bunny also signed as a producer, and we were named as the Young Professionals. That came from LeBaron Taylor, and we produced under that name.”
Phil has written with Richie Rome songs for the Chi-Lites (My First Mistake), Vivian Reed and Village People, among others. The number of songs he has written and co-written altogether is impressive, to say the least. Some of the best-remembered hits include I’ll Be Around by the Spinners, Sunshineby the O’Jays, The Best Disco in Town and Life Is Music by the Ritchie Family. Add to that still many songs for Joe Simon, Bettye Swann, Irma Thomas, Percy Sledge, Winfield Parker, Doris Duke, the Sweet Inspirations etc. The most precious song for Phil himself is I’ll Be Around. “Absolutely. It’s got about forty covers. It’s in commercials, films, on TV...”
Phil signed with Fantasy Records in the late 1970s and had two solo albums released: Giving It Back in 1978 and PH Factor a year later. There’s also one exercise and body movement LP called Nutricize Volume 1 by Phil Hurtt & the PH Factor Boogie Band, released in 1981. “They’re still playing Boogie City from the second album in clubs. I’m still getting requests to perform” (laughing). Besides solo recordings, Phil was also involved in background singing. “Nobody knew it, but Bunny Sigler, myself and Carl Helms, we were in a lot of the background groups for a lot of people that came out of Philly.”
Gospel music has always been close to Phil’s heart, and on his Gospel Gems label he released music by Philly’s own Betty McCullough and the Voices of Praise in 1979 and two years later by the Dandridge Choral Ensemble, directed by Ann Swain Clark. In 1998 on his Sweet Spirit label Phil released a debut CD titled The Answer by J Teddy Johnson & the Camden Community Singers and in 2002 Called to Worship by Ava L. Williams. All four albums were produced by Phil Hurtt.
One project that is really close to Phil’s heart is A Soulful Tale of Two Cities in 2007, an innovative music odyssey that gathered together many of the finest musicians at the time in Detroit and Philly to interpret a number of well-known hit songs from both cities. You can read our Barry Towler’s interview with both Phil Hurtt and the late Bunny Sigler at the time of the release of that double-CD at https://www.soulexpress.net/soulfultale_interview.htm. Phil was the groundbreaker for this project as well as one of the singers on the set. “That’s the last one I recorded on myself. I didn’t want to cut another album. I was asked to do more, but I didn’t really want to push myself in that position. On the Soulful Tale there were some people that were supposed to be with us. Levi Stubbs from the Four Tops couldn’t make it. Stevie Wonder’s mom had just passed away. We also tried to get Barrett Strong, but there was a lot going on with many artists.”
THAT’S HOW IT FEELS
Phil: “We recorded the We Got the Moves album at the Village Recording Studios in Los Angeles. It’s a good studio. All the songs are new, written specifically for the Checkmates. They were really, really professional, and a lot of fun. Sonny was a little more serious, but Bobby and especially Louie... (laughing). They were a mainstream group and enormously talented. They did a lot of Las Vegas and shows with headliners like Frank Sinatra. Those guys deserved more of the representation than they got at that time. They were awesome to work with. The album came out great. We were all excited about it. In fact they were the reason why I signed the contract of my own with the Fantasy Records. We had such a good connection and much fun in the studio, but after that somehow we lost contact.” (Interview with Phil conducted on March 12, 2020; www.philhurtt.com).
The first single off the album was Sonny’s memorable ballad called Let’s Do It. Sonny: “It was just one of the songs that I had written and wanted to put out on a record. It never got any airplay.” It was backed with Richie’s and Phil’s mid-tempo toe-tapper with a big orchestration called Take All the Time You Need. On the plug side of the follow-up single they put Phil’s very slow but mesmerizing song named That’s How It Feels (When Two People Fall in Love). Ann Swain Clarkis credited as the co-writer, and she is the lady that Phil was to produce with the Dandridge Choral Ensemble in 1981 for his Gospel Gems label. On the flip there was a fast and funky disco cut titled Greedy for Your Love, which is almost an instrumental track. Both singles failed to break onto national charts.
The rest four tracks on the album consist of an almost honky-tonk type of a rolling, big band show tune called Sunshine After the Storm, an airy and catchy Philly dancer named Loving You a Lifetime, a dreamy ballad with Sonny on lead titled Falling in Love and the cream cut, My Life, My Everything, an impressive, big love ballad. With Sonny on lead, it’s a pity they didn’t test this song as a single.
In a nutshell, We Got the Moves is a good soul album that unfortunately somehow got lost in the shuffle. Sonny: “It was a good album. It got lost. There were so many things happening behind the scenes that I really don’t know what it was. Bobby was the bandleader and involved in all those aspects.”
Bobby: “After that I went on my own again, because Sonny and I dissolved our partnership. I performed for a few more years after that, maybe the first part of the 1980s. I was performing as Bobby Stevens and the Checkmates. Louie and Bill Van Buskirk (bass) stayed with me until I stopped performing. I had another drummer. His name was Russell Lee. He was a very good drummer.”
“Sonny and I were friends since high school, served three years in the armed forces mostly in the same unit and nearly fifteen years on the road. There was no conflict between us. I left the group for the first time (1969) during the Spector period, because A&M did not honour their agreement to allow us to produce the B-side of the Love Is All We Have to Give album, which left Bill, Harvey and Louie just sitting around the studio, while other musicians recorded the album, and they had put in years on the road earning the contract. I could see that we were never going to control our music from that moment on. I was hoping that on the rest of the album – after having recorded Love Is All I Have to Give and Black Pearl – we would get the other members back in the remaining sessions to keep us together. I failed.”
“The reason why we split the second time (1978) you can tell from the music we each created on our own. We each grew apart musically. My one regret is that we separated before I could produce Sonny on an album playing Hammond organ. He taught himself to play, and he was as good as any of the great ones.”
THE SUN STILL SHINES
As a solo artist Sonny Charles had to wait for four years for his next record deal. In achieving this, Jerry Buss (1933-2013), the majority owner of the Los Angeles Lakers professional basketball team, played an important role. Sonny: “We were very good friends and he was a very good friend with an artist called Bobby Paris, who produced my next album. Bill Van Buskirk was my manager at that point. He was involved, but he didn’t really play on anything. He was more on the business end of it.”
Sonny signed with the HighRise Records out of Los Angeles in 1982. The label was established and run by President Marc Kreiner and Vice-President Mika Lushka, and it had also Alphonse Mouzon (The Lady in Red), Maxine Nightingale (It’s a Beautiful Thing)and Tyrone Davis (Are You Serious)in its roster. Jerry financed Sonny’s project, an album called The Sun Still Shines.
Produced by Bobby Paris and arranged by Gene Page, among the players there were Nathan East on bass, Paul Jackson, Jr. and Charles Fearing on guitar, Clarence McDonald and Reginald Burke on keys, Ed Greene on drums, Michael J. Boddicker on synths and vocoder, Ollie Brownon percussion and the Waters on background vocals – quite a list!
Seven songs out of eight were written by Sonny and Bobby Paris, and for the most part they were post-disco dancers. There were only two down-tempo tracks. The music was recorded at Devonshire Sound Studios in Hollywood, California.
PUT IT IN A MAGAZINE
The first single in the fall of 1982 turned into a sizeable hit. Put It in a Magazine is a catchy and rhythmic mid-tempo song, and on top of everything else Sonny had a chance to sing it on the American Bandstand in March 1983. Sonny: “Put It in a Magazine was right up there in top-3 with Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson.” The single reached #2 on Billboard’s Hot Black Singles charts, and indeed Marvin was at that time riding high with Sexual Healing and Michael with The Girl Is Mine and Billie Jean. On the flip The Week-End Father Song is a gently sweeping, melancholy ballad, and vocally an impressive performance.
The second single was Sonny’s beautiful and heartfelt delivery of Always on My Mind, a song that was written by Johnny Christopher, Wayne Carson and Mark James. It was first recorded by B.J. Thomas in 1970, then Gwen McCrae, Brenda Lee and Elvis Presley two years later. The most popular covers were by Willie Nelson in 1982 and Pet Shop Boys five years later. The song is familiar practically to everybody and unfortunately Sonny’s touching version went almost unnoticed (# 53-black). One-Eyed Jacks on the flip was a routine dancer.
Sonny: “Always on My Mind and The Weekend Father Song were my two favourites, but the whole deal was falling apart. Airplay is so hard to get without finance. One thing was to get those records out, but then they are not gonna get played. HighRise Records didn’t have a promotion budget that would help any of us.”
Among other routine dancers on the LP (Can’t Get Enough, Treasure of Your Pleasure and Whet Your Whistle), there was still a light and nice cover of Per-son-nal-ly, a song that the producer Bobby Paris had originally recorded in 1968 on Tetragrammaton. The gripping sax solo in the middle is by David Boruff. The Sun Still Shines album reached the positions of #14-black and #136-pop and spent 16 weeks on Billboard’s Black LPs charts.
Sonny: “Here in the U.S. the album wasn’t popular. People tell me all the time that internationally those songs were played a lot, so I had no idea whether it had been successful or not. The documents we get don’t reflect that at all. The thing that happened with that album was – there were no albums pressed. It turned out to be some sort of scam that HighRise was running with their investors. The song Put It in a Magazine got a lot of charting, but there was nothing to sell in the stores. Once Billboard and all those people found out there were no records involved, they pulled me off the charts. They actually had one doctor, who had put in six or seven million dollars for these guys and their record label. They just took the money. They did some records to show him that they were making records, but they didn’t spend any money promoting it. I did a couple of promotions with it, but the fact was there were no records in the stores.”
Sonny’s next solo single - Contact Sport b/w Be Here Now - was released on Foz Records in 1984. “It was for Barry Fasman, who was the musical director of the TV show Fame in the 1970s. We just used to call him ‘Foz.’ We just did that as a demo so that they could shop around and see if we can get a record deal. I wrote those songs. They were pretty much up-tempo songs. We just had about three hours in the studio and I put them down.” Contrary to the info in a couple of sources, Sonny never recorded a song called Cut Them Loose in the 1980s.
After Bobby Stevens stopped performing in the mid-80s, Marvin “Sweet Louie” Smith went on to work with Sonny. “We were just basically ‘the Original Checkmates’, two guys that were left. We still had the name. At that point we stopped using Ltd. – just Checkmates. Louie and I recorded a live album in Las Vegas, which we sold at our shows.” The album was titled The Checkmates – “Ol’ Skool” Live. It was released in 2003 and contained covers of many big hits from the 1960s, 70s and 80s (see the discography below).
“I did a solo act from 1993 until 1998. I rejoined with Sweet Louie in 1998, when we performed in Las Vegas. In 1999 and 2000 we won the Best of Las Vegas Award, for the 15th time.” For a couple of years starting from 1995 Sonny became the lead singer of the group called the Emeralds. “That was a production show in Las Vegas with a big horn band, three girl singers, choreography and all that stuff.” In 2000 the Checkmates Ltd. were inducted into the Las Vegas Hall of Fame, and Sonny and Marvin attended the ceremony.
Sonny Charles with Sweet Louie
After the Checkmates Ltd. split for the first time in 1969, the line-up of Bobby Stevens’ Checkmates was, besides Bobby, Joey Ramirez on guitar, piano, harmonica and background vocals, Russell Lee on drums, Clint Mosley on bass and Sweet Louie on drums and in the capacity of MC (see the photo of the group in blue suits). The line-up of Bobby’s group ten years later – from 1978 onwards – was almost the same: Bobby, Sweet Louie, Joseph Ramirez, but now Bill Van Buskirk was back on bass and guitar. Joe Romano was the main arranger and also played trumpet and trombone.
Bobby: “After I retired, I moved out of Los Angeles. For fourteen years I coached the girls’ Jr. Varsity basketball team at John F. Kennedy’s High School. I was pretty good at it, and I still sort of semi-ran my businesses. I wrote and produced a film, Gramma’s Gold.” That 1985 motion picture was about an African King coming to America. You can watch the trailer at IMDb. Bobby had asked Lonnie Cook to write the music for the film. Born in 1940, Lonnie is a doo-wop and sweet soul music singer/songwriter/arranger out of Los Angeles, who has sung in various groups ever since the 1950s and written practically thousands of songs. Lonnie: “Bobby had filmed more than half of the picture, when he contracted me to be the music supervisor. One scene was at the beginning of the movie in an African village at night. The cost for that shoot was well over $ 100,000. He had gone to the city and paid for the permits required, but when they got underway, that night, the Fire Dept. came and told them that they could not have any fires. A few years later the film Coming to America came out.” There definitely are many similarities in the plots of those two movies.
Bobby: “A similar thing happened with the Dolemite film. I had acquired rights to some of the old Dolemite films through my associations with a fine film actor of the 40s and 50s. He assigned the rights to those films to me to booster the roster of my then fledgling film distribution company, the Alternative Distribution System. Then, all of a sudden he informed me that he needed the particular element of the Dolemite films back. Shortly after that, the new Dolemitefilm came out.”
LIVE! IN LAS VEGAS!
In the late 1990s Bobby set up his Virgo Records and on that label he released both live and studio material, which was recorded in the late 60s and early 70s, and he sold those CDs mostly on his then website. Live! In Las Vegas! was recorded at Las Vegas Hilton’s International Casino Theater in 1972, when they were opening for Redd Foxx. Bobby: “It is a stage show performed in Vegas in the largest lounge in the largest hotel at that time, and not a concert.”
Bobby’s first solo album Life had just been released a few months earlier, so consequently such songs as Walk on By, My Girl and Sweet Caroline appear on both albums. This one-hour long live set was produced by Bobby, arranged and conducted by Joe Romanoand Bobby was backed by the Checkmates Orchestra (horns) with Joseph Ramirez on lead guitar, piano and harmonica, Bill Van Buskirk on bass and Sweet Louie on drums. Among the nine tracks there are still such familiar songs as the rocky Feel So Bad, the slow and dramatic I (Who Have Nothing) and the action-packed cover of the Impressions’ It’s Alright.
Rock the Road is the second live set from those days. “It was recorded live at the Chevron-Hilton Hotel in Sydney, Australia, with the same basic personnel, with a 12-piece band beside my guys.” Again this show is built on many well-known hits of the day, namely the storming Sugar Pie (= I Can’t Help Myself), Dock of the Bay delivered by Sweet Louie, the fast Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You, the rhythmic A Natural Man (Lou Rawls’ 1971 song), the poppy Never Been to Spain (by Three Dog Night in 1971) and a cover of Jean Knight’s Mr. Big Stuff, which actually turns into a stand-up comedy. The two slow songs are Bobby’s own Love Is All I Have to Give with minimal backing this time and Without You, originally by Badfinger in 1970 but better known as Nilsson’sand Mariah Carey’s later versions.
The third Virgo CD, Studio Album, consists of the Checkmates Ltd. tracks that were cut in the late 60s and early 70s but remained in the vaults. The total duration of this 8-song CD is only 27 minutes. “It’s a compendium of songs that were written by myself and Sonny.” Sonny wrote and produced a fierce rocker called I Don’t Know and a funky instrumental with occasional chanting titled Earthquake. Michael Jarrett wrote All Going down Together, a rousing funk, which appeared already on the Life album in 1971 but sounds here almost like a live performance. Also Never Should Have Lied, which was released as the B-side to Love Is All I Have to Give, sounds like a different mix or take on this CD.
Bobby wrote and sang the rest four songs. Three of them are fast and funky tracks - Funky Train, All Over but the Shouting and That Ain’t Country – but the cream cut is a pretty and richly orchestrated ballad called Leave Me Here to Cry, which should have been released at the time. Bobby: “I was still in my ‘Love Is All I Have to Give’ relationship.”
Still in the 2000s on Virgo Bobby as Robert L. released his pretty and dreamy ballad named Tiger’s Song. “That was my tribute to Tiger Woods, as I saw the stream of his life’s flow. I don’t know, if he ever heard it. Those CDs didn’t sell great, but I made my production costs and a small profit.”
THE DEATH OF AMERICA
Bobby: “The Death of America is my first novel.” The book was published in 2012. “I was very influenced by what was going on at the time and what is going on now in America, and the theme of it was ‘we’re killing ourselves.’ I thought it was the death of America, and I wrote the book.”
There’s also a book titled The Checkmate Recipes. “That’s dedicated to Louie. When we were playing in the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas – and of course Louie was in charge of publicity – he talked to the cook there and they came up with an idea of a Checkmate cookbook. It was made of recipes from our families’ parents.”
SONNY WITH STEVE MILLER BAND
Sonny and Sweet Louie kept on performing not only in the Las Vegas area but also on cruise ships. However, on December the 15th in 2007 Marvin “Sweet Louie” Smith suffered a fatal heart attack. Sonny: “I found him. We were doing a cruise, and he was in his cabin. We were in the Caribbean, on the way to Miami.” The ship was Caribbean Princess and the exact location at that point was Kralendijk, Bonaire, and Marvin was 68 years old.
Sonny carried on as a solo artist. “I did The Sonny Charles Show for two months and then Steve Miller (https://www.stevemillerband.com) called me up and asked me if I’d come and do some recordings with him. Consequently I ended up being part of his band for seven years. Whenever they worked, I worked.” Sonny is the lead singer on eleven tracks and co-lead on two on Steve Miller Band’s two CDs, Bingo and Let Your Hair Down in 2010 and 2011, respectively (see the discography below). Sonny was working with the band still in 2014, when they released The Joker album, but he’s not doing any solos on that set anymore.
“In 2015, when I turned 75, riding around in rock buses was just pretty much unhealthy for me, so we just decided not to do it anymore. Whenever they come to town, I still get up and do a couple of numbers with the band. It was a very amicable departure from the band.”
LET’S DO IT
It’s not a very well-known fact that Sonny Charles released a solo CD album in September 2012 called Let’s Do It, which incidentally was his only self-written song on the We Got the Moves album in 1977 – and a nice, haunting ballad it is, too! Sonny: “That CD was just songs that I had written that I wanted to record. I recorded them with a gentleman named Randy Hall. Randy produced it. This was the CD I was going to sell, when I worked. It’s really good production and everything, but at this point how do you get your material out? I had a guy in the U.K., who wanted to put the whole thing on vinyl, but I had gotten to the point that I don’t really trust people that well anymore.”
Besides Randy, some other players on the CD include Rochon Westmoreland, who was the bassist in Sonny’s Checkmates, Brandon Feels, who plays flute on a mid-pacer with a slight Latin touch called Wait on Me Baby, Don Hill and the percussionist King Errisson. There are three funky tracks (Love Thang, Feed the Greed and Everything Cost Too F**kin Much), but for the most part we are treated to either floating and melodic mid-tempo songs (Got 2 C-U Soon and The Last Time), or soulful ballads like Never Had a Dream, I Really Like This Love, Pretty Balloons, Somebody’s Taking My Place and A House Is Not a Home, which is the only outside song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Altogether, Let’s Do It is an enjoyable and delightful CD, filled with music that really deserves a wider exposure.
Sonny: “In 2015 I pretty much stopped travelling. I did a couple of cruise jobs and I didn’t enjoy that at all. Now I just sing a little bit in town, just to keep myself singing. I’m working with Pia Zadora. She and I have been doing a weekend job for three years now... and it is fun.”
Being highly popular in Las Vegas, it’s no wonder that the Checkmates Ltd. have made only a few visits abroad. Besides that “Thrilla in Manila” boxing visit to the Philippines with Sonny and Sweet Louie, Bobby Stevens and the Checkmates Ltd. have performed in the Hilton Hotel in Australia twice and two times also in Vancouver, Canada. Sonny: “The only overseas show that I did with the Checkmates was in Puerto Rico.”
Looking back at all of their own recordings during the past 61 years, which are Bobby’s and Sonny’s personal favourites? Bobby: “I would have to say Love Is All I Have to Give. It was the first time I really got into recording heavily. Which are my favourite artists? That’s easy. My all-time favourite would be Sam Cooke.”
Sonny: “My own favourite would be The Hair Anthology piece. The Weekend Father song I really like and Put It in a Magazine. On the Love Is All We Have to Give album I also liked Spanish Harlem and I Keep Forgettin’. Today, as far as singing goes, I really like Michael McDonald, and Stevie Wonder, of course. I really like the retro stuff. That’s where my heart is. I don’t really keep up with the songs of today.”
“Now I’m enjoying retirement. IT’S BEEN FUN!”
(Label # / titles
/ Billboard placing, pop/soul / year
THE CHECKMATES LTD.
Polydor 14313) All Alone By The Telephone (# 96-soul) / Body Language (1976)
Greedy 111) I’m Laying My Heart On The Line / Make Love To Your Mind (1977)
Fantasy 800) Let’s Do It / Take All The Time You Need
Fantasy 823) That’s How It Feels (When Two People Fall In Love) / Greedy For Your Love (1978)
HighRise Ent., SHR 2001) Put It In A Magazine (# 40 / # 2) / The Weekend Father Song (1982)
HighRise Ent., SHR 2006) Always On My Mind ( - / # 53) / One-Eyed Jacks
Foz 002) Contact Sport / Be Here Now (1984)
ROBERT L. (= Bobby Stevens)
Virgo Tiger’s Song (2000s)
THE CHECKMATES LTD.
WE GOT THE MOVES (Fantasy, F-9541) 1977
Take All The Time You Need / That’s How It Feels (When Two People Fall In Love) / Let’s Do It / Sunshine After The Storm / Greedy For Your Love / My Life, My Everything / Loving You A Lifetime / Falling In Love
THE SUN STILL SHINES (HighRise, HR 102 / # 136 / # 14) 1982
Put It In A Magazine / One Eyed Jacks / Can’t Get Enough / Week-end Father Song // Treasure Of Your Pleasure / Per-son-nal-ly / Whet Your Whistle / Always On My Mind
THE CHECKMATES LTD.
STUDIO ALBUM (Virgo) rec. late 60s & early 70s / rel. in the late 1990s
I Don’t Know / Leave Me Here To Cry / Funky Train / Never Should Have Lied / Earthquake / All Over But The Shouting / That Ain’t Country / All Going Down Together
BOBBY STEVENS and THE CHECKMATES
LIVE! IN VEGAS! (Virgo) rec. in 1972 / rel. in the late 1990s
I Feel So Bad / Walk On By / My Girl / I (Who Have Nothing) / Spoken Word / Introduction / Spoken Word / Sweet Caroline & Fire And Rain / It’s Alright
“ROCK THE ROAD” (Virgo) rec. in 1972 / rel. in the late 1990s
Fire & Water & Sugar Pie / Dock Of The Bay / Green Grass / Love Is All I Have To Give / A Natural Man / Never Been To Spain / Mr. Big Stuff / I Can’t Live (Without You)
THE CHECKMATES (= Sonny & Sweet Louie)
THE CHECKMATES “OL’ SKOOL” LIVE – 2003
The Checkmate Train / Back In Love Again / You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine / Let’s Get It On / Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love Babe / Hold On, I’m Comin / What A Wonderful World / Got To Give It Up / Brick House / Bustin’ Loose / I Believe I Can Fly
STEVE MILLER BAND
Sonny Charles lead vocals on Steve Miller Band’s CDs:
BINGO (Roadrunner; 2010): Rock Me Baby / Tramp / Sweet Soul Vibe / Ooh Poo Pah Doo / Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby / Further On Up The Road / Look On Yonder Wall
LET YOUR HAIR DOWN (Roadrunner; 2011): Close Together / No More Doggin’ / Pretty Thing / Can’t Be Satisfied / Sweet Home Chicago / The Walk
LET’S DO IT (CDBaby) 2012
Got 2 C-U Soon / Never Had A Dream / I Really Like This Love / Let’s Do It / Love Thang / Pretty Balloons / Wait On Me Baby / Feed The Greed / The Last Time / Somebody’s Taking My Place / The Life / Everything Cost Too F**kin Much / A House Is Not A Home