Checkmates Ltd – Black Pearl b/w RIP Sweet Louie Smith


Checkmates Ltd in 1969 (above) and more recently (below)



Listen – Black Pearl MP3″

Greetings all (and Happy New Year!).

I hope you are all well and have enjoyed the year end festivities.
We here at Funky16Corners headquarters had a pretty nice holiday. Aside from some sick kids (temporarily serious in the case of my infant nephew and run of the mill winter colds for my kids) things were pretty cool.
The fam piled into the car for a northward holiday visit with my in-laws, and then this past weekend down to my parents for a postponed but no less enjoyable Christmas visit.
I made out like a bandit raking in a ton of books and video, including some Larry Sanders Show episodes, the Marx Brothers box set I’ve been wanting and a grip of old school samurai flicks (Zatoichi in the house!), all of which I’ve spent the last few days converting for use on the ole video iPod. Perhaps the two inch diagonal screen isn’t the optimal viewing experience for subtitled films, but since nobody else (and I mean NO ONE) in the Funky16Corners crib has even the slightest interest in samurai films, it’ll have to do. The real test will be when I finally get down to watching all three and a half hours of ‘The Seven Samurai’.
That all said, today’s selection comes to you via a sad bit of coincidence. A few months ago I tore through Mick Brown’s excellent biography of Phil SpectorTearing Down the Wall of Sound’. The book really provided an in-depth portrait of Spector, revealing that in addition to being a deeply troubled individual, he was also – dare I say it – a visionary.
Though I’ve always had a passive interest in the music that forms the core of the Spector legend, i.e. the Ronettes, Blossoms et al, I’ve always been fascinated by what –via his discoveries and techniques – he added to the sonic vocabulary of the 1960’s and beyond.
One need only listen to the work of Spector disciples like Brian Wilson, Jack Nitzsche and (believe it or not) Sonny Bono, as well as countless one-off efforts like the Walker Brothers ‘After the Lights Go Out’ or Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’ to realize how deep a footprint Phil Spector left on the landscape.
By 1969, when Spector went into the studio with Checkmates Ltd, his glory days were far behind him and he was adrift. The kinds of records he made in his heyday were out of fashion as were his attitudes toward the people that performed on them. He treated the singers and musicians on his records as mere cogs in his machine. The end of the 60’s saw him bouncing from project to project, some stillborn, others bogging down due to lack of direction. But every once in a great while, Spector was matched up with a perfectly complementary talent. Such was the case with Checkmates Ltd.
Sonny Charles and Sweet Louie Smith grew up together in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, served together in the US Army and eventually landed in Las Vegas, where Checkmates Ltd were formed.
The band performed in lounges and discotheques for a few years before recording their first LP ‘Live at Caesars Palace’ in 1967. They recorded their second LP ‘Love Is All We Have To Give’ with Spector at the helm and as a result had their biggest hit with today’s selection ‘Black Pearl’ which was a Top 20 hit in the Spring of 1969.
Oddly enough, I’d never heard the song until Paul Shaffer’s 1986 special for the Cinemax Comedy Experiment. The special featured Shaffer on a personal quest that led him to Las Vegas, where he encountered Checkmates Ltd, who (of course) performed ‘Black Pearl’.
Sometime after that I got a copy of the song on one of the Rhino ‘Soul Shots’ comps and some years after that picked up a copy of the 45.
I had digi-ma-tized the 45 after reading the Spector bio, had it all ready to go in my ‘to be blogged’ folder, but hadn’t gotten to it yet. Then a few weeks ago I read that the co-lead singer of Checkmates Ltd, Sweet Louie Smith had passed away at the age of 68, on a cruise ship in the Caribbean where he and Charles had been performing.
If you haven’t heard ‘Black Pearl’ you’re in for a treat. The record was the most successful product of Spector’s production/custom imprint deal (check the entirely approriate “Snidely Whiplash” logo on the label) with A&M. The arrangement is a brilliant collision between sweet soul and the Wall of Sound and the vocal by Sonny Charles is outstanding.
Following their collaboration with Spector, the Checkmates Ltd never made a similar impact on the charts (though Sonny Charles had a minor solo hit in 1983). Charles and Smith continued to perform under the Checkmates name until Smith’s death.
Spector next project was his recasting of the Beatles ‘Let It Be’ following which he spent the next 30 years alternating between sporadic production work and what appears to be a great deal of gunplay, leading up to the tragic death of Lana Clarkson.
I hope you dig the tune, and take a minute to remember Sweet Louie Smith.
See you on Friday.

Buy  – Checkmates Ltd ‘Love Is All We Have To Give’ – at

Remember to check out the new psych podcast over at Iron Leg


18 Responses to “Checkmates Ltd – Black Pearl b/w RIP Sweet Louie Smith”

  1. nextthing Says:

    Love your blog!

  2. djack Says:

    Love The Blind Swordsman!!

  3. J. Samuel Says:

    Happy New Year! may 2008 continue the unfuckwithable tradition you’ve established over here in these corners.

    with all due respect to the departed & obviously awesome Mr. Smith, i have a completely unrelated comment/request and had no idea where else to post it:

    would it be possible for you to re-post the Bob Dylan soul covers you originally had up here in 2005? i’m putting together a little mix and, though i already have the Phil Flowers, the O.V. Wright rendition of Blowin in the Wind has proved especially hard to find. i’ve got a killer version of Billy Preston doin “she belongs to me” that i’d be happy to swap. maybe we can collaborate? anyway, best to you and yours this year, Mr. G.

    -jared samuel

  4. whiteray Says:

    Hey there! You may be interested in a post at my place with a link to a vinyl rip of the whole “Love Is All We Have To Give” LP.

    Great blog!

  5. The Bird Says:

    Sweet Louie had an increasingly ugly personality. I have watched the group religiously in Las Vegas from 1999 – 2006. He didn’t appreciate his fan, unless they brought something to the table. i.e. free drink tickets, free food, free dry cleaning. I think you get my drift. Sweet Louie’s health had been in decline for a few years. Diabetes. He lost some weight, then quit drinking….but the last time I saw him in June 2007, he was extremely overweight and seemed increasingly unhappy. Just my thoughts and perspective of someone who knew him pretty well.

  6. ctbrown Says:

    Really enjoy your site!

    Have any info on Ian Levine’s (controversial UK Northern soul figure and early disco DJ) involvement with this record. If involved he would have been 16 years old and living in Blackpool, England.
    Once again, thanks for the posting…

  7. funky16corners Says:

    Thanks! Glad you like the blog.
    Ian Levine (who I’m familiar with) had nothing to do with this record. It was written by Spector, Toni Wine and Irwin Levine.

  8. Dan Says:

    I’m as white as Wonder Bread, but I’ve always loved this song. At 52, I’ve feared hearing it, because it sticks in my head for days. I walk around humming it, and no one knows what the hell I’m singing. This was a beauty, and no matter what the people were like who recorded or produced it, it’s a great piece of music that needs to live forever.

  9. Alejandro Says:

    Just watched “yojimbo” a few weeks ago. i recommend. love that kurosawa.

  10. funky16corners Says:

    A few years back I picked up the Criterion Collection box set of Kurosawa samurai films (Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai). I don’t knowif it’s in print anymore, but I recommend it highly.

    I don’t know what kind of guy Sweet Louie was, but this post was to remember his music.

  11. The Bird Says:

    Larry, the music wasn’t that good. Sonny had the voice and the personality.

  12. jchatzky Says:

    Really enjoy reading this blog!
    Toni Wine who co-wrote the song is very interesting — she wrote”Grovey Kind Of Love” and “Candida” and money others and sang on the Archies records. She was also married to Chips Moman. She’s still active — and very nice.

  13. devil dick Says:

    i just picked this up this morning. the only 45 that was to be had at an alternate “spot”.

  14. Mark King Says:

    Saw you guys years ago on the tonight show.. You rocked the house down. I don’t remember the names of the songs you sang.. could you please let me know what they were. I’ll be 100 in 34 years, so please don’t take to long………………Thanks,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,Mark

  15. Dan and Danielle Lyon Says:

    You know we love, you best of friends seems like forever. Just found out today will be there tomorrow to say Hi. Never had such a good time as we had with the band and am seriously grieved over this news. Never met a better couple of guys in my life, Sonny stay strong. Write us sometime !!

    Regretfully !! Dan and Danielle Albuq N Mex

  16. Steve Sadd Says:

    I knew Sweet Louie originally from the entertainment scene first at L.A.’s Maverick’s Flat and of course Vegas (I worked at the Pussycat in 1968 with Round Robin’s band).

    in the ’80s I ran into him on Malibu Beach one summer. He was a great guy to hang out with, always positive, pleasant and having a good time. I recall one year when he came to my Halloween costume party dressed in his Golden Gloves boxing garb, complete with a very classy silk boxer’s robe. He won the “best Costume” prize, a bottle of Dom Peringon, which he promptly shared with everyone. What a classy guy.

    He was a truly nice, kind, polite and sincere person, with a terrific sense of humor. He always shared so much with others. He will be missed by so vary many.

    Rest in Peace, Sweet prince; you touched many many lives.

    Steve Sadd
    Los Angeles CA

  17. The Bird Says:

    Sonny Charles is now playing with the Steve Miller Band and touring the country. Like I said, he was the true talent.

  18. Mick Flaire Says:

    Hey there Larry,

    Today I just found a Canadian pressing of Checkmates LTD. album, “Live! At Ceasar’s Palace” (Capitol ST2840) at a Goodwill Store in San Francisco for 99 cents!

    When I was 14 years old in the Spring f 1969 I bought Checkmates LTD. 45 single of “Black Pearl”, and have loved that song for the past 40 years!

    Thanks for your spotlight on one of my favorite groups from the ’60’s!


    Mick Flaire

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: