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 Spector ‘Tearing 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.