EMILE FORD (By Steve Walker)
Born Emile Sweetman, 16 October 1937, Castries, St. Lucia, West Indies
Christmas 1959 was dominated in the Walker household by a record that had taken the UK by storm. Debutant Emile Ford (and The Checkmates) had replaced Adam Faith's "What Do You Want" with the similarly-named "What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?" (originally written in 1917) at the top of the charts, and a 13-year-old Walker was despatched to the local record store to buy a copy for his Mum's Christmas present. Not that I was averse to the record - the catchy sub-doo-wop and stop intro was on everyone's lips that Christmas - but I'd rather she had selected "Some Kind-A Earthquake", "Red River Rock" or "Til I Kissed You" as her fave. However, Emile Ford it was for under the Christmas tree, and although Mum's long gone, I've still got that original 45 sitting with the rest of my collection, together with all the subsequent Pye records that the group released. I thought I would be able to find plenty of sites to tell me more about Emile, but there are surprisingly few, so, with thanks to the reliable-as-ever "All Music Guide", this is Emile's story.
He was born Emile Sweetman in Castries, St. Lucia in the West Indies and grew up in Nassau. Emile came to England in the mid-1950's with the hope of becoming a sound engineer, and his knowledge in that field contributed directly to his subsequent success fronting a band. Changing his name to Emile Ford, he put together a combo called the Checkmates, whose members included his two half-brothers, George Sweetman and Dave Sweetman, on sax and bass, respectively, along with Ken Street, Pete Carter, Les Hart, Alan Hawkshaw, and John Cuffley. As Emile Ford & The Checkmates, they won a talent contest sponsored by Pye Records and were awarded an audition and a contract that resulted in their first single, "Don't Tell Me Your Troubles" b/w "What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For", which was produced by the legendary Joe Meek. The record was aimed as a straight cover for Don Gibson's self-penned release on RCA. Fortunately for Emile, Pye's management liked the proposed B-side better and flipped the single before release. "What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For" hit the number one spot in the UK, immediately establishing the band as a major act. They followed up this success with five more singles during 1960, three of which charted in the UK top 40, two in the top 10 and one of those, "On A Slow Boat To China" b/w "That Lucky Old Sun", at number three. This was the last year in which the group enjoyed that kind of appreciation or recording success, though three of their records released in 1961 and 1962 did brush the lower regions of their charts, one of them ("What Am I Gonna Do") just nudging into the top 40. The truth is that Ford wasn't really a very good singer, but he had a good band behind him, and unlike every other rock 'n' roll act in England during this period, the group used only their own sound system, devised by Ford, at their performances, rather than the usual PA-system level equipment. As a result, they sounded better than any of the competition, sufficiently so to keep them working for years. I'm sure I heard Emile Ford being interviewed on BBC Radio recently saying exactly the same thing. As a side-issue, Emile Ford had a hand in the discovery of UK singer Jimmy Justice (who will get his own BTBWY treatment in December). Jimmy had struck up a chance friendship with two of the Checkmates, Dave and George Sweetman (Emile's step-brothers). The fact that he could sing soon came to the attention of Emile who encouraged Jimmy to form his own group and join the coffee bar circuit. Emile also suggested entering the same talent competition that he had himself previously won. This led, as it had done for Emile, to an opportunity to record with the Pye record company and with Emile's help on production his first single "I Understand Just How You Feel" was released. This was credited to 'Jimmy Justice and Jury' although the backing musicians were really the Checkmates. In 1961 and 1962, Emile Ford & The Checkmates switched to associate label Piccadilly for a few more unsuccessful releases, but by the end of 1962 the group found themselves brushing up against the earliest recordings of what proved to be a new wave of British rock 'n' roll, represented by the Beatles, among other acts. Their record of hits and their sound was enough to keep the band going until late 1963, and the Checkmates later recorded on their own for UK Decca Records (under Joe Meek) and Parlophone Records, sometimes using the name the Original Checkmates. Founding members George and Dave Sweetman (who sometimes billed themselves as Sweetman-Ford to remind people of their familial connection with Emile Ford) and drummer Barry Reeves later formed the core of the psychedelic-soul group the Ferris Wheel, while Alan Hawkshaw ended up working in film music. Emile Ford kept his hand in singing for a few more years before returning to audio engineering By now, it was routine for bands to travel with their own sound systems, and Emile found lots of other acts happy to avail themselves of his technical abilities and use his audio systems. When last heard of, he was living in California after residing in Scandinavia for several years.
All Music Guide web page: http://www.artistdirect.com/music/artist/bio/0,,539622,00.html?artist=Emile+Ford+and+the+Checkmates
CD: "Counting Teardrops" Castle (Navarre) B000056K1B (2001)
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