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I once had a dream that the Checkmates LTD performed the Phil Spector produced “Black Pearl” at The Woodstock Festival and received a standing ovation. For some whose lives were transformed by the grace of music, Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This. I believe that they would have been as accepted as Otis Redding at the seminal Monterey Pop Festival of two years prior.

In retrospect, the Checkmates Las Vegas Lounge Act heritage should have translated to the biggest stages of all. They were one of the first integrated acts of their period creating a sense of inclusion during a time of 60’s turmoil. They performed the National Anthem at the final Ali / Frazier match up, “The Thrilla in Manila!” and were presented televised opportunities by Johnny Carson.

When I first witnessed their boundless energy and craft at the Moon Club in Chicago in ’69, they were doing things that would have easily been appreciated by youth culture kids who were getting hip to R&B, blues and soul. They were the personification of class, each dressed in a tuxedo, glowing with vitality and the sweat unique to the sincere testimony many performers deliver. These cats worked hard.

I was 17 at the time and struck up a friendship with Bobby Stevens and Sonny Charles, the magnificent voices of the band. I had gone backstage between shows to meet them and express the excitement they had induced. What I encountered were five musicians sitting around a card table in their boxer shorts, playing poker to pass the time before the 11PM performance. These were not rock stars basking in the after show glow of their success. These were just five regular guys from Fort Wayne, Indiana making a living. My tribute was welcome as they asked me to join the game. I was up $25 bucks before showtime called once again.

Bobby Stevens ( featured on organ in this rare video ) took me under his dynamic wing and signed me to his new Los Angeles label Rustic Records. My first professional recording gig was a duet with Bobby titled “To Keep From Loving You”, a song I had written and pitched to Smokey Robinson a year earlier when he and The Miracles were appearing at the famed New York nightclub,The Copacabana.

The Checkmates LTD were comprised of Bobby Stevens, Sonny Charles, Bill Van Buskirk, Marvin “Sweet Louie” Smith, and Harvey Trees. Sonny has extensively toured with the Steve Miller Band. ‘Sweet Louie’ Smith, the extraordinary drummer and showman took his leave in 2007 after suffering a heart attack prior to the beginning of a cruise ship engagement with Sonny. Robert L. Stevens is now a novelist. His first offering was a fine thriller, ‘The Death of America’.

The Checkmates LTD were one of the strongest live Rhythm and Blues acts to ever take a stage, whether it be in Vegas or in Central Park, where on a warm August evening they opened for Little Richard in 1970.. They were beloved by legends as iconic as Sinatra and electrifying as Wilson Pickett. My fondness, admiration and gratitude toward them has been of continuous import to me for half a century and my debt to Bobby Stevens in particular is one I can never repay. The best and the kindest can never vanish from our hearts.

By Rich Buckland 10/23/2019 03:45 PM

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