The Drifters are usually considered to be Rhythm & Blues' first supergroup, in terms of the names that passed through their ranks in their 50+ year history. A strong case for that accolade can also be made for Billy Ward's Dominoes, whose membership included not only future Drifter, Clyde McPhatter, but also Jackie Wilson and the great Eugene Mumford, formerly of the Larks. Somewhere in between those two lie the Checkers, one of King Records' greatest-ever groups, with a personnel that included both former members of the Dominoes and future members of the Drifters and Clovers.
Unlike their peers, the Checkers never had a hit worth mentioning, and their ever-changing personnel even more fluid than those of the other two groups has never been fully established. (At various times, they had both a "Joe" and a "Teddy" in their ranks, but not one devoted R&B researcher has ever been able to find surnames for either.)
The Checkers might well be the most obscure supergroup of all time. The act had so much going for it, yet little is ever likely to be known about some of its members. Checkers Bill Brown, David Baughan (sometimes spelt Baughn), Charlie White and John Carnegie all died before the major R&B researchers had a chance to do their thing. What we know is largely through the diligent research of noted R&B historian Marv Goldberg, who spoke at length to later member, Perry Heyward during the second half of the 90s, but his few reminiscences were largely limited to his own very brief tenure with the group. However, you don't need to know that much about who's singing here to know that CHECKMATE the first-ever CD reissue of the Checkers' King recordings to be taken directly from the original mastertapes is the real deal, and a true treat for R&B group lovers everywhere.This CD contains all of the Checkers' issued sides, two takes of the originally-unissued A Friend In Need and several other never-before-heard alternate takes that all display subtle differences to those designated as "master". Those unfamiliar with the group's work, and whose tastes do not allow for too much lugubriousness, will be delighted to know that the Checkers' recording sessions were often uptempo affairs. Former Domino Bill Brown's bass voice taked the very groovy leads on jumpin' tunes like You Never Had It So Good, Mama's Daughter and Don't Stop Dan (the sequel to Sixty Minute Man, which Brown also sang while with the Dominoes!). The more intense affairs are handled by "Little" David Baughan, twice a member of the Drifters and looking down the line towards soul music on House With No Windows and I Promise You. The group's other lead tenors were no slouches either check out soon-to-be-Clover Charlie White the actual founder of the Checkers on Flame In My Heart and John Carnegie's magnificent rendition of Night's Curtains (a stupendously rare, and expensive, item on the original King 45).
As with last month's Lamplighters release, we are fortunate that King founder Syd Nathan persevered with his best vocal groups even when they were not having any kind of chart success. None of the Checkers 78 and 45rpm releases made any kind of Hot 100, but it didn't stop Syd calling them back to the studios time and time again. Good for him, and even better for us that this superb group left such a formidable body of work behind, instead of the three or four songs that might have been their legacy had they recorded for a major instead of a magnificent indie.
We may know only a little about the Checkers, then. But we also know this much is true: they left little behind a bunch of pretty great records, which are as entertaining in 2005 as they were when they were first put on tape more than 50 years ago. It would be nice to know more about them than we do, but at the end of the day it's still what's in the grooves that counts most. And the Checkers were always very, very groovy, regardless of who made up their membership.
You never heard it so good