EMILE FORD &
He wanted to be a sound-engineer,
but the hit records got in the way!
The strange career of Emile Sweetnam
– ‘Emile Ford’…
British Pop was a different country in 1959. An unrecognizable place, duller, greyer, more formal and restrained. Rock ‘n’ Roll was a disreputable American import associated with juvenile delinquency and dumb insolence, a temporary fad we’d not quite got the hang of. Records were issued as big fragile ten-inch 78rpm editions, or those new-fangled seven-inch 45rpm. There was only BBC radio, and just two TV channels, both in black-&-white.
Emile Ford was born in Castries, Saint Lucia on 16 October 1937 as Michael Emile Telford Miller, and – following his mother’s remarriage, Emile Sweetnam. His was a privileged and musically-rich family, and the West Indies were part of the Empire and Commonwealth, which made him British. So his mother uprooted the family to England when he was seventeen. Not specifically a member of the ‘Windrush Generation’, but part of the same Caribbean migration inwards towards the ‘Mother Country’. There was a ‘No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish’ tendency at the time. There were race riots in Notting Hill orchestrated by the Far-Right ‘White Defence League’ and remnants of Oswald Mosley’s fascist Union Movement. But that English insularity was already eroding, with music as a vital catalyst in that torturous social evolution.
With clean good looks, a contagious smile and shirts that were bright colour-splashes even on monochrome TV, plus the sweet-as-a-sugar-rush vocal smoothness of a Sam Cooke, Emile had energy enough to recharge the depleted national grid. He was also a proficient multi-instrumentalist who began performing in London coffee bars, with his bass-playing half-brother George Sweetnam-Ford (born 1 January 1941), together with drummer John Cuffley (much later of Climax Chicago Blues Band) and guitarist Ken Street (born in 1943). They became the Checkmates. Using a Fats Domino-style repertoire of up-beating standards, they won a Pye-sponsored Soho talent contest in July 1959. Four months later they were riding the top of the charts. It seemed THAT easy!
The ‘New Musical Express’ chart that Emile Ford was first entering – at no.12 on 31 October 1959, was headed by Cliff Richard’s “Travellin’ Light” while the surly young Rocker’s “Living Doll” was still there at no.15. Bobby Darin (“Mack The Knife”), Marty Wilde (“Sea Of Love”) and the Everly Brothers (“Til I Kissed You”) made for a curiously cosy fan-mag top five, with oldsters Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn and Johnny Mathis balanced out by teen-fodder Craig Douglas, Ricky Nelson and Eddie Cochran.
Vaulting over Adam Faith’s “What Do You Want”, Emile become not only the final chart-topper of the 1950s – a no.1 in December 1959, but stayed on the charts for twenty-five weeks to collect a gold disc in the process. Shakin’ Stevens would use Emile’s version of the 1917 song as template for his own November 1987 hit… peaking at no.5.
Although party-time piano-playing Winifred Atwell and Tiger Bay’s Shirley Bassey had reached the top slot before him, Emile Ford was the first British black male artist to do so. Yet there was little about his music – neither his voice nor his vocal styling, that was essentially ‘black’. Indeed, he professed an admiration for Mario Lanza, telling an interviewer that ‘I like music with a beat, and if it happens to be called Rock ‘n’ Roll – which I know is regarded as a dirty word in some quarters, then it’s too bad.’ He was never political, never spoke out. His presence was statement enough. Marginally before him there was ‘Cuddly Dudley’ Heslop, with a residency on Jack Good’s ‘Oh Boy’ TV-show billed as ‘Britain’s First Black Rock ‘n’ Roller’, and soon there was versatile Kenny Lynch who crossed over from hit singles to songwriter (he wrote the Small Faces hit “Sha-La-La-La-La-Lee”) to actor and stand-up comedian, bizarrely sharing a stage with Jimmy Tarbuck, turning the audience’s racist humour back on itself.
Yet the Checkmates hits were almost an opportunistic thing, opening up possibilities elsewhere. Emile described himself as an ‘accidental’ star, side-tracked into becoming a singer. A techno-boffin ‘sonic scientist’ by trade – following studies at the Paddington Tech College, Emile was a qualified sound engineer, and that made him very particular about the quality of his music both onstage and on record, earning himself a reputation for being a perfectionist. ‘With these handicaps (ie, hit records), my career in sound-engineering suffered’ he told journalist Jim Daley, only half-joking.
With Larry Parnes monopolizing the pretty-boy teen market, Emile shrewdly signed with Leslie Grade, giving his own career more individual focus. With similar acute perception, he’d turned down the mighty EMI in favour of the more modest Pye label, because their contract enabled him production-control of his own records. An attitude he carried over into live performance, self-devising a prerecorded backing-track system to reduce the hazards of onstage slip-ups. This electronics expertise ensured a cleaner PA sound-quality over rival groups. Dispensing with live musicians entirely, he did a midnight charity matinee in Morecambe, Lancashire in June 1960 using just backing tapes, an innovation fiercely resisted by the Musicians Union and opposed by the theatre managers of the powerful Moss Empire theatre circuit.
But already there’s a predictable formula, a pattern. Could there have been more? Was there ever a potential to move forward and evolve? His debut album might be titled ‘New Tracks With Emile’ (1960), but it essentially applies the same make-over to another batch of largely-familiar songs. British Pop was a different country in 1960. It takes a major effort to recast your mind-set back to how it was. But whichever way you figure it, Rock ‘n’ Roll was barely out of its romper-room phase. There was not a large back-catalogue of Rock songs, for there had not been time to build a repertoire. In America there was Leiber-Stoller, Chuck Berry and Little Richard – although even the mighty Mr Penniman’s most recent hits had been oldies “Baby Face” and “By The Light Of The Silvery Moon”. In England, with the music industry reluctantly struggling to adapt to the disreputable new kid’s fad, things were even worse. Cliff Richard had been fortunate to have Ian Samwell write the throw-away ‘B’-side “Move It” which became the first positive British Rock ‘n’ Roll statement. Lionel Bart had been quick to attempt songs for Tommy Steele by the simple expedient of adding ‘Rock’ to the title – “Doomsday Rock” and “Rock With The Caveman”, before adding Cliff’s “Living Doll” to his portfolio. So, as an aspiring young teen-hopeful, you either cover the latest American hit, or you revive a standard, giving it a Rock spin.
Yet there was an Emile Ford EP – a four-track extended play package that topped the EP chart in its own right. Opener “Red Sails In The Sunset” is the formula exactly as before. But there are two new songs written pseudonymously by Emile himself, “Send For Me” and “Move Along”. Neither are earth-shakingly original. They bounce along pleasantly with all of his hallmark energy, and sharp guitar-break, but it’s a promising start. And later he’ll go on to write, or co-write a couple of ‘B’-sides too.
Almost immediately afterwards, at the rainy turn of the year, he scored another big hit with “Counting Teardrops” (‘all I need to keep me from drowning, is a plumber or a submarine’), with its “Dream Lover” yeh-yeh-yeh vocal chorus-build. But that was pretty-much the last high-point of his chart career. By the time he notched up a minor hit in March 1961 with “What Am I Going To Do?” the Checkmates had expanded from a trio to a seven-piece with the addition of half-brother Dave Sweetnam-Ford (sax), future in-demand session-player and TV-composer Alan Hawkshaw, plus three girl singers called the Fordettes, à la the Raylettes. But even they couldn’t lift his profile, and after a minor hit in June – “Half Of My Heart”, he slipped from visibility.
By the mid-sixties things were changed sufficient for Geno Washington and Jimmy James to become huge Mod stars, while visiting American artists Wilson Pickett, Lee Dorsey and Edwin Starr were treated like gods. Enoch Powell’s dour prognostications about ‘rivers of blood’ stood little chance against the lure of ‘Sweet Soul Music’. While the Caribbean-link also meant that Ska, Blue-Beat and Reggae were eroding racial barriers from within inner-city clubs. Prince Buster albums were essential for any self-respecting Mod. And the film-clip used to promote Desmond Dekker’s ground-breaking 1967 “007 (Shanty Town)” (Pyramid Records) opened up a whole new window onto world music.
But, despite retaining a following on the Continent, and still doing live performances, and Rock ‘n’ Roll revival shows, Emile Ford was no longer a part of it. The Checkmates had split away, first to join a singer Emile himself had discovered – Jimmy Justice. Then half-brothers George and Dave, with drummer Barry Reeves joined Trinidad-born singer Diane Ferraz to enjoy cult success as Ferris Wheel. They issued two highly-rated and collectable psychedelic-soul albums in a sharp Fifth Dimension style. ‘Can’t Break The Habit’ (Pye, 1967), covers a spectrum from the Supremes “You Keep Me Hanging On” done in the Vanilla Fudge vein, to Paul Simon’s “You Don’t Know Where Your Interest Lies”, under the auspices of producer John Schroeder. It was followed by ‘Ferris Wheel’ (Polydor, 1970). After the band’s demise George moved into session-work, before relocating to Canada in the 1980s where he worked with Long John Baldry.
Meanwhile, Bob Marley advanced his music by making the Wailers into a regular self-sufficient gigging band, whereas Jamaican music had previously always been based around the Toaster, or DJ Sound System, in the way that Hip-Hop and Rap would evolve. A principle Emile Ford had pioneered, and was already adapting into his own open-air audio playback system. By 1969 he collaborated with his father, investing royalties in setting up and equipping a recording studio in Barbados. A further move took him to Sweden – where his records had always been popular, and he found time to devote work most intensively – during the 1970s, on developing his ‘Liveoteque Sound’ Frequency Feedback Injection System (patented to him no.2148074), which he demonstrated in UK theatres and top Bingo Halls. This can reduce down to a kind of glorified karaoke at its poorest application, but can also add extra dimensions to creatively enhance musicians on stage.
And when he decided to tour in his own right, Emile Ford remained a highly personable performer with a strong back-catalogue of instantly-recognisable hits. As he proved when he played the Wakefield ‘Alexandra Bar’ in May 1982. He died 11 April 2016, aged seventy-eight, leaving four daughters, three sons, and a whole lot of nostalgic affection.
ALL THE HITS
30 October 1959 – ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For’ c/w ‘Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles’ (Pye 7N15225) as Emile Ford & The Checkmates, produced by Michael Barclay, no.1
5 February 1960 – ‘(I’d Like To Get You) On A Slow Boat To China’ c/w ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ (Pye 7N15245), written by Frank Loesser in 1948 it had previously been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, the ‘B’-side had been a 1949 hit for Frankie Line, no.3
1960 – ‘EMILE’ EP (Pye NEP 24119) with ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’, ‘Move Along’, ‘Send For Me’, ‘Heavenly’, no.1 on EP chart. Norway-only single ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’ c/w ‘Heavenly’ (Pye 7N24119)
1960 – ‘EMILE FORD: HIT PARADE’ EP (Pye NEP24124) with ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For’, ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, ‘On A Slow Boat To China’, ‘Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles’
26 May 1960 – ‘You’ll Never Know What You’re Missing (‘Til You Try’)’ c/w ‘Still’ (Pye 7N15268), with close-harmony 1950s-style ‘B’-side, no.12
1 September 1960 – ‘Them There Eyes’ c/w ‘Question’ (Pye 7N15282), published in 1930 the best-known prior version was by Billie Holiday in 1939, ‘B’-side is a cover of Lloyd Price’s self-penned last hit, no.18
1960 – ‘EMILE FORD: HIT PARADE Vol.2’ EP (Pye NEP 24133) with ‘Them There Eyes’, ‘Questions’, ‘You’ll Never Know What You’re Missing’, ‘Still’
8 December 1960 – ‘Counting Teardrops’ c/w ‘White Christmas’ (Pye 7N15314), Barry Mann & Howie Greenfield song, no.4
1960 – ‘EMILE’ EP (Pye NEP 24500) with ‘Counting Teardrops’, ‘I’ll Be Satisfied’, ‘Them There Eyes’, ‘Questions’
2 March 1961 – ‘What Am I Gonna Do?’ c/w ‘A Kiss To Build A Dream On’ (Pye 7N15331), Neil Sedaka-Howie Greenfield song, no.33
18 May 1961 – ‘Half Of My Heart’ c/w ‘Gypsy Love’ (Piccadilly 7N35003), Barry White-Don George song, no.42
1961 – ‘EMILE’ LP (Piccadilly NPL 38001) with Side one: ‘Fever’, ‘Always’, ‘Early In The Morning’, ‘Don’t’, ‘Scarlet Ribbons’, ‘Vaya Con Dios’ (sweet version of Les Paul & Mary Ford 1953 hit). Side two: ‘Trouble’, ‘Laudy Miss Claudy’, ‘The Joker’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Yellow Bird’ (Haitian calypso previously done by Harry Belafonte), ‘Buena Sera’
1961 – ‘The Alphabet Song (‘A’ You’re Adorable)’ c/w ‘Keep A-Lovin Me’ (Piccadilly 7N35019), ‘B’-side is a Checkmates original composition
8 March 1962 – ‘I Wonder Whose Kissing Her Now’ c/w ‘Doin’ The Twist’ (Piccadilly 7N35033), arranged and directed by Les Reed, song dates from 1909 and was also revived by Bobby Darin, ‘B’-side writer-credits to Checkmates, no.43
1962 – ‘Your Nose Is Gonna Grow’ c/w ‘The Rains Came’ (Piccadilly 7N 35078), billed as Emile Ford & The Checkmates
1962 – ‘EMILE FORD AT GRÖNA LUND’ EP (Sweden, Pye NEP 5010) with ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?’, ‘On A Slow Boat To China’, ‘Buona Sera’, ‘That Lucky Old Sun’
1963 – ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me’ c/w ‘Keep On Doin What You’re Doin’ (Piccadilly 7N35116), billed as Emile Ford & The Big Six
1964 – ‘MEET EMILE AT GRÖNA LUND AGAIN’ EP (Sweden, Pye NEP 5035), with ‘Twilight Time’, ‘Down By The Riverside’, ‘You Are My Sunshine’, ‘Only You’
February 1969 – ‘PYE RECORDS: PRESENTS TEN YEARS OF GOLDEN HITS’ (Pye Marble Arch MT10), includes ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?’ alongside hits by Searchers, Kinks, Lonnie Donegan, etc
1970 – ‘MEET EMILE AT GRÖNA LUND AGAIN’ LP (Sweden, Pye Golden Guinea GGL 9002) with ‘Twilight Time’, ‘Down By The Riverside’, ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘Mean Woman Blues’, ‘Buena Sera’, ‘You Are My Sunshine’, ‘Only You’, ‘Little June’, ‘My Best Friend’, ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Wedding Of The Snowman’
1972 – ‘What Is Wrong With My Loving You’ c/w ‘Don’t Say No’ (Sunlight SLX101) billed as just Emile Ford, ‘Melody Maker’ says ‘one of the stars of the early sixties returns after many years living in Sweden with a bright, cheerful tune, already a hit in foreign shore’
April 1991 – ‘THE VERY BEST OF EMILE FORD & THE CHECKMATES’ LD/CD (See For Miles SEE 309), LP has ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?’, ‘After You’ve Gone’, ‘Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me’, ‘Keep Me Doin What You’re Doin’, ‘Them There Eyes’, ‘Questions’, ‘Still’, ‘You’ll Never Know What You’re Missing’, ‘Trouble’, ‘Laudy Miss Claudy’, ‘The Joker’, ‘Yellow Bird’, ‘Buona Sera’. ‘I Don’t’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, ‘Counting Teardrops’, ‘Heavenly’, ‘What Am I Gonna Do?’, ‘Slow Boat To China’, ‘Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles’, ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’ plus on CD only ‘Send For Me’, ‘A Kiss To Build A Dream On’, ‘Scarlet Ribbons’, ‘Vaya Con Dios’, ‘Move Along’. ‘Vox’ magazine reviews this as ‘a real vocal gem’
2000 – ‘COUNTING TEARDROPS’ 2CD (Sequel NEECD 347), 61-track greatest hits anthology from his Pye and Piccadilly records
2016 – ‘THE VERY BEST OF EMILE FORD & THE CHECKMATES’ (One Day Music DAY2CD303)