One of the more notable Nineteen-Fifties vocal groups without a hit to their name, who had the benefit of recording for one of the best label’s of the era while having former members of a bigger act in their lineup, neither of which paid off commercially even though some of their records remain highly valued by fans of the style.

On the surface the formation of The Checkers on King Records seems to be a blatant attempt to capitalize on the runaway success of The Dominoes on their Federal Records subsidiary, especially knowing that two of the members – bass singer Bill Brown and tenor Charlie White were among the founders of that group and Brown had sung lead on their biggest hit.

But the truth of he matter is that after White, then Brown, left The Dominoes because of manager Billy Ward’s imperious control, they were casting about for new singers to form their own group when they happened upon some kids named the Checkers who idolized The Dominoes and named themselves after them in tribute.

Joining forces with another singer they knew from their gospel roots, Buddy Brewer, along with two of the teenagers – Irwin Williams and John Carnegie – from The Checkers, they took on that name and quickly got signed to King Records who by this point were in fact looking to take advantage of the two familiar names past association with the biggest group in all of rock.

The problem was that Carnegie’s overprotective father refused to let him appear on stage with this aggregation made up of older rock ‘n’ rollers who’d sang openly about drinking and sex, so despite taking leads in the studio the public never got to see the full Checkers group in person.

Despite the lack of commercial response for their initial singles, The Dominoes were threatened enough to publicly disown this group, insisting there was no connection between them and The Checkers, conveniently ignoring the actual connection via two of their former members.

In early 1953 Charlie White left the group and eventually would join The Clovers, but when John Carnegie got drafted they were down to three members and recruited Perry Heyward to join them for their next session, singing lead no less. Yet his time with the group was short-lived, as he made just one live appearance with them before leaving to get married, and in his place future Drifters’ lead (briefly) David Baughn came aboard, thereby reinforcing their Dominoes connection since his voice was as close as anyone’s to Clyde McPhatter.

Yet in spite of any lingering interest to that group, who were rapidly falling from favor the further that Ward took them from their rock origins with new lead Jackie Wilson replacing McPhatter, the 1953 and ’54 sides by The Checkers remain among their most well known, including a good rendition of the standard White Cliffs Of Dover along with some originals.

Without any tangible returns on these records however the group fell apart as King Records was losing interest in them and when Baughn left to take McPhatter’s place in The Drifters, and Williams eventually joined the Chorales and later went into gospel with the Singing-Aires where he reconnected with Carnegie, while Brewer dropped out of music altogether.

Brown though rounded up more singers – Eddie Harris, David Martin and James Williams – to keep The Checkers on life support for another King Records session after which they managed to secure a spot on a package tour despite none of their records ever charting.

Oddly enough, despite having Brown for the entire time who was one of the best bass leads ever in rock and certainly a familiar voice from his stint with The Dominoes, they didn’t fully take advantage of his presence. Though he got plenty of leads, the material was often run-of-the-mill and with one exception they didn’t even try to draw attention to his past outfit.

Even so, they had some good records with a variety of lead singers and considering the reputation of the label itself, as well as recording as the vocal group idiom was taking off in rock, their failure to connect with the public even once remains one of the more inexplicable turn of events in the era.
THE CHECKERS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(King 4558; September, 1952)
An inauspicious debut for a group with this personnel as Charlie White is okay on lead but Bill Brown embarrasses himself taking the bridge on a song that surprisingly doesn’t try and play up their connection to their past outfit at all. (4)

(King 4558; September, 1952)
A more obvious attempt at capturing their former group’s mojo, especially with Brown’s familiar bass out front, but he’s not nearly as appealing here, maybe because it’s a little too lighthearted by nature, but it’s more or less a dismissible effort that merely suggests their origins. (4)

(King 4581; November, 1952)
A solid self-written effort with a fragile lead by John Carnegie who at times is sublime but not quite disciplined enough to nail every emotion, while the song itself can’t always convey the feelings they’re trying to get across… it’s good but not as great as so many claim. (6)

(King 4581; November, 1952)
The real lost early classic is this Brown-led rolling masterpiece with a perfect overlapping arrangement that conveys rhythm in a multitude of ways which is so infectious that you may not notice, or care, that the song is an apology for his romantic transgressions. (9)