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The spinoff.

In television – and before that radio – this sort of thing has been fairly common ever since The Great Gildersleeve was spun off from the hit Fibber McGee & Molly and enjoyed a hugely successful run of its own.

In the 1970’s All In The Family, the top show in the ratings for much of the decade, saw to it that CBS had a slate of hits that all stemmed from minor characters originating on their show, the most popular being The Jeffersons and Maude. Meanwhile the network’s other top program, The Mary Tyler Moore Show spun off Rhoda, Phyllis and Lou Grant, all of them big hits in their own right.

But in music, though it would seem to be almost as easy to arrange with four and five member singing groups breaking into multiple acts, it’s not quite as common.

Maybe the failure of The Checkers to make an impact when they broke off from rock’s biggest group in 1952 gave the industry pause.


That You Started
You couldn’t get more obvious than this, could you?

In late Nineteen Fifty a new group formed by Billy Ward called The Dominoes burst onto the scene and became the hottest act in rock ‘n’ roll, scoring two of the biggest hits in rock history in their first two years with the racy Sixty Minute Man and the wild Have Mercy Baby.

Though Clyde McPhatter, the lead on the latter, was the clear focal point of the group with his soaring gospel-infused tenor voice greatly influencing the shift to a more overtly emotional performing style in rock, he was initially just one of a variety of leads they employed.

In fact on their even bigger earlier #1 hit it was bass singer Bill Brown who was out in front and second tenor Charlie White had taken lead on a song that wasn’t a hit, but was just as racy (and just as good) duetting with Little Esther on The Deacon Moves In.

White left the group first, in the fall of 1951, was rumored to be joining The Clovers – who he’d eventually wind up with – but was still a free agent in 1952 when Brown left The Dominoes that winter.

It’s hardly surprising the two former members would look to work together again, possibly figuring that their association with that group might spark some interest if they got a new group together. What’s a little surprising however is that the label who was interested was King Records, the parent company of Federal who they’d just left. I guess they didn’t hold grudges.

But while they went all out in trying to play up the connection on paper, naming themselves The Checkers to make sure their relationship to their earlier group was obvious, the fact is Flame In My Heart sounds nothing like The Dominoes.

While that’s a good thing artistically, for who wants a virtual copycat group minus the most dynamic aspect of the originators, it’s hardly the smartest thing when looked at if thinking of the new act as a shallow commercial ploy.

All of which means the success or failure of this spinoff will come down to the song itself and their performance, which is probably the way it should be after all.


You Just Keep My Heart Filled With Doubt
If you ever were inclined to doubt the importance of Billy Ward to the fortunes of The Dominoes, this record should convince you just how vital he was to their success.

He may have been a tyrannical drill sergeant, but he was at least an effective one who made sure the records his group were putting out were well-written, expertly arranged and relentlessly rehearsed to eliminate any flaws, while not being so rigid that he couldn’t recognize how Clyde McPhatter’s improvisations were making the songs better.

Without his input The Checkers get decidedly second rate material with Flame In My Heart, saddled with a generic story and awkwardly mundane wordplay that sounds as if it came from the pen of a sixth grader at times.

Charlie White tries his best to breathe life into this, pouring everything he’s got into the opening line… rising into the sky, pausing for effect, then dropping back to earth only to have nowhere else to go once he hits the ground.

His voice itself is okay, but it’s not McPhatter’s crystalline tenor (which may be why White held down the second chair in that department with his former group come to think of it) and obviously he’s got none of the theatrics of his old bandmate when it comes to embellishing the delivery with melisma and borderline hysterics at each emotional turn.

Meanwhile the presence of the other Checkers here is but a rumor, barely audible behind him and contributing little to catch your ear.

When one of them does surface it gets worse, as the spoken interlude by the other former Domino, Bill Brown, is indescribably bad. He sounds like an embarrassed frog, squawking in swamp water, so eager to dive back under a lily-pad that he almost seems to cut the last line short.

Though White is the one bright spot on the record, he’s far from flawless himself as he seems uncertain how to properly hold notes when he’s called upon to use melisma on the words “doubt” and “out”. Even the very last line of the record he holds one note too long and promptly loses it altogether.

His best stretch is when he’s coming out of Brown’s ill-fated appearance sounding invigorated while showing he’s got untapped power to draw from, but even there nothing he’s saying pulls you in as the story speaks in banal generalities.

Since he’s hardly got much of a musical arrangement – just some distant muted guitar embellishments really – and virtually no harmonies by the others, only a brief falsetto transition, he’s left to carry a song that is shallow and transparent with a barely passable melody, which in fact is somewhat “borrowed” from When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano, that – you guessed it – The Dominoes had done earlier.

It’s not terrible, but even if you weren’t aware of the group’s lineage, you’d still shrug your shoulders and wonder why bother.


Please Reconsider And Come Back To Me
Rock vocal groups are revered as an overall entity in the music’s lexicon by certain demographics, but what tends to be understated in that praise is just how reliant they are on three vital factors – the unique and identifiable lead, memorable material and tight complex arrangements.

On Flame In My Heart The Checkers go oh-for-three.

Charlie White can’t be faulted for this, he sounds okay for the most part and we’ve praised him in the past and will do so in the future, but he’s hampered so much by a song that goes nowhere and an arrangement that is all but non-existent that you wonder how King Records thought this was a suitable debut for the group that they probably had high hopes for.

Remember, the label (not the Federal subsidiary where The Dominoes resided) still had no big vocal group to represent them in that field. The Royals and Swallows both had some great records, but little in the way of hits to show for it, so the door was wide open for The Checkers to take the throne in that department if they could get off to a good start.

This isn’t it.

It’s certainly tolerable, but hardly exceptional and when the group that the two leaders of this outfit recently left were releasing virtually nothing BUT exceptional records, sometimes on both sides of their singles, then being merely acceptable has to be seen as a major disappointment.


(Visit the Artist page of The Checkers for the complete archives of their records reviewed to date)