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KING 4581; NOVEMBER 1952



For a group that wasn’t around long – less than three years – and who were formed when two members left a far more popular group, The Dominoes, because of the stifling control exerted by their boss Billy Ward, only to then join together to create The Checkers to compete with that group… and for the same recording company no less… these guys have a far better reputation than that soap opera storyline would suggest.

All this despite the fact that they never scored a national hit and perhaps their most remembered song was merely a quasi-sequel to, if not a straight rip-off of, The Dominoes’ biggest record.

But it’s not JUST the comparisons and similarities to that enduring act which left their mark with fans of the style, it’s songs like these which while obscure to the majority of casual listeners, hold a strange fascination for later generations of doo wop fanatics who all seem to be in agreement that this particular song is a gem of rare value.


Do You Still Remember?
The backstory of this group was delved into slightly in our first meeting with them at the end of summer 1952, but that focused mainly on the ex-Dominoes who formed the core of the group – bassist Bill Brown and tenor Charlie White – who each took a lead on the two sides of their debut.

But it was the other members who were in a way responsible for The Checkers… at least the name, as Brown was searching for other singers to form a new act once he departed his old one. He was introduced to Irwin “Teddy” Williams, just a kid not yet twenty years old, and in turn he brought them together with HIS group named… The Checkers, because they were such huge fans of The Dominoes.

And YOU cynics all thought it was King Records’ idea to capitalize on the link between the two groups!

Anyway, the kids, which included John Carnegie, were thrilled to be joining two former Dominoes in a new act, but the same did not go for their parents, as Mr. Carnegie was no fan of his high school-aged son being part of this aggregation. While he was allowed to sing in the studio, taking lead on Night’s Curtains, he was not permitted to go on tour with them, even locally, nor did he ever even get to have his picture taken with the others to prove he was a member.

Gee, maybe someone should introduce Carnegie to Billy Ward, since it seems as if both of them learned their iron fisted ways in the Gestapo.

Naturally this was going to cause some problems, as groups – and their fans – tend to like to have the same people performing on stage who sang on the records, so their Apollo gig next month either had a stand-in or an empty spot altogether.

But then again, if the records weren’t hits… well then, problem solved!


I Wonder Just Where You Are
With its chimes and softly thrumming bass in the tentative opening, you don’t need to even wait until the vocals begin to know this is a romantic ballad.

The fact that group member Irwin Williams wrote it is a very positive sign, as it was bound to reflect their own viewpoints better than an outside contribution, especially considering that record companies loved foisting pop standards on groups when they wanted a ballad out of them.

The composition itself is pretty good too. Certainly the allegorical title alone shows creativity and the tender sentiments within embody the teenage mindset where the first blush of love is both a total uncertainty and yet still seems bound to last for eternity.

John Carnegie’s fragile lead fits it perfectly, as he’s confident enough to be expressing these thoughts aloud, yet as evidenced by his halting delivery he’s still unsure of how to best put his feelings across to the girl he loves, giving it a much more realistic feel in line with his lack of experience in life.

All of that is nicely done, but here’s where our impression of Night’s Curtains seems to differ from the hardcore fans of the record. It’s clear that Carnegie’s got a good voice, but it’s also one not disciplined enough to pull off everything he’s trying to do.

His best moments are sublime, showing breathy innocence early on, then holding notes and letting himself slide down the other side. But when he’s got to bear down harder heading into the group sung bridge he’s clearly wavering too much. One argument in favor of it would be that he’s displaying real emotion, which isn’t always smooth and pretty, while the opposing viewpoint would be that within the confines of a song it’s necessary to show emotion WHILE retaining full control of each note, especially on a song as delicately constructed as this.

The others during that ensuing bridge make for the weakest stretch, which is ironic considering that three of them – Brown, White and Buddy Brewer, whom they had sung with in a professional gospel group before – had more experience, yet their blend here is pretty bad.

Coming out of that Carnegie sounds better by comparison, but again the emotional close – while stronger than the first time around – still seems too shrill and metallic sounding to really draw you in.

On top of that, though the song’s overall concept is good, the lines themselves are somewhat contrived in trying to express this overwhelming feeling in a sincere way. Some of it comes across like greeting card sentiments with each stanza striving to be ornately poetic rather than effortless and natural, none of which is helped by the somewhat fragmented melody that prevents a more natural flow.

Like a lot of kids in their situation – be it falling in love or getting their big break as singers – sometimes the emotions of the moment are almost too much to handle.


Be With You Always?
Don’t get me wrong, the good still outweighs the weaker moments here, but the good isn’t quite as good as its reputation, though the comparative weaknesses are just that… not out and out bad by any means.

Maybe it’s safter to say that there’s no single part of this record that approaches perfection and so adding them up and balancing it out leaves us with a much more modest result.

If you want to view it through the lens of the veteran leaders who take a back seat here, you’d say the record was heartfelt but a little sloppy professionally. If you’d rather think of it as the kids taking the reins, which is our chosen preference when rating it, we’d say that it’s striving to do more than they’re capable of delivering.

Either way, Night’s Curtains is a solid record, certainly one that shows great promise – which unfortunately because of parental overreach will never be allowed to come to fruition – and in the right circumstance, whether being a teenager in love or simply remembering what it was like to be one years later, it may have more meaning to some.

But it’s also something that has to be judged in the context of the time and against the competition of groups that were more polished and yet still more capable of delivering powerful emotional content. It’s not JUST The Dominoes they have to try and match here, even if that is the most obvious comparison, but it’s all of the other groups that have beaten this rather handily with better compositions featuring more memorable melodies, stronger (or at least more consistent) vocals and tighter arrangements.

Yet if you look around the internet where acclaim for this record abounds (with the United in Group Harmony Association members vote actually placing it in the Top Fifty rock vocal group records of all-time!), you’ll see a much more generous, almost rhapsodic, response to it than you’re getting here.

Records hit different people in different ways and the largely white male constituency who came of age in the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s and beyond who love this were not the same audience as the young black rock fans of the early 1950’s who sort of casually dismissed it. Neither perspective is wrong. If you like it a lot more than me, I’m envious… but not fully convinced that I’m missing something.

A good record for sure, but not a great one.


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