The Checkmates Ltd. featuring Sonny Charles

By Gary:

I am having real problems with a year.  It was either 1966 or 1967 and it was the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto and I think the main act was “The Supremes’’. 

The opening act for the Supremes was described something like this, “When they play Las Vegas, it’s the first place Sammy Davis Jr. goes and it’s standing room only”, and that was the first and only time I saw The Checkmates Ltd featuring Sonny Charles.

What a group and what a show they put on, fantastic!  Unfortunately, they put out only one recording and it was huge. They would record and would break up and reunite on many occasions.ch1ch2

  Sonny Charles and the Checkmates Ltd
  • Sonny Charles – lead vocals – (born Charles Hemphill, 4 September 1940, Fort Wayne, Indiana) – Charles was later a vocalist with the Steve Miller Band.
  • Bobby Stevens – vocals
  • Harvey Trees – guitar
  • Bill Van Buskirk – bass
  • Marvin “Sweet Louie” Smith – drums, vocals
  • Calvin Thomas – drums
  • Jimmy Milton – vocals


This the only video of Black Pearl / Produced by Phil Spector /
Sonny with Steve Miller 2014 / Ooh Poo Pah Doo /
Dick Clark Interview 1983 /


1966 / Do the Walk (the temptation walk)
1968 / Spanish Harlem
1969 / Black Pearl / Phil Spector Production / # 13 BB
1969 / Proud Mary / # 30 UK
“Sonny” Charles Hemphill was born in Arkansas and moved with his family to Ft. Wayne, Indiana when he was a young boy. It was there that he joined Bobby Stevens and his boyhood friends starting a band and singing. After several talent shows, they decided to try to make some money and started having real paying gigs.

Later the band “The Checkmates, Ltd.” (one of, if not the first mixed groups of the era) two white members, Harvey Trees (guitar) and Bill Vanbuskirk (bass)  joined the army on the buddy system and served their country). During their time in the Army, they were selected into the Entertainment Division of the base (Fort Lewis Washington) making second place in the international ‘All Army Entertainment Contest” . Whenever they were back on base, they performed wherever possible.

After their discharges from the Army, they found themselves in the Tacoma, Washington area. R&B was their genre and “the Checkmates, Ltd”. started singing in clubs there, with much success.

It wasn’t long, before The Checkmates, Ltd. were bringing down the house in Las Vegas at The Pussycat A Go Go, where they were discovered by jazz great, Nancy Wilson, who signed them to a management contract and placed them on the label she was contracted to, Capitol Records.

They recorded several singles, “Do The Walk, (The Temptation Walk)”, “Walk In the Sunlight”, “The A&I”, and “Glad for You”, all written by Bobby Stevens except “The A&I”, which was written by Bobby and Sweet Louie.

They also recorded “Kissing Her and Crying for You”, “I Can Hear the Rain”,  and “Please Don’t Take My World Away”, none of which made more than Local Charts.

Their album “Live at Caesars Palace” on Capitol was their most successful recording until meeting Herb Alpert in Hawaii while performing at Duke Ahonamoka’s night club there. Alpert, signed them to his A&M Records and, after some searching, secured the services of legendary rock & pop producer, Phil Spector, to produce their first album, the title song and first release of which was “Love is All I have to Give”, written by Phil Spector and lead singer & leader of the group, Bobby Stevens.

The best known single from that album that went all the way to # 13 on the billboard charts, was “Black Pearl” produced by Phil Specter.

Bobby Stevens left the group during the recording of this album, after a dispute with the label over the “B” side production and publishing rights. The group disbanded thereafter.

Bobby Stevens keeping all the original members of the group and the name “Bobby Stevens & the Checkmates” for live engagements and A&M assigning the name “Sonny Charles & The Checkmates Ltd” for the purposes of recording, marketing & completing the recording contract with them.

Bobby Stevens recorded a solo album “Bobby Stevens & The Checkmates Ltd Life! on his own vanity label Rustic Records, before reforming the group as “Bobby Stevens & Sonny Charles & The Checkmates Ltd” under Bobby’s management company, Even Stevens Productions.

The group recorded for three other labels after leaving A&M, a never released album for “Electric Records,” “Fantasy Records,” which yielded the album “We Got The Moves,” to Greedy Records for a single “All Alone By the Telephone” before after having co-written,co-Produced & starred in their first motion picture, “Run Nigger Run.” later renamed “The Black Connection,”they produced & released the sound track album ‘F/S/O to the film on Rustic. All of the songs on that album, except for “A Fish on the Hook,”co-written by Bobby & Sonny, were written & produced for Even Stevens Production, Bobby Stevens production company, by Sonny Charles.

After their final break-up Bobby performed (with his sidekicks,Sweet Louie Bill Vanbuskirk) as Bobby Stevens & The Checkmates Ltd in clubs from Alaska to Canada & Chicago & major hotel venues from The International Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas to the Chevron Hilton Hotel in Sidney Australia before retiring in the late 80’s.During the last 25 years, Sonny Charles & Sweet Louie Smith reformed & were still performing around the country and on cruise ships until December 2007 when Sweet Louie passed away. In 2008 Sonny Charles joined The Steve Miller Band and has been touring with them.



2 responses to “The Checkmates Ltd. featuring Sonny Charles

  1. Pingback: 1-Hit: Sonny Charles and the Checkmates Ltd | Russ & Gary's "The Best Years of Music"

  2. I was blessed go see Checkmates Ltd open for the Supremes at Melodyland on Anaheim. They were amazing.

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