Emile Ford was, by his own account, a reluctant pop star, finding success in the recording studio and on-stage in England from the late '50s into the early '60s, despite his belief that his voice was less than ideal. He was born Emile Sweetman in Castries, St. Lucia, in the Caribbean, in 1937 (some sources say 1936), the son of the government official and an opera singer. His interest in music was fostered by his mother and rooted in part -- according to annotator Roger Dopson and journalist Norman Jopling -- in his lifelong affliction with synesthesia, a condition that creates the sensation of perceiving sound as colors and patterns.
That led to his interest in developing superior (if not perfect) sound reproduction and amplification equipment which, in turn, took him to England in 1955 in search of more advanced technology. He designed his own equipment and, in the process of having to demonstrate it, began performing himself -- he learned guitar and eventually recruited a band, subsequently dubbed the Checkmates, that included his brothers George Ford and Dave Ford on bass and sax, respectively, plus Ken Street on guitar and John Cuffley on drums. Later still, Peter Carter, Les Hart, and Alan Hawkshaw would join on guitar, sax, and piano, respectively. By the time the smoke cleared, they were a top-flight band on the late-'50s club circuit, building up a serious following around Emile Ford's strong singing and the band's range and comparative virtuosity.
They were signed to the Pye Records label in 1959, on what was to have been a one-shot basis. That was when Ford's brilliance as a producer came into play -- he, engineer Joe Meek, and the Checkmates essentially hijacked the single, generating a B-side that ended up supplanting the originally chosen A-side. "What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For" was released in the early fall of 1959 and by November it had topped the British charts; it enjoyed the same kind of success everywhere else that English was spoken (except the United States) and a lot of places where it wasn't. He had a second Top Ten with "Slow Boat to China" and then another success with "Red Sails in the Sunset," which generated a hit EP. His string of hits continued into the new decade, charting just as regularly if not as high, and in 1961 Emile Ford & the Checkmates had the inaugural hit on the Pye Records spin-off label Piccadilly with "Half of My Heart." Ford also got to record an album entitled Emile in 1961.
His final chart single was "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now," which hit number 43 in England in March of 1962. He abandoned the Checkmates later in 1962, and the group members later formed two separate groups -- Ford's non-relations formed the Excheckers, and his two siblings took to calling themselves the Original Checkmates. Ford kept working for a time although, ironically enough, he never really thought of himself as a singer and remained committed to designing his own electronic equipment. He made his last recordings in 1963 and, in the decades since, has worked exclusively behind the scenes in his first choice for a career, designing sound systems, living in Scandinavia and the United States at various times. In 2001, Castle Communications released the double-CD set Counting Teardrops, covering his complete Pye Records sides from 1959 through 1963. ~ Bruce Eder