Jon and Lee & The Checkmates

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Jon and Lee & The Checkmates are a Canadian music group, best known for containing future members of Elektra band Rhinoceros. Together with Mandala, they spearheaded Toronto's R&B scene during the mid-1960s. As the Jon-Lee Group, the band released a lone single for ABC Records before splitting up in September 1967. The group has more recently reformed, released its debut album in late 2006.

High school origins[edit]

Lee Jackson and The Checkmates, formed at a Toronto high school during 1962 out of the remains of the Stereos, initially consisted of singer Michael Ferry (Lee Jackson), guitarist Al Dorsey, bass player Dave McDeavitt, drummer Paul Carrier and saxophone player Hilmar Hajek.

In late 1963, Dorsey introduced classically trained pianist Michael Fonfara, who was responsible for bringing in a second lead guitarist, Larry Leishman.

Leishman’s arrival signaled a major upheaval in the band's line up, as Dorsey departed and Leishman’s former compatriot from the Silvertones and the Tempests, Peter Hodgson (born April 16, 1946, Toronto), succeeded McDeavitt on bass. Soon afterwards, the two new recruits (together with Fonfara) lobbied for the inclusion of another former Tempest, singer John Finley (born May 6, 1945, Toronto), whose recruitment in mid-1964 prompted a name change to Jon and Lee & The Checkmates.

Throughout that year, the group also went through a succession of drummers as Dave Brown, who had come in for Carrier, left to join Jay Smith & The Majestics, and was replaced by Wes Morris. By the end of the year, however, Morris had moved on to join The Majestics and former commercial artist Jeff Cutler (born Rowland Jeffries Cutler, September 8, 1941, Toronto) completed the classic line up.

1965: establishing their act[edit]

Jon and Lee & The Checkmates stamped their authority on the local scene with a performance at Toronto’s Massey Hall in early 1965. The exposure from the performance aroused the interest of Afro-American émigré Eddie “Duke” Edwards and Big Land music agency entrepreneur, the late Ron Scribner, who both became involved with the group’s career. Edwards, a graduate of the Boston Conservatory, helped arrange material for The Checkmates as well as co-managing them.

Jon and Lee & The Checkmates, along with several local artists, were due to open for The Rolling Stones at Maple Leaf Gardens on April 25. However, the organisers booked too many groups and the band never got to play. Throughout the summer, Jon and Lee & The Checkmates found regular work at the Devil's Den club which became the band's home.

On September 13, the group joined local pop singer Bobby Curtola and others in opening Toronto’s new city hall in Nathan Phillips Square. The exposure landed the band the opening slot at The Rolling Stones show at Maple Leaf Gardens on October 31, 1965. The following month, several US record labels, including Decca, Elektra, Motown and RCA approached the band with offers. Jon and Lee & The Checkmates recorded a few tracks in Toronto for RCA in November, but the results were disappointing. Shortly after a show at the Hawk’s Nest on December 10, the group headed to New York to play at the Phone Booth and to record three tracks for Decca but the label soon lost interest.

1966: recovering from setbacks[edit]

Unable to record, Jon and Lee & The Checkmates concentrated on extending their fan base beyond southern Ontario into the northern United States, establishing pockets of support in New York and Philadelphia. While in New York, the group often performed at the Peppermint Lounge and the Phone Booth (early February 1966) and on one occasion opened for The Temptations, The Chiffons and Junior Walker & the Allstars at Shea Stadium.

Cecil Farrell, a proprietor at a Niagara Falls newspaper, hired the band for his 16-year-old daughter's birthday party, and their group met Leo Pillott, director of public relations for the ABC-TV network. After hearing sample tapes, Pillott offered to represent the group and arranged a series of engagements, including the shows at the famous Peppermint Lounge.

Throughout 1966, the band also consolidated its Toronto following, holding down a residency at the Avenue Road Club, and appearing at other notable venues such as the Broom and Stone, the Gogue Inn and the Hawk’s Nest.

1967: the Jon-Lee Group[edit]

In the early months of 1967, Jon and Lee & The Checkmates increasingly spent time in Philadelphia, and only returned to Toronto intermittently to play shows. On May 6, the group appeared at the Centennial Cool-Out in Kingston, Ontario with The Guess Who and others. Within days, however, the band changed name to The Jon-Lee Group.

Around this time, an important production deal was struck with Daniel Secunda (cousin of Procol Harum’s manager Tony Secunda), which enabled the band to venture back into the studio and record enough material for two singles. Four tracks were subsequently cut in New York for ABC Records to coincide with a show at Steve Paul's The Scene.

A cover of John Sebastian's "Girl, Beautiful Girl," should have been the band's debut single, but was dropped in favour of "Bring It Down Front", written by Billy Barberis and Bobby Weinstein, backed by the Duke Edwards' instrumental "Pork Chops". Issued during August, "Bring It Down Front" failed to chart in the US but was a sizeable hit back home in Canada when it was put out on Sparton Records, reaching #10 on the Toronto CHUM chart, and #23 on the national RPM chart in October. However, the band began to unravel, and played its final show on September 16, 1967.

Falling apart[edit]

Jackson, who had lost interest in being a singer, left the band to work initially as a road manager for Bruce Cockburn’s new group, The Flying Circus. He then became a promoter under his real name, Michael Ferry. Finley also left to reassess his musical future, leaving the remaining members to travel to New York with future Blood, Sweat & Tears singer David Clayton-Thomas and perform at The Scene.

Billed as David Clayton-Thomas & The Phoenix, the group performed at least one set of shows (from October 19–22) before Thomas was deported back to Toronto for being an illegal immigrant.

Aftermath[edit]

Finley and Fonfara went on to become founding members of Rhinoceros in 1968. Hodgson, Edwards and Leishman joined them one year later.

Jeff Cutler, who also remained in New York, later joined The Crazy World of Arthur Brown for its second US tour in May 1968 and then worked with The Holy Modal Rounders.

The Checkmates return[edit]

In 1999, Michael Fonfara, Peter Hodgson and Larry Leishman reformed The Checkmates for live dates in Toronto. In 2005, John Finley rejoined the band and the group released their debut album in 2006.

Personnel[edit]

Discography[edit]

  • "Bring It Down Front" / "Pork Chops" - (Sparton P1617) - 1967

Sources[edit]

  • John Finley, interviews with Bill Munson, 1978 and Nick Warburton
  • Michael Ferry, interview with Bill Munson, 1978
  • Peter Hodgson, interview Nick Warburton
  • Larry Leishman, interviews with Bill Munson, 1978 and Nick Warburton
  • Michael Fonfara, interview with Nick Warburton
  • Rhinoceros-group.com
  • The Toronto Telegram's After Four section on Thursdays listed live dates in the city