In a musical climate that had been dominated by white British and American acts, Emile Ford forged a name for himself as Britain’s first black pop star.
Born Michael Emile Telford Miller on 16 October 1937, in St Lucia, Windward Islands (Bahamas) he emigrated to London during the 1950s. His family insisted he complete his education in London, but after studying at Paddington Technical College and Tottenham Polytechnic, the young man’s interest turned to music.
By early 1959 he was heading his own group, The Checkmates – featuring his brother George and college friend Ken Street. The trio hit the popular Soho skiffle circuit of coffee bars and clubs, and before the close of 1959 they had won a Soho Fair talent contest.
A recording contract with Pye followed and additional members were brought in to The Checkmates.
During October 1959 the group recorded a beaty version of the 1916 show tune What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For? and success was instant. The single raced to the top of the British chart in January 1960 and stayed there for six weeks, earning Emile Ford his first gold disc for sales in excess of one million.
His second single was another cover version – On A Slow Boat To China (written by Frank Loesser in 1948). The track missed the top spot, peaking at #3, but proving Ford was no ‘one-hit wonder’. For some reason, Ford chose a change of musical direction for his third single, You’ll Never Know What You’re Missing. Despite its catchiness the record stalled outside the Top 10.
Hasty plans were made for a follow-up and, this time, he chose Billie Holiday‘s jazz standard Them There Eyes.
For the recording of this track, Pye elected to back Emile with the Johnny Keating Orchestra rather than use The Checkmates. An immediate rift was caused between Ford and the record company, and the single barely crept into the Top 20.
Counting Teardrops returned Ford to the Top 5 but the impetus was short lived. His career was in decline by the time the aptly-titled What Am I Gonna Do? was released in March 1961.
Written by Neil Sedaka and previously recorded by Jimmy Clanton, the single struggled into the British Top 40, and in an attempt to alleviate any further decline in sales Ford reverted to his old familiar sound to revive I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now. Remarkably, even this failed to dent the Top 40 and represented his last chart entry.
By 1963 The Checkmates abandoned Emile, although their own subsequent recording career was nondescript, and after five singles flopped in a row they called it a day.
Emile moved into club land and worked as a studio sound engineer, and by 1988 had opened his own electronics company.
Ford passed away in London on 11 April 2016. He was 78.