Thursday, May 20, 2010 | 5:28 p.m.
Checkmates play Black Pearl
For a long time Sonny Charles sensed that his long friendship and musical partnership with Marvin Smith was coming to an end. "Sweet Louie," as Marvin forever was known onstage, was not a healthy man as he reached his late 60s.
There were times when Sweet Louie struggled to finish shows. There were times when he struggled and couldn't finish shows.
Still, the duo forged ahead as The Checkmates, or rather, "The Legendary Checkmates!" as they were known at such Vegas haunts as Arizona Charlie's Naughty Lady Saloon and Sahara's Casbar Lounge.
Finally and without fanfare The Checkmates, who for five decades were featured in Vegas lounges and in clubs across the country, quietly passed away.
The end came not in a club or lounge, though, but at sea.
The duo were set to appear as headliners during a Princess Cruise of the Caribbean. It was Dec. 15, 2007, a Saturday. Charles and Smith had spoken the previous afternoon and were planning for their usual rehearsal the next day. Before that session, Charles called his friend of 55 years to summon him to the showroom. Nothing. He kept calling, no response, then walked the large craft, checking all the public areas.
Charles bowed to the inevitable, asking a member of the Princess Cruise security team to unlock Smith's cabin door. Sweet Louie was on the floor, motionless. The ship's medical staff worked on him for an hour. He was dead at age 68.
"Louie was sick for two years, diabetic, but would never admit to it," Charles says during an interview at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at Green Valley Ranch. "We had situations where he was really sick and we had to stop shows. His blood-sugar level was staggering. But he had to keep making money, and I wanted to be with him, to stick it out until the end."
"Sweet Louie" was certainly that, and funny, too. One of Charles' favorite lines about the man he knew since both were teenagers is, "'He's so funny he can make God laugh.' My sister said that about him."
Sweet Louie's death silenced one of the city's great live music acts. The Checkmates started their Vegas career in 1965 at Pussycat A Go Go, a small casino near to the old Desert Inn on the corner of Sands and LV Boulevard. They were one of the first black acts to perform regularly on the Strip, but the club had segregated seating, whites up front and African-Americans in the back.
The jammed dance floor as the Checkmates performed, however, was not segregated. The lounge was heated with controversy in the late '60s when Sly Stone, realizing the seating chart was white/black, pulled his band from the venue in the middle of a weeklong run. The Checkmates, too, vacated after a couple of years.
They later performed at Sands Lounge and Nero's Nook Lounge at Caesars Palace, in rotation with such famous acts as the Righteous Brothers and the Count Basie Orchestra. They hit the Top 10 with "Black Pearl," a song produced by Phil Spector. They played the International/Las Vegas Hilton, and also the Flamingo in the days when Wayne Newton and Bobby Darin performed at the hotel. They befriended Frank Sinatra, who hired them for a private New Year's Eve show at the Sands. Elvis and Sammy were friends. They toured with Sinatra as an opening act and Bill Cosby, too. They made frequent appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Mike Douglas Show" and "The Merv Griffin Show."
"We had a level of fame, oh yeah," says Charles, who counted 78 network appearances by the duo. "We were big on the supper-club circuit, traveling around and doing that stuff."
But just as the band was ready to break into the major leagues, it unraveled. As Charles remembers, everyone wanted to be the star.
Left behind was its core of The Checkmates, including Charles and Sweet Louie. They continued to play small clubs and lounges for many, many years. "But there are no stars in the lounge," as Charles says, and the final decade was "really unsatisfying. There was no prominence for lounge acts."
Then Sweet Louie died. Charles was devastated. But he knew he wasn't finished making music. His legs still were lively and his voice as strong as ever. Charles felt he could still perform; his body said so.
In the days after Smith's death, as Charles considered his options, he received a call from an old friend. It was Steve Miller, the famed guitarist. Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band — that Steve Miller. The same Steve Miller kicking off a national tour Friday night at M Resort's Villaggio del Sole. The tour is in support of Miller's first studio release in 17 years, titled, "Bingo."
"We've known each other for a long time. We did a club thing and got to know each other. This was in 2001," Charles says. "When he first heard me sing, he said he wanted to do a blues album with me. We were talking, but not really doing anything. It was always, 'Yeah, we'll put something together. We'll do an album.' A week after Louie died, he called to see how I was doing."
In February 2008, Miller called again. This time he wanted to do business.
"He asked me if I wanted to do some recording with him, and I spent three nights with him at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and afterward he said, 'Why don't we do this? Let's go meet the guys.'"
Charles met the guys, yes, and also recorded about 50 songs in 13 days at a studio in George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in Marin County. "Steve's passion is blues. We recorded 50 blues songs, and I sang on all of 'em," Charles says. "It was all with a live band. I stayed there, we had rooms. It was like an inn — I had the Clark Gable Room."
Miller asked about the upcoming summer tour — would Charles be interested? Sure! And he could join the band, too.
"Sounded all right to me," Charles says, laughing. "I feel like I'm back in show business again."
The song list of the forthcoming "Bingo," set for release in June, has been juggled quite a lot by Miller, but Charles sings lead on three or four songs. He remains the same joyful singer and dancer who graced the lounges in Vegas over the decades.
"I'm gonna grow old, but I don't want to stop performing," he says. "I don't want to be old. I have some control over that. I'm very healthy. I have no prescriptions. I go to the gym, and when the music happens, I bounce around."
Prendes memorial set
The 4th Annual Henry Prendes Charity Golf Classic to benefit Henry's Place, an in-development nonprofit camp near Cedar City, Utah for underprivileged youth is set for Friday morning at Black Mountain Golf & Country Club. Prendes was murdered Feb. 1, 2006, while responding to a domestic-violence call. The event begins officially at 6:30 a.m., when registration opens and breakfast is served. Prendes' widow, Dawn Prendes, will be joined by Sheriff Doug Gillespie, Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen and heavy hitter Mike Dobbyn, who won the world long-drive championship in 2007 and holds the Guinness Book of World Records' recognized long drive of 551 yards (but I heard he bogeyed the hole — badumbum).
The tournament starts at 8 a.m., and Hafen speaks at a post-tourney event at 1:30 p.m.
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