SUMMER SONGS: MATTHEW AFRICA


The Checkmates: Got To See “U” Soon
From F/S/O (Rustic, 1974)

(Editor’s note: I’ve spoken Matthew Africa’s praises many a time before but all that needs to be said is that he’s is one righteous dude when it comes to both his taste in music as well as the generosity in sharing it, whether on his blog or as a long-time DJ on KALX FM. Ever since I met him back in the ’90s, his passion and knowledge of music continues to impress and inspire. –O.W.)

    This is the third year in a row that Oliver has invited me to contribute to his Summer Songs series. As a great admirer of the blog and of many of his other guests, this has been super-flattering but twice I’ve managed to procrastinate and procrastinate until I flaked altogether.

    That’s not like me, yet each time I’ve tried to choose a handful of songs that “sound like summer” to me (in the words of Oliver’s assignment), I’ve wrestled with the subjectivity of the project. I haven’t been comfortable with personal reminiscences or generalizations about summer, so instead rationalization has run wild and the contrarian in me has seized on all the ways my summers don’t square with what so many other guests have celebrated.

    My summer days don’t seem all that summer-ish. I’ve spent every summer of my adult life in the Oakland Bay Area, a place where seasonal distinctions seem arbitrary or worse: October is hotter than July and sometimes March is, too. The days are longer, but not much else is different in my life. I considered posting a song typical of what I mostly experience each summer: too much time in front of the computer, looking out the window at days that look warmer than they really are. Fortunately, I know no such songs.

    Of course, all of this rationalization strikes even me as stupid and Grinch-ish, so I ended up doing I probably should have done from the start. I chose a song that conjures not so much what my summers are as what I’d like them to be—long, unhurried days with all of my friends around, basking in warmth and wanting for nothing.

    This is not the first time my selection, the Checkmates Ltd.’s “Got to See ‘U’ Soon”, has been featured here; Oliver previously posted it in March 2008. Since it’s a rewind, it’s only right that I add some more detail.

    The Checkmates Ltd. were a Fort Wayne, Indiana group who, as the chess motif suggests, were a mixed-race act. They had knocked around for a decade before they scored their lone significant hit, the 1969 Phil Spector-produced “Black Pearl” for A&M. Five years and one major label later, the group hadn’t seen another hit or a royalty check, so they formed their own company, Rustic Records, to market their major-label back catalog and new releases through mail order.

    Their second such release, the curiously-titled 1974 album F/S/O (or, according to the spine, Chessboard Corporation/FSO) doubled as a soundtrack. The three core members of the group, Bobby Stevens, Sonny Charles and Marvin “Sweet Louie” Smith, had been cast in The Black Connection, a Blaxploitation film also marketed under the title Run N—– … Run.

    In the film, Stevens plays the lead, a Las Vegas drug dealer and pimp who hopes to score lots of heroin so he can pay off the virulently racist mobsters to whom he is in debt because he has lost a whopping four ounces of cocaine. Oddly enough, pawning his Rolls Royce or private jet don’t seem to be options, but then very little in the film makes sense — breasts get bared and the N-word gets said fifty-eleven times and characters and plotlines abruptly come and go, all for no apparent reason. The Black Connection is unusually cheap and stupid even by the standards of the genre. That said, the soundtrack is pretty good.

    All of the songs on F/S/O appear in the film except one, “Got to See ‘U’ Soon”. There was obviously no room in the brutal, ugly world of the film for a song so at ease with life.

    As a composition, “Got to See ‘U’ Soon” is a trifle — just some chords and a bare lyric — but the arrangement and performance totally sell it. Scatted vocals ride in on some electric piano and a Latinized rhythm, then the beat drops out for the first of many times. The main vocals enter, crooning a lyric that might be a distant lover’s play for time or maybe just an invitation to a first date. The backing vocals are similarly opaque; the chants of “hey baby” and “te amo” sound like endearments and also a hectoring series of drunken come-ons. The way these two sets of vocals interlock is genius.

    Much of the arrangement is doubled—the main voices, the numerous backing voices that chant, the keyboards (clavinet and electric piano)—and the layering creates a kind of blurriness, like heatwaves rising from the grill and distorting light or the fuzziness that comes from drinking in the sun.

    Verses and choruses repeat over and over, abruptly stopping and restarting in a way that seems aimless but completely natural. The group sounds as free from worry as hurry—when they sing “just left Miami, Florida/on my way to the moon”, you half-believe it’s possible for them and maybe for you, too. The song shambles on in this way for about four minutes until, like summer, it’s gone before you want it to be.

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