Jon Lee and the Checkmates
Toronto's R&B favourites, Jon and Lee and The Checkmates were originally known as Lee Jackson and The Checkmates. The original band (formed at a local high school in 1962) comprised singer Lee Jackson (real name: Michael Ferry), lead guitarist Al Dorsey, bassist Dave McDevitt, drummer Paul Carrier and a saxophone player called Hilmar. They were joined soon afterwards by classically trained keyboard player Michael Fonfara (b. Aug. 11, 1946, Stevensville, near Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada). Towards the end of 1963, the group's manager introduced a second lead guitarist, Larry Leishman (b. Apr. 4, 1947, Dunfermline, Scotland) from local band The Tempests. The new line-up however, was short-lived as Dorsey soon left. His departure precipitated a series of personnel changes and by mid-1964, former Esquires singer John Finley (b. May 6, 1945, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) and his cousin, bassist Peter Hodgson (b. 1946, Toronto, Ontario, Canada), also ex-The Tempests were added alongside drummer Wes Morris. When Morris left to join The Majestics, the group added Jeff Cutler (Sept. 8, 1941, Toronto, Ontario, Canada).
The new line-up quickly changed its name and was picked up by local booking agent, Ron Scribner, who organised concert dates in high schools across Ontario to promote the band. In early 1965, the band moved up to the city's vibrant club scene and for a while were residents at Yorkville's Avenue Road Club and the Devil's Den. In April of that year Jon and Lee and The Checkmates opened for The Rolling Stones at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, followed by what was probably their most prestigious concert performance, an appearance (in front of 60,000 people) at Nathan Philip's Square in September supporting Bobby Curtola.
Around this time, the group cut 2 songs on 4-track with their manager and musical director, Eddie 'Duke' Edwards, which led to TV appearances in Buffalo and New York. The band also attracted the attention of American record companies RCA, Motown, Mercury, Elektra and Decca; they actually cut some demos with the latter in New York but they were never issued.
During 1966, the band travelled to New York and played at the Phone Booth and the Peppermint Lounge. The group also performed alongside Junior Walker & The All Stars, The Chiffons and The Temptations at Shea Stadium. However, in the spring of 1967 the band moved to Philadelphia were they were based for much of the year.
Shortening their name to The Jon-Lee Group, the band travelled to New York to play at Steve Paul's Scene from June 8-11, and to record for ABC Records. The band completed 4 tracks, including a cover of The Lovin' Spoonful's 'Girl Beautiful Girl', which never saw the light of day. Instead, the label chose to release the soulful 'Bring It Down Front' with the instrumental rocker 'Pork Chops' (credited to the group's mentor Eddie 'Duke' Edwards, and provisionally titled 'Fuck Up'). The single subsequently reached #23 on the RPM chart in October, when it was released in Canada by Sparton Records. The single also hit #10 on Toronto's Chum chart.
Jackson and Finley however, returned to Toronto in October 1967 and the others moved to New York to become house band at Steve Paul's Scene. For a while they acted as David Clayton-Thomas' support band, The Phoenix. However, when Thomas was deported from the US in November for being an illegal alien, Fonfara joined The Electric Flag (in time to appear on their debut album) and toured with the group for almost a month before running into Finley and Hodgson in L.A in early December. Both had auditioned for Elektra's new band Supergroup (which later became Rhinoceros) and although Hodgson missed out on the original line-up, Finley was recruited, and duly recommended Fonfara for the band.
Jackson meanwhile remained in Toronto and reverted to his former name. He later went on to work with Bruce Cockburn briefly and became a local rock promoter. In the early '70s, he worked for the Toronto Stock Exchange and ran a small studio before joining a floor-covering firm in 1974. Cutler, who briefly worked with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, later became a movie set producer. The others (minus Cutler and Jackson and with new members) reformed as Blackstone in 1972.
Michael Fonfara, Peter Hodgson and Larry Leishman have reunited recently with former Bruce Cockburn drummer Mike Sloski to play the bar scene in Toronto.
Thanks to Nick Warburton, XtremeMusician.com contributing writer extraordinaire.