94. Emile Ford and the Checkmates – What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? (1959)


Here we are, then. The final number 1 single of the 1950s, and it shows how far the decade had progressed musically since that first number 1 by Al Martino in 1952. More so than I would have guessed before starting this blog, in fact. When I wrote about this song for Every Christmas Number 1 I saw it as ‘clever and cocky’ and a sign of rock’n’roll’s cultural impact after Elvis’s arrival. At the time, I didn’t know the song in question dates back much further than Here in My Heart.

What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? (is this still the UK number 1 with the longest title?) was written back in 1916 by Joseph McCarthy, Howard Johnson and James V Monaco. McCarthy and Monaco were responsible for You Made Me Love You, and Johnson had come up with the words for I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream. Their new composition became a hit duet for two of the most popular singers of the early 20th century, Ada Jones and Billy Murray, during World War One. It took a man who was fascinated with sound to make What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? feel so contemporary.

Emile Ford was born Michael Emile Telford Miller in Castries, Saint Lucia in the West Indies. His father was a politician and mother a singer and musical theatre director. He moved to London in 1954 to pursue his interest in sound reproduction technology, and studied at Paddington Technical College in London, learning to play guitar, piano, violin, bass guitar and drums, among other instruments. He became interested in rock’n’roll and became a performer at the age of 20, shortening his name to Emile Ford, and garnered appearances on music TV shows Six-Five Special and Oh Boy!. In 1959 he formed Emile Ford and the Checkmates with guitarist Ken Street and half-brothers George Sweetnam-Ford on bass and Dave Sweetnam-Ford on saxophone. The band took the unusual move of turning down EMI because they refused to let them self-produce, unlike Pye Records, who they signed with. Their first single was to be a cover of the country song Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles, with a doo-wop version of What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? quickly knocked off in half an hour at the end of a recording session. Airplay was so in favour of the latter that it was promoted to the A-side.

For a man with a reputation for his obsession with sound engineering, it’s ironic that his only number 1 was made almost as an afterthought, with little manipulation. It only adds to its charm though, and the swaggering doo-wop arrangement makes it one of the catchier number 1s of the decade, let alone year. Ford’s vocal is suitably raw and powerful too.

What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? rocketed up the charts, and initially shared the top spot with Adam Faith’s bizarrely-similarly-titled What Do You Want?for a week, before taking over and becoming the 1959 Christmas number 1. It remained there for six weeks, ruling the charts for most of the first month of the 60s. Ford became the first Black British artist to sell a million copies of one single. The band made the top 20 several times more, and they were voted Best New Act of 1960 by the New Musical Express. They became augmented by female backing singers known as the Fordettes for a while, before they went to work with Joe Brown. In 1960, Ford used his success as a way to continue an idea he had been working on. The band became the first group to use a backing track system at times for their hugely popular stage show, so you could argue that Ford invented karaoke, in a sense. Whether he did or not, this invention certainly changed live music forever, eventually. Their live sets were also known for their punchy sound, thanks to the band insisting on using their own PA system. It’s interesting to note that Ford, like Jimi Hendrix, had synaesthesia, a condition where a person can see certain colours in relation to the sound they are hearing. He believed this condition was a huge factor in his obsession with sound.

The band split in 1963 as the Beatles became huge (at one point the Fab Four had supported them), and Ford set up a recording studio with his father in Barbados in 1969, before moving to Sweden. In the 70s he worked on his open-air playback system for live shows, which he dubbed the Liveoteque Sound Frequency Feedback Injection System. This equipment was later used by artists as huge as Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson. Ford died in April 2016, aged 78. The song that made his name would see further chart action in 1987, when 50s-throwback Shakin’ Stevens recorded his version. Take a look at the video and try not to smile at a now-bygone age. You just don’t get videos as cheesy and cheery as this anymore. Keep an eye out for a pre-fame Vic Reeves, too.

So that’s the 50s number 1s all wrapped up. I hope you’ve enjoyed a read and a listen. Before I move on to one of the most fascinating decades in music though, I’m going to have to decide on my best and worst number 1s of the 50s. Watch this space…

Written by: Joseph McCarthy, Howard Johnson & James V Monaco

Producer: Michael Barclay

Weeks at number 1: 6 (18 December 1959-28 January 1960)


Comedian Tracey Ullman – 30 December

Chef Nigella Lawson – 6 January 

Choreographer Matthew Bourne – 13 January 

Actor Mark Rylance – 18 January 

Racewalker Paul Blagg – 23 January 


Tennis player Dorothea Douglass Lambert Chambers – 7 January 

Children’s author Elsie J Oxenham – 9 January 

Author Nevil Shute – 12 January

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