Any semi-hip attendee of the University of New Hampshire in the mid-1960s surely remembers dancing to The Checkmates. You know, Animal House “Otis Day & The Nights” style (togas encouraged). The long-running band lasted from 1962-1967 and entertained co-eds all over northern New England. Members checked in and out over the years, but the one constant throughout was vocalist, guitarist and founder Gardner Spencer. In the spring of 1964, Gardner, along with core ’mates Andy Merton, Jim Wood and Steve Oaks, hijacked the UNH radio station to record a couple of tracks, the popular cover tune “Midnight Special” and an original composition, “Eyes On You, Baby,” to garner interest for their upcoming busy summer schedule. The frequent gigging proved lucrative as well, Andy recalls: “I made my entire college tuition playing for that band.”
Interestingly, in 1966-67, Andy traded places with Dave Clapp, bassist for the York, Maine-based band The Outside In, and played on their 45 (read the Basement Walls feature).
Gardner gives the complete lowdown on UNH's true “frat rockers”:
The Checkmates were formed in the spring of 1962 at the University of New Hampshire in Durham by three freshmen and a sophomore, myself as vocalist/guitar, Dave Seavey on drums, Jim Wood on lead guitar, and Spencer Michelin on piano. We played the fraternity circuit in northern New England from 1962 through 1967. I was the only member who was involved the entire period. The lineups over the years were:
Lead Vocalist and Guitar:
Gardner Spencer (1962-1967)
Jim Wood (1962-1965)
Tom Wright (1965-1966)
Ken Baker (1966-1967)
Bob Fellows (1967)
Dave Seavey (1962-1963, 1966-1967)
Steve Oaks (1963-1966)
Gardner Greene (1962-1963)
Andy Merton (1963-1966)
Dave Clapp (1966-1967)
Charlie McDonnell (1967)
Spencer Michelin (1962)
Paul Nizza (1965-1966)
Jim Perkins (1966-1967)
The band was known as the Checkmates until 1965 and then was changed to the Soul Survivors for the college circuit because there was a nationally known Checkmates band that emerged that year. Of course, another band emerged in 1967 with the Soul Survivors name. The Checkmates name was retained for our summer circuit where we well established. From 1964 to 1967 we played at Newell's Casino in Whitefield, N.H., and Serenity Hill in Naples, Maine, and other summer dance halls in northern New England.
The record was recorded at the college radio station at UNH in the spring of 1964 as a promotion idea for our summer gigs. Andy Merton, the bass player, arranged to have the record pressed. When we received the records, we realized they were intended to be ‘demos’ because they had Andy's and my name in big print and the band in small print. Of course we didn't write “Midnight Special” but we did write the flip side. [Note that on the label, the “written by” text is crossed out on the “Midnight Special” side. Andy says the songwriting credit was “an embarrassing error by whomever created the label. Spence and I never intentionally claimed authorship.”] We sold them at one of the college stores and at our gigs during the summer of 1964.
We disbanded in 1967 because I had finished graduate school and had go out and get a real job. I still entertain here in Florida, playing tunes from the 50's through the 80's two or three times a month.
— Gardner Spencer, May 2015
Gardner Spencer continued to play music his entire life. Tragically, he succumbed to injuries sustained in a bike riding accident in Ocala, Fla., in January 2016. (His obituary can be viewed here.) This entry is dedicated to his memory. Rock on, Gardner.
Thanks to George Gell for the label scans and mp3s.
Alert: The Basement Walls still needs a copy of the Checkmates 45 for the New England archives. If you've got a well-partied disc hanging around five decades later, please get in touch!
Eyes On You, Baby / Midnight Special
no label (RK4M-0087/88)