CHECKMATE: DÉJÀ VU Wiley & the Checkmates


The Mississippi soul band starts another game.




Herbert Wiley has been here before. He originally formed the
Checkmates in the early 1960s and the band made quite a name touring the
chitlin’ circuit supporting soul luminaries like Percy Sledge and Otis Clay. Although
gaining momentum, in 1970 Wiley’s daughter was born and he left the music world
to raise his kids and take over the family business. More than 35 years later,
Wiley and the Checkmates are back in the game and have recently released their
sophomore album We Call It Soul (Rabbit Factory).


Now 66, Wiley had no intention of getting involved in the
music biz again, but in 2002, while working at the family shoe repair shop in Oxford, MS,
he heard a local punk band rehearsing. It was the bass that got him. Wiley had
recently been playing bass in church and he happened to have his instrument
with him in the shop. He picked it up and started messing around with some of
the old songs he used to do with the Checkmates. “It hit me so hard I just
couldn’t stop,” says Wiley, speaking to Blurt while on tour in Arkansas.
“And that’s when the Checkmates got restarted again.”


Part of the soul resurgence being led by younger artists
such as Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Adele as well as older voices finally getting
their due like Sharon Jones, Charles Walker and Betty LaVette, Wiley says he
was “very surprised by the younger people diggin’ this kind of music. Come to
find out they like the old school as well. They call it the old school, I call
it good music.”


Due to the “pushing and pushing” of touring guitarist J.D.
Mark (who also plays guitar in LCD Soundsystem’s live band), in 2004 Wiley and
the Checkmates released their debut album, Introducing…. Raising the bar for We Call It Soul,
the Checkmates brought in a slew of special guests including harmonica player
Ed Kollis (Elvis Presley, Leonard Cohen), backup singer Regina McCrary (Bob
Dylan), keyboardist Tony Crow (Silver Jews) and mixing engineer Mark Nevers
(Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Lambchop) to create a juicy contemporary soul record
with just the right blend of grit under the nails and spit polish shine. And
don’t underestimate the importance of the title. “Soul is kind of forgotten,”
says Wiley. “And that’s why [we named the album] We Call It Soul, we gonna reach back and get the soul and bring it
back to light.”


As much satisfaction as Wiley gets from recording, like all
the soul greats, it’s onstage where the magic truly happens. “I want to get in
touch with the people,” remarks Wiley. “In the live performance I get out there and I get tangled up with the
people, you have to reach the audience, see what they like, get in touch with
them, get in their heads and be a part of them and let them be a part of you. You
can have the best voice in the world but unless you know how to entertain
people it don’t mean a thing.”



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