As was the case virtually everywhere, the early roots coming from the west coast stemmed from a handful of groups that played the local teen centres and hall dances. The Chessmen were actually a conglomeration of several groups that were all starting out and all with varied influences. Guy Sobell joined his first garage band The Ken Clark Trio in 1959, learning the top British groups of the day, such as The Shadows and The Beatles, as well as some of the more eccentric European sounds, such as Sweden’s The Spotnicks. Although they hadn’t been in a recording studio, the band managed a relative degree of success on the UBC frat house circuit, but in late 1962 he decided to form a new band, and looked around campus for potential bandmates.
Seveteen year-old Terry Jacks was among those who answered the ad. It was assumed he’d stay in the family’s architecture business, which is what he was studying. But he was also pursuing his songwriting dreams and had formed a surf band called The Sand Dwellers. Even though they’d never played live, they released a pair of singles to the radio stations, and “Build Your Castle Higher,” co-written by bandmade John Crowe, was Jacks’ first recording. That song made Billboard’s top 40 a few years later when its title was changed to “Midnight Surfer” and recorded by Jerry Cole and The Spacemen.
The group was rounded out by Bill Lockie on bass, and Sobell’s regular chess opponent Erik Kalaidzis (hence the origin of the band’s name), who became their first singer. Still without a drummer, they began playing anything and everything at the frat parties. But after only a few gigs, Kalaidzis left, and after a couple of shows as an instrumental group, Jacks ultimately assumed the vocal duties. After finally settling on Kenny Moore on drums, their following grew and they became regulars on the hottest coffee houses around the city over the next couple of years. In the spring of ’64 they went to Robin Spurgin’s Vancouver recording studio and recorded their first single, “Meadowlands” b/w “Mustang. A third track, “When I’m Not There” was recorded, but never released. But after catching the attention of local radio stations, the instrumental surf feeling “Meadowlands” was passed on to London Records, who released it that December. It did well enough it was released Stateside on Jerden Records, but failed to chart.
But at home they’d put together a string of successful mini-tours of the smallest of all small venues across the province, into Alberta, and in the American northwest that took them well into the summer of ’65. But management at London was suggesting a sound change, and the group even even auditioned female vocalists. Jacks ultimately remained the singer, and they released “The Way You Fell” b/w “She Comes By Night.” Jacks, meanwhile, was still pursuing his songwriting for other artists ambition, and it was while pitching a song to Brenda Lee in the spring of ’65 that he was introduced to her manager Dub Albritten, whose resume included Hank Snow, Red Foley, Roy Orbison and Ernest Tubb. Albritten took the band back to Nashville with him, where it was practically unheard of for Canadian artists to be. During those trips to Nashville over the summer and fall more personnel changes were underway, as Moore had been replaced on drums by Myles Kingan and accordian/keyboardist Bruce Peterson had come on board. Kingan in turn left and was replaced by Al Weirtz. Landing them a deal with Mercury Records, Albritten brought in Jerry Kennedy (Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Roger Miller) as producer, and they recorded “Love Didn’t Die” b/w “You Lost Your Game” which on the radio waves and in the stores that December.
When they weren’t recording in ’65, they were touring, and by year’s end had opened for the likes of Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Buddy Knox, The Castaways, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison and The Beach Boys. During this period Peterson and Lockie both left the group, and new bassist Larry Borisoff was in. They were becoming regulars on the CBC program “Music Hop,” where Jacks would meet future with Susan Pleskevits. They were on the radio at home and in the US, and their print exposure even stretched to Nashville and Chatelaine Magazine in Canada.
They took a break from the road the next spring to return to Nashville, where they cut what would be their final single,” What’s Causing This Sensation,” released that spring and backed with “For Running Wild.” The revolving door continued to swing, as Duris Maxwell was brought in as the new drummer, and they continued to tour until July of 1966, when the band dissolved and members went their seperate ways. The only member to achieve any success afterwards was Jacks, who, along with his new wife, formed The Poppy Family. While also doing solo records, he formed Mushroom Studios and also penned perhaps Canada’s greatest syrupy song of the 70s with “Seasons In The Sun.”
In 2009 Regenerator Records released THE CHESSMATES COLLECTION, a disc full of the London and Mercury singles, as well as the unreleased recordings and live out-takes from their final few shows. Jacks also redid the vocal tracks on “When I’m Not There” for the album.