• by Nick Warburton

    Toronto¹s 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, whose name the others cannot remember. They were joined soon afterwards by classically trained keyboard player Michael Fonfara (b. August 11, 1946, Stevensville, near Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada).

    Towards the end of 1963, the group¹s manager introduced a second lead guitarist, Larry Leishman (b. April 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. April 16, 1946, Toronto, Ontario, Canada), also ex-The Tempests were added alongside drummer Wes Morris. Morris¹ predecessor, Dave Brown meanwhile had gone on to join Jay Smith & The Majestics. When Morris left to join The Majestics in the summer of 1964, the group added Jeff Cutler (September 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 city¹s vibrant club scene and for a while were residents at Yorkville¹s Avenue Road Club and the Devil¹s Den. In April of that year Jon and Lee and The Checkmates opened for The Rolling Stones at Toronto¹s Maple Leaf Gardens, followed by what was probably their most prestigious concert performance, an appearance (in front of 60,000 people) at Nathan Philips Square in September supporting Bobby Curtola.

    Around this time, the group cut two songs on 4-track with their manager and musical director, Eddie ŒDuke¹ 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.

    Shortening their name to The Jon-Lee Group in June 1967, the band travelled to New York to play at Steve Paul¹s The Scene and to record for ABC Records. The band completed four tracks, including a cover of The Lovin¹ Spoonful¹s “Girl Beautiful Girl,” which never saw the light of day. Instead, the label chose to release the soulful ŒBring It Down Front¹ with the instrumental rocker ŒPork Chops¹ (credited to the group¹s mentor Eddie ŒDuke¹ Edwards, and provisionally titled ŒFuck Up¹). 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 Toronto¹s Chum chart.

    On 31 July 1967, the band returned to Toronto for its final set of gigs. The band¹s music started to take on a more psychedelic bent but didn¹t go down so well with audiences. Jackson and Finley separated from the band in mid-September 1967 and, after a few weeks, the others moved to New York to become house band at Steve Paul¹s The Scene. For a while they acted as David Clayton-Thomas¹ 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 Elektra¹s 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 Œ70s, 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 Holy Modal Rounders and 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. With John Finley the band has recorded its first album which is due for release in 2006.