Emile Ford – What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?

15th March 2021 · 1960, 1960s, Music

This song is an important piece of pop history. Emile Ford was the first black Briton to sell a millon copies of a single. Almost as historically, it topped the charts on my second birthday.

Emile positively oozes star quality in his shiny satin shirt. I love that casual flick of the hand synchronised to the drum beat, and I love the way he sings out of the side of his mouth.

But despite his obvious charisma, it seems he was a reluctant front man, preferring to tinker with electronic equipment behind the scenes in the studio, inventing the prototype of the karaoke machine.

Emile Sweetnam was born and raised in St Lucia and arrived in the UK in 1955, when he was in his late teens, initially to continue his study of sound reproduction and amplification equipment.

In order to demonstrate his inventions, including the playback system that would become known as karaoke, he taught himself a range of musical instruments. He even formed a band with his two brothers.

Emile Ford & The Checkmates gathered a following in the clubs and a one-off single for Pye ended up launching his career. Ford used his studio expertise to produce it himself – with the help of a sound engineer called Joe Meek.

Although the uptempo Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles was a flop, the B-side – a doo-wop cover of a song from 1916 Broadway musical – became a huge hit.
What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For went to No.1 in late 1959 and stayed there for six weeks… right through to my second birthday in January.

Emile enjoyed six hits in 1960 alone and The Checkmates were voted Best New Act in that year’s New Musical Express awards. But by 1963 the group had split and Ford went back to his first love of designing sound equipment.

He later set up his own studio in Barbados, where his father was a prominent politician, before moving to Sweden to develop an open-air playback system for stage shows.

He attributed his skill at music production to having synesthesia – the ability to ‘see’ sounds as colours. He died in London in 2016, at the age of 78.