The Cheques’ claim to fame on the rare soul scene was via a track entitled “Deeper”. Initially acquired from record collector and dealer Dave Raistrick this 45 was championed on the UK northern soul scene in the 1990’s by DJ Butch, covered up as Dave Newman and the Checkers “I Go Deeper”. The band were compromised a group of mostly young white Air Force personnel. Members included Tony Nardi (keyboards, vocals), Mike Ventimiglia (now also known as Dagger) on lead vocal, Sam Ryland (bass guitar, vocals), Chuck Parrino (drums, background vocals) and Matthew Joshua (rhythm guitar). Joshua was later replaced by Wayne Pagels. Mike Ventimiglia (a.k.a. Dagger) was born and raised with his brother and sister in Paterson, New Jersey:
“My Dad was a police detective and a big music fan. At one time he aspired to be a crooner. He always had music playing in the house. Big Bands and Frank Sinatra mostly but always a mixture of swing and pop tunes. At about 6 or 7 years of age I started harmonizing with my brother to Everly Brothers songs. We were always the hit of the family parties! I played trumpet at junior school as well – laid it down at High School but continued it later when I went to Vietnam. As an older child, I was part of a group that sang doo wop music on the street corners of the Totowa section of Paterson. A’capella was big in those days. I listened to many different kinds of music but was particularly attracted to Sam and Dave, James Brown, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, The Tymes and eventually Elvis. In the early 1960s the Beatles and the British groups got my attention too.”
Chuck Parrino originated from St. Louis, Missouri:
“My family lived in a community know locally as The Hill. It was a very close community made up mostly of Italian immigrants. My father was from Sicily and came over with his grandfather to America. He probably had the biggest musical influence in my life. He loved music, especially the big bands of the 40's. Naturally that's all I heard when I was a small child. My father would probably have been a good musician, he had a great ear and great timing. He just never took time to learn to play an instrument.” Chuck’s interest for music continues through his childhood, learning to play the drums and forming a band in high school. “When I was a freshman in high school, I met three other classmates who wanted to start a band. They needed a drummer. We started playing at "sock hops" - called that because they were usually in Catholic school gymnasiums and you couldn’t wear shoes on the floor, so the kids danced in their socks. I really got into soul music and there were some great black soul bands here in St. Louis that I would go to see whenever I could. One of the acts was Ike and Tina Turner. They blew my mind.” Chuck had a spell in a group at college, then as a senior he received notice that he was to be drafted. He enlisted instead, arriving at England Air Force Base in August 1966, aged 22.
England Air Force Base was located 5 miles north west of Alexandria, Louisiana. The base played an active role in combat training and military service provision to World War II, the Vietnam War and more recently in Operation Desert Storm before shutdown in 1992 and conversion to what is now Alexandria International Airport. Mike, 20 years of age at the time, was assigned to the 6th Air Commando Squadron, Munitions Maintenance Division with primary responsibility for loading bombs and guns.
“I think it was early 1967 when I first met the guys on the base” says Mike. “I was in the recreation building one day where Tony and Chuck were practicing. They had already got something started with Sam (a local student from Pineville, near Alexandria) on bass and Matt on guitar. I was asked to join them after sitting in on a couple of tunes at that practice. Due to the damage I did to my brain in the 70’s , if someone else has a different version of the first meeting, I will have to defer to their memory - I killed a lot of brain cells back then! But I think we practiced in the rec hall and initially played at the base. The first gig was on Valentine’s Day February 14th 1967 at the Airman’s Club.”
Sam Ryland remembers how he joined the band: “In 1967 I was in high school enjoying what I thought was a normal life....weekends playing music with a local band called Lady Janice and the Stingrays. I didn’t know of The Cheques at this time. They had just formed as a group at the Air Force Base. They were scheduled to play at the base at the Airmen’s Lounge, when their bass player’s amp went out. They were desperate because they didn’t know any bass players in the area. Chuck Parrino was dating this young lady that lived down the street from me. She knew that I played bass and mentioned this to the guys. They asked her to call me to see if I would be willing to loan them my amp for the night. I said yes on one condition: that I would be allowed to sit in with the band (just a few songs). They agreed. I was very cocky in those days. It was during their first few songs that I learned that their bass player who was using my amp was a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music - WHAT THE HELL HAVE I DONE - but they were young men of good character and insisted that I sit in. I was so embarrassed but I did. Some months later The Cheques needed to replace their bassist, because of deployment issues. By this time they had many musical contacts in the local area and I was asked to come for an audition if I was interested. I ‘auditioned’ for the next three years until the group disbanded due to deployment.”
Chuck remembered some of the other venues. “As our popularity grew we started playing at the NCO club and the Officers club. We then began playing off base, all over the state. Some of the local night clubs included Mike's Club, the Tiki Lounge, the Evangeline Club in Ville Platt, and The Brown Derby in St. Charles, Louisiana. There were many more.”
The Cheques’ first 45 was produced in 1967 with “In the Groove” / “To Stone” (Boss Rock 45-101), recorded in Shreveport, Louisiana. The next year, Toni Nardi set up his custom label Heatwave, for the band to produce the next two 45s. The first, “Sticks and Stones” / “If You Leave Me Now” HW 1000-1 / HW 2000-2), was recorded at Robin Hood Bryant Studios in Tyler, Texas. Their 45 with the most northern soul appeal was “Deeper” / “Funky Monkey” (Heatwave HW-4000). “Deeper” was written by Tony, Mike, Matthew and Chuck, with Mike on lead vocals and the rest of the band on harmonies, and is a breezy, mid tempo dancer with a swing and an infectious hook. “Funky Monkey” was a take on Major Lance’s “Monkey Time” for Okeh, which proved a popular dance record in the south and south eastern states around that time. The band considered “Funky Monkey” as the A side, as this was the track which received most airplay and reached the top 10 on the local radio station KDBS in Alexandria.
Most likely as a result of the local success of their Heatwave 45, Stax offered them a deal on the Hip subsidiary, although the label wanted to use their own session musicians on the sessions:
“The sessions were done in Jackson, Mississippi in 1969 just before I went to Nam” says Mike. “The instrumentation for some of the tracks were studio guys from there. I sang lead and Tony, Chuck and Sammy sang back ups on “Cool My Desire”. Of course this upset us all and as a result we were all a little bummed out. The flip side was "Walk With Me" which all of us were either playing or singing on, again with me on lead vocal. The next release was "I Wanna Testify". We did play and sing on that, but the flip side was "Sweet Sally Brown". I don't know who that was but it definitely was not The Cheques. When I went to Nam, I heard that "Cool My Desire" (Hip HIA-8014) was a hit in the Memphis area. Tony tells me it is under glass, I guess meaning it hangs in the Stax museum in Memphis.”
In autumn 1969 after the Hip recordings, Mike was due to be shipped out to Vietnam. “We all cried like babies at our final gig” says Sam. “The Cheques scheduled the Air Men’s Lounge for our final performance...the place where it all began...and invited our many fans and family to come. There were some former club owners that we personally had flown in for this occasion.” At Mike’s station in Tuy Hoa, Vietnam, he was asked to front a group playing the officer and airmen’s club. This led to the formation of Mike and the Groovemakers, a nine piece R&B horn band who were soon being taken often by helicopter to play adjacent army bases. Unfortunately no 45 recordings were made by The Groovemakers, although live reel to reel tape does exist.
Shortly after, Toni Nardi was sent to Thailand. Whilst stationed out at Utapo Airfield, Tony and five other servicemen formed another band named Salt and Pepper. They continued playing R&B, around Bangkok, in service clubs, bars, and at Pattaya Beach. The following spring, Salt and Pepper cut two tracks at a studio in Sri Kruong, Bangkok, including “Man of My Word”. Toni pressed a 250 run of “Man of My Word” using his previous Heatwave custom label template. The song is an atmospheric dance number, with a distinctive ‘Tighten Up’ riff throughout. This small stock was quickly depleted as they were given to G.I.s and Thai locals. Very few copies escaped – however “Man of My Word” was discovered and played decades later on the UK rare soul scene around 2008 again by DJ Butch at the 100 Club in London. The full story of Salt and Pepper can be found on the liner notes of the Kent CD Northern Soul’s Classiest Rarities: Volume 4 (CDKEND 338).
None of the other band members were shipped overseas. After returning from Vietnam, Mike continued his music career initially in Alexandria, then relocated to New Orleans to join the popular cover band Paper Steamboat who supported Rare Earth, Joe Cocker, Ted Nugent, Frank Zappa and others. In the south with the close of the decade, these were now changing musical times. Mike has continued to pursue his music career ever since in numerous groups between Louisiana and New Jersey. Toni Nardi also keeps his hand in. Together with Ed Mobley, co-writer of “Man of My Word”, Tony continues to work to this day in the music business. Chuck took a career path other than music, entering the restaurant trade, electrical contracting and financial services. He is now married, settled in Ballwin, Missouri and soon to retire. The whereabouts of Matthew Joshua and Wayne Pagels are at present unknown.
Sam comments: “After the Cheques were split I attended a Community College in Houston, playing music at night to support myself. But I was spoiled to the good life of a member of a popular band. I went back to playing music full time with Mike in New Orleans for while then moved back to Alexandria to join the Air Force. I married in 1975. As soon as my enlistment was complete, we moved on to Baton Rouge. I continued my passion of playing music. In 2013, I decided to give music a break. For better or worse, music had been an important part of my life since 1963. I just felt it was time to pursue other pleasures of life. But it has brought me so many wonderful joys and it has been a beautiful trek. Long live the BLUES.... and The Cheques! We all have moved on with our lives, but we stay in touch and am so honoured for the experience and maturity those guys exposed to me”.
(The Cheques is a chapter excerpt from "Rhythm Message", a book by E. Mark Windle available to order from the new book section)