Chubby Checker

 

Every generation has its music icons. To most Americans, the name “Chubby Checker” is synonymous with the dance known as the Twist. When Chubby Checker burst onto the music scene in 1960, Americans changed their ideas about what it meant to dance. To previous generations, dancing meant close dancing, but lack of physical contact was key for the Twist. Other dances replaced the Twist and were in turn replaced by yet newer ones. But the style of dancing that was popularized with the Twist, one that could be described as “two people standing apart, dancing “at” each other instead of “with each other…” (Logan) has been adopted through the years by generations of young people and their seniors, swaying to the sounds of rock and roll.

 

The future music phenomenon was born Ernest Evans in Spring Gulley in Williamsburg County, on October 3, 1941. The son of a struggling tobacco farmer, he moved with his family to Philadelphia, Pa. when he was nine years old. As a teenager he found a job at a local produce market and also gained his nickname from a boss who decided that he was “Chubby.” The young man liked to sing, and his next employer decided to have him entertain his customers. Along with plucking chickens, Chubby sang popular songs. Serendipitously, Kal Mann, who was in the music business and was a friend of Chubby’s employer, heard Chubby sing. Mann recommended Chubby to Dick Clark, who had a popular rock and roll show in Philadelphia and who had asked him to write a Christmas song and find a singer. Clark was looking for someone who could sing like Fats Domino, and Chubby Evans fit the bill. Clark’s wife Bobbie came up with the second part of Evans’ stage name, citing parallels between “Fats” and “Chubby,” and “Domino” and “Checker” (Chubby Checker, “Biography”).

 

Although he is closely associated with the song, “TheTwist,” Chubby Checker did not write it. Singer Hank Ballard wrote a song entitled “The Twist” in 1959 and recorded it with his own band, the Midnighters. Ballard recorded it as the second or “B” side of the record, and the song did not do too well. But rock and roll dancing was becoming popular, and in 1960 Dick Clark decided to have the song re-recorded by a friend’s recording company. After another group failed to come up with a satisfactory version, Clark asked Chubby to give it a try. Chubby Checker, who was seventeen years old at the time and still in high school, is said to have recorded his new version of the Twist in just thirty-five minutes (Cannon). He went on Dick Clark’s show, American Bandstand, to sing it and danced to the Twist (Rea). He followed this by promoting it in other public appearances, losing thirty pounds that year by “twisting” (Cannon). The record was phenomenally successful, reaching the number one slot on the charts in the U.S. (Cannon; Rea). Discovered by the British as well, the Twist climbed to the top of the charts in Great Britain in 1962 (“Chubby Checker”).

 

It seemed for a time that people all over the planet were dancing the Twist, including even First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Chubby’s 1961 recording of “Pony Time,” which had been originally recorded by Clarence ‘Pine Top’ Smith as “Boogie Woogie,” gave him a second gold record and a second song that hit number one on the charts (“Chubby Checker”). In the meantime, the popularity of the Twist spawned “Let’s Twist Again,” as well as other related songs, including “”Twist it Up” and “Slow Twistin’.”  Other musicians jumped on the bandwagon, including the Isley Brothers, Joey Dee, and Sam Cooke. All of them released Twist-related songs (“Chubby Checker”). For Chubby, the songs led to movies. He starred in several, including “Twist Around the Clock” and “Don’t Knock the Twist.” While young people, always eager for novelty, began to try the latest dances, the Twist found a new group of devotees among socialites at New York’s Peppermint Lounge. Their enthusiasm helped to spur a renewed interest in the dance and the song (Cannon).

 

“The Twist” was re-released in 1962 and was even more successful the second time around, hitting number one on the charts again (Lonergan). It remained in first place for thirteen weeks (Logan). No other rock and roll record managed to reach the number one spot twice. The music industry recognized Chubby’s accomplishments by awarding him a Grammy in 1962 for his 1961 recording “Let’s Twist Again” (Lonergan).  According to a 1962 poll, Chubby was even more popular than Elvis among young people (Infield).

 

In time other songs replaced the Twist. During the 1960s, Chubby continued to sing and to record, with more than twenty albums, including six that reached the Top 40, and forty singles to his credit. He never again achieved the kind of success that he had had with the Twist. But Chubby Checker can look back on a life filled with achievements. His marriage to the 1962 Miss World was a success. Chubby and his wife, Catharina Lodders, a native of the Netherlands, raised three children at their 14 acre estate in Paoli, Pennsylvania.

 

He gained additional fame in his tours. Over a period of more than thirty years, he has traveled around the country, performing somewhere between 200 and 300 nights a year. Like many other musicians of his generation, he appeals to baby boomers as well as to the very young and the very old. Patrons at a variety of venues, from state fairs to college homecomings to an Atlantic City casino, have listened to his music and danced along with him.

 

In 1995, he formed a new recording company of his own and recorded his first new CD on its label. With the release of “The Texas Twist,” Checker headed in a new direction, into country music (Logan; Infield; Rush). Then in 2004, in yet another new incarnation as a rap artist, he began to refer to himself as Chubby C (“People…”). His new song, “Limbo Rock Remixes,” reached number 16 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Singles chart in the spring of 2004 (“Chubby Checker’s Twisted Protest”). Along the way, he has also marketed a number of products, including a beef jerky that is available in a variety of flavors, mini-sausages, and even a line of clothing (“Chubby Checker’s ‘Twisted’ Protest;” Infield).

 

Although he received a number of honors, Chubby Checker has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Fans often express surprise and bewilderment at his omission.  Rock historian Richard Aquila comments that Chubby “…is not given enough recognition for the Twist…It’s hard to overestimate the cultural impact it had…” (Infield). Some students of music history surmise that Hall of Fame voters may have excluded Checker because he is not the author of the song or creator of the dance, the Twist. They note that Hank Ballard was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990, thirteen years before his death. Some have argued that the voters may have excluded Chubby because they feel that Dick Clark gave him too much of a helping hand by promoting the song. Ballard himself, in a 1993 interview, made that same argument, stating: “Everybody associates the Twist with Chubby Checker. That’s fair, because he really popularized it. But what really made ‘The Twist’ a big record was American Bandstand. Anybody could have sung ‘The Twist’ and had a hit with it with Dick Clark behind it…” (Rea).

 

Still others argue that Chubby has complained too much. They point out that in 2003, after he was once again overlooked by the Hall of Fame committee, he took out an ad in Billboard stating that “before Alexander Graham Bell, no telephone…before Thomas Edison, no electric light…before Chubby Checker, no dancing apart to the beat” (Infield). On a link from his web page, Checker addressed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame committee, stating in part: “…Should you choose me I’ll consider it honorable. However, I have conditions for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To place the “Twist” symbol that’s on Chubby Checker’s Beef Jerky, this statue on top of a thirty foot or so pedestal in the courtyard of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…Chubby Checker’s given the music business something great. Now he wants his greatness returned. I want my flowers while I’m alive…” (Chubby Checker, “Letter”).

 

In 2003, unhappy with the Hall of Fame decision and the failure, in his view, of some radio stations to give his songs adequate play time, Checker staged a brief protest outside of the Manhattan building where the induction ceremonies were being held (Rush). Perhaps he will yet realize his wish. In March 2004, Seymour Stein, a member of the selection committee, noted in an interview that Chubby Checker “…is someone who will be considered. He has in certain years…” (“Chubby Checker’s ‘Twisted’ Protest”).

 

Chubby Checker is not shy about assessing his impact and the impact of the Twist on the world of music. He once said: “I compare the Twist to the electric light…The Twist is me, and I’m it. I’m the electric light” (Cannon). In a 1997 interview, Checker again assessed his impact on the music world, commenting: “Dancing apart to music with a beat is my legacy” (Knapp). More recently, in 2003, the singer commented: “In two minutes and forty-two seconds, we changed the world” (Infield).

 

Ron Mann, who filmed a 1993 documentary entitled ‘Twist,’ perhaps best summarizes Chubby Checker’s contributions to the world of rock and roll. In a 1993 interview, Mann stated his views on the impact that Chubby Checker had on popular music. “It was a cultural phenomenon on a par with the launch of Elvis Presley…It really captured the hips of the world” (Rea). Generations of young people, dancing to the beat, would agree.

 

 

 Sources:

 

Cannon, Bob. “A simple twist of feet.” Entertainment Weekly 188 (September 17, 1993): 96.

 

Checker, Chubby. “Biography.” Accessed online at http://www.chubbychecker.com/Bio.htm on May 24, 2004.

 

Checker, Chubby. “Letter.” Accessed online at http://www.chubbychecher.com/letter.html on May 24, 2004.

 

“Chubby Checker.” The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music 1, Colin Larkin, editor. (NY: Stockton Press, 1995): 777-778.

 

“Chubby Checker’s ‘Twisted’ Protest.” Fox News Channel (March 16, 2004). Accessed online at http://www.foxnews.com/printer_friendly_story/0,3566,114262,00.html on May 25, 2004.

 

Einstein, Charles. “Chubby twists again.” The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ: April 11, 2004): 6.

 

Infield, Tom. “Chubby Checker finds exclusion a cruel twist of fate.” The State (Columbia, SC: June 29, 2003): E3.

 

Knapp, Tom. “Chubby Checker: twistin’ his life away.” Rambles (October 1997). Accessed online at http://www.rambles.net/chubby_checker.html on May 25, 2004.

 

Logan, Joe. “It all began in South Philadelphia, with a swivel of the hips.”  Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (July 19, 1995): 719.

 

Lonergan, David. “Chubby Checker.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture (2002). Accessed online at http://articles.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_glepc/is_bio/ai_2419200217/print

on May 25, 2004.

 

Moody, Nekesa Mumbi, and David Bauder. “Chubby puts a twist on his protest.” The Houston Chronicle (Houston, Tx: March 21, 2004): 15.

 

“Newsmakers.” The Houston Chronicle (Houston, Tx: April 12, 2004): 2.

 

“People: Chubby Checker goes for “twist” record.” The State (Columbia, SC: April 12, 2004): A2.

 

Pride, Dominic. “K-Tel, Checker win suit to control Dominion masters.” Billboard, 106 (9) (February 26, 1994): 13.

 

Rea, Steven. “New documentary puts a historical twist on the Twist.” Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (July 14, 1993): 714.

 

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. List of inductees. Accessed at http://www.rockhall.com/hof/allinductees.asp on June 9, 2004.

 

Rush, Dianne Sams. “Chubby Checker’s now doing the twist Texas-style.” Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (May 11, 1995): 511.

 

                                                                     

Carol Sears Botsch

Associate Professor of Political Science, USC Aiken carolb@usca.edu

 

Last updated 10/12/04