Deemed "one of the pop-cultural symbols of the early '60s" by Hugh Boulware in the Chicago Tribune, Chubby Checker is practically synonymous in the minds of most music buffs with the 1960s dance craze, the Twist. Though rhythm and blues singer Hank Ballard had recorded "The Twist" earlier, it was Checker's version of the song that became the most popular and spread the dance throughout the world. "What we started in the '60s set the stage for what is still going on," Checker told Boulware. "We invented dancing apart." Checker continued to capitalize on the twist--which he described to Jon Bowermaster in Newsday as a movement akin to "drying your butt with a towel while grinding out a cigarette"--and other dances during the early 1960s with such follow-up hits as "Limbo Rock," "Pony Time," and "Let's Twist Again."
Checker was born Ernest Evans on October 3, 1941, in South Carolina. Moving with his family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when he was eight years old, the youngster became a shoe shiner and was earning $60 a day at the age of nine. He then turned to the chicken-plucking business for a time while amassing fame in his neighborhood for his accurate impressions of singers Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. Performing at work, in church, and on the streets by night with his harmonizing group, the Quantrells, Chubby--as he was nicknamed because of his portly build--was eventually offered a recording contract by Cameo Records.
Checker's first two singles for Cameo, "The Class" and "Dancing Dinosaur," failed to attract much in the way of public notice. As Ballard's version of "The Twist" began to gain favor with dancers, Cameo decided to have Checker make a cover recording of it. Fortunately, Philadelphia, Cameo's locale, was also home to Dick Clark's nationally televised dance show American Bandstand. Chubby landed an appearance on the popular program, earning the surname "Checker" from Clark's wife, who likened the singer to Fats Domino, and ensuring a wide audience for his catchy song and dance routine. As Ed Ward put it in his book Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, it wasn't long before the performer "claimed the top slot on the pop charts," despite the fact that "it was a nearly identical copy" of the other artist's version, "right down to Ballard's signature cry of eee-yah. "
And the twist dance craze didn't let up as fast as others. When teenagers' interest in the song abated, adults began to request it in clubs, perhaps because the dance itself "was so simple," in Ward's words. As Checker's popularity grew among adults, he was invited to sing "The Twist" on The Ed Sullivan Show; this induced Cameo to re-release the single, and at the beginning of 1962, it once again climbed to the top of the charts. Between its two release dates, "The Twist" was Number One for a total of 40 weeks.
Banking on the huge popularity of the twist, Checker followed his hit tune with a succession of similar songs, including "Twistin' USA," "Let's Twist Again," "Twist It Up," and "Slow Twistin," and had six Top Ten hits between 1961 and 1963. Though the singer tried to inspire such dance crazes as the hucklebuck, the pony, the fly, the slop, and the limbo, like many other U.S. musical acts of the 1960s, he suffered from the impact of British groups on the music industry. Nevertheless, Checker enjoyed continued success as a club performer. "I got a trailer, four musicians, and hit the road," he recalled to Boulware. "I realized that if I was going to continue to make bucks in this business, I had to forget about the stardom and start at the bottom."
Checker made a recording comeback in 1982, releasing the album The Change Has Come under the MCA label, but fans seemed more interested in hearing him perform his older songs at nostalgia concerts than having him put out new material. Like other musical acts of his heyday, Checker has profited from a revival of interest in early rock and roll, tirelessly touring over 300 days a year with his band the Wildcats. But the singer still finds time for recording; he saw a re-release of "The Twist"--performed with the rap group Fat Boys--break into the Top 20 in 1988.
Checker has also earned visibility among television audiences with his 1990 appearances in commercials for Oreo cookies, in which he links his famous twist dance with the idea of twisting apart the two-layered treat. In an effort to secure his rights to the use of "The Twist" for commercial purposes, he held a press conference in January of 1992 and announced a $17 million lawsuit against McDonald's Restaurants of Canada for using the song in a television advertisement without his consent. The singer still holds ambitions for another Number One hit and reflected to Boulware,"If you look at the twist as the top of my life ... forget about it. There's so much more Chubby Checker that I'm just dying to tell the world about."
by Elizabeth WenningChubby Checker's Career
Worked as a shoe shiner and in a produce and poultry business in Philadelphia, PA. Recording artist and concert performer, 1959--. Appeared in television commercials.
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