King Of The Twist!
The Legend of Chubby Checker
by Donny Jacobs
A name. A dance. A legend! Chubby Checker and his world-famous Twist. Only the most successful single of all time, "The Twist" has the distinction of hitting #1 in two separate chart runs! It's a feat still unequalled four decades later. And what of Chubby himself, whom millions of devoted teen fans dubbed their "Leader?" A delightful contradiction. A Rock'n'Roll star-by-accident who once said he preferred waltzes to his own brand of hard-driving dance music. A fat kid who became one of the worlds best-known dancers. You had to love him, and oh, how we did! At the height of his career, Chubby commanded fees in excess of $2,500 per performance(a pittance for Rock acts today, but not bad money in the early '60s), and his name was used to market everything from footwear to frankfurters. To this day, there are restaurants that reference Chubby's name and his red-and-black checkerboard trademark in their promotions. In 1962, Ebony Magazine called him "a dynamo of energy" and "the quintessence of exuberant youth."
The King of the Twist was born Ernest Evans on October 4, 1941, in the farming community of Spring Gulley, South Carolina. At age ten, he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with his parents Eartie and Raymond Evans, and his baby twin brothers, Spencer and Tracy(the Evanses were evidently a movie-loving household)! Ernest was inspired to become a performer in the early 1950s after his parents took him to a show featuring the young piano prodigy "Sugar Chile" Robinson. Saving up money he'd earned as a shoeshine boy, Ernest bought a piano of his own and practiced every day. By his teens, he'd mastered both piano and drums, and was singing after school with an amateur vocal group called The Quantrells. The group disbanded after only a year or so, but Ernest's sights were firmly set on becoming a professional singer by then. Armed with a talent for doing voice impressions of popular singers, the teenager began making the rounds of local record companies. Though turned away countless times, he remained doggedly undaunted. "I just kept going back and getting tossed out," he recalled in 1990 to interviewer Wayne Jancik. "There are times (when) you've got to pick yourself up and go back, just to be put out again and again. Persistence pays!"
So does luck. By this time, Ernest had given up shining shoes to become a butcher's apprentice at Philadelphia's Ninth Street Meat Market(he never worked as a chicken-plucker, as has often been reported). More than once, he got in trouble with his boss, Henry Colt, for clowning around and amusing the customers with his voice impressions. Finally, seeing that any attempt to suppress the boy's boundless energy would be futile . . . and recognizing genuine talent when he saw it . . . Colt decided to help Ernest realize his singing ambitions. He set up a meeting for his rambunctious employee with a songwriter friend of his named Kal Mann.
Ernest soon discovered that this Mann was an important guy to know! Not only had he written huge hits for Elvis Presley ("Teddy Bear") and Charlie Gracie("Butterfly," also a hit for Andy Williams), he was acquainted with Dick Clark, the host of TVs "American Bandstand." In the late 1950s, "Bandstand" still originated from Philadelphia. As if to accomodate the show's need for fresh young talent, several Rock 'n Roll-oriented record labels had sprung up around the city. There was Swan Records, where Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon recorded; Chancellor Records, the musical home of Fabian and Frankie Avalon; Jamie Records, which marketed Duane Eddy's instrumental hits; and Cameo Records, where Kal Mann was employed as chief songwriter.
Late in 1958, Dick Clark and his then-wife Barbara asked Mann if he knew any singers who'd be interested in recording an aural Christmas card for them. The Clarks wanted a Christmas carol sung in the voices of current Rock'n'Roll stars; the record was to be pressed up in limited quantities and distributed to their friends. Mann didn't have to think about it for long. Who better equipped for this special project than Ernest Evans, the young vocal impressionist to whom he'd just been introduced? He summoned an excited Ernest to Reco-Arts Studio to cut the Christmas demo. So impressed was he by the results of the session, he signed the tubby teen to Parkway Records, Cameo's brand new sister label.
Barbara Clark, who fancied Ernest a teenaged Fats Domino after meeting him and hearing him play the piano, rechristened the now ex-butcher boy Chubby Checker(Chubby = Fats, Checker = Domino). He hated the name, but it stuck! By January of 1959, Kal Mann had written and produced another recording that capitalized on Ernest's talent for mimickry, but this time for commercial release. "The Class," a novelty disc featuring impressions of Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Cozy Cole and The Coasters flipped into the national Top Forty. So it happened that Chubby Checker was cast in the role of novelty recording artist at the beginning of his career. Nobody would've predicted long-term success for Chubby after seeing him appear on "Bandstand" in 1959. Sporting horn-rimmed glasses and a plaid jacket, he lip-synched "The Class" and came across like a second-rate Jerry Lewis. Even in the era of Sheb Wooley and Dickie Goodman, novelty artists tended to lack long-term appeal. However, this one was destined to beat the odds.
While Ernest Evans was undergoing his transformation into Chubby Checker, Rhythm and Blues star Hank Ballard was setting off a chain of events which would turn the rotund teen into America's #1 party animal. During an appearance in Tampa, Florida, with his band The Midnighters, Ballard took note of teens in his audience dancing a corkscrew-styled step known as The Twist. This dance had existed in the Black community for several years; the Clyde McPhatter single "Let The Boogie Woogie Roll" contains a reference to The Twist, and it was recorded in 1953. For some reason, seeing it danced on that particular night inspired Ballard to pen a song.
"The Twist" was issued by King Records as a Hank Ballard and The Midnighters single in March of 1959, but only as the flipside of a number called "Teardrops On Your Letter." Still, this original version found its audience, logging in at #6 on the R & B charts. In the summer of 1960, long after The Midnighters' single had dropped off playlists, Dick Clark saw The Twist beginning to catch on with his "Bandstand" studio dancers. However, because of The Twist's vigorous hip-thrusting movements, he was reluctant to allow it to be telecast. The early' 60s were culturally conservative years, and televising a suggestive dance might bring howls of outrage from parents, politicians and community leaders. Still, Clark sensed that the time had come for this dance, and he also believed that Hank Ballard's song could become an even bigger hit . . . but not Hank Ballard's record. He felt that a more Pop-oriented version should be recorded.
Over at the Cameo-Parkway offices, Kal Mann felt the same way. He and Henry Colt (now the co-managers of Chubby Checker) hustled their eighteen-year-old protégé into a late-night recording date, eager to reverse the trend set by two failed follow-ups to "The Class." With musical accompaniment provided by Dave Appell and The Applejacks, Mann recut Ballard's dance tune at a 35-minute session. Appell's musical arrangement infused the track with an irresistible choo-choo train rhythm. After the musicians had gone, Chubby laid his vocal over the track in one take; he mimicked Hank Ballard so closely, Ballard would be fooled into thinking it was his own voice when he heard the record. The next day, Mann brought in a local quintet known as The Dreamlovers to overdub background harmonies.
On the evening of August 6, 1960, Chubby Checker debuted his new disc on "Dick Clark's Saturday Night Show." In retrospect, everyone seems to agree that his light-footed demonstration of the step was what really put the song across. "I'd seen (Hank Ballard) perform it," Chubby recalled years later, "but he didn't do The Twist. Ever see in old movies where the Indians catch the settlers, and then they dance around them? Well, that's what Hank Ballard would do to the song onstage. When my Twist came out, we (himself and Cameo-Parkway executives) decided that The Twist would be like putting out a cigarette with both feet, or like coming out of the shower and wiping your butt with a towel. That little bit of instruction was like the guy who invented electricity . . . it was a great discovery!"
It was a great promotional device as well, powerful enough to launch the new version of "The Twist" on its initial flight to the top of Billboard's Hot 100 chart. Hank Ballard was enraged, and remained bitter about Chubby's cover version until the day he died. Yet its success arguably gave Ballard's recording career a boost. His original version was reissued and charted Top Thirty Pop. What's more, Dick Clark promised that his next single, "Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go," would get maximum exposure on "American Bandstand." Sure enough, that record became a monster hit for The Midnighters, sailing into the Top Ten during the Fall of 1960. Meanwhile, Chubby Checker's career was shifting into overdrive. Over the next three years, he'd make six return visits to the Top Ten with dance-oriented singles, and hit the top spot twice more.
America was more than ripe for a new dance craze in 1960. When Rock'n'Roll exploded onto the national scene in the mid-1950s, Rock'n'Roll dancing followed hot on its heels. The Bop, The Stroll, The Chalypso, and The Hand Jive were just a few of the myriad varieties. Just prior to the Twist explosion, a line dance called The Madison was popular. But not since the Charleston craze of the 1920s had any dance captured the public's imagination like The Twist. The most notable aspect of this dance phenomenon was that adults were just as likely as teens to join in . . . especially after "The Twist" scaled the charts a second time! In October of 1961, over a year after the Parkway single's original release, Chubby performed it in primetime on the top-rated "Ed Sullivan Show." The unprecedented result was a renewed demand for the record, this time among an older audience, and stronger than before.
Suddenly, dancing The Twist became the trendiest of trends for people over the age of thirty. In November of 1961, Life Magazine reported that celebrities like Judy Garland, Tennessee Williams, Greta Garbo, dance instructor Arthur Murray and a host of others were jamming into Manhattan's tiny Peppermint Lounge for late-night twisting sessions. Small's Paradise, a mecca for hot Jazz enthusiasts during the Roaring Twenties, became Harlem's Twist headquarters; the club drew through its doors blue bloods from Europe and the Far East with its initiation of "Tuesday Twist Nights." In Hollywood, the Crescendo nightclub was the spot to which celebrity twisters flocked.
By the summer of 1962, the Twist had swept the globe. Cameras captured Twist disciples on dance floors from Warsaw to Tokyo. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were spotted twisting it up at Chez Regine's in Paris. Mary Tyler Moore loosened up her hips to a Twist tempo on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Photographers on the set of Cleopatra, a lavish Elizabeth Taylor vehicle shooting on location in Rome, caught movie extras swiveling hips during film breaks. Even President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie reportedly caught the groove while dancing at a White House dinner party. Of course, not everyone wanted to get in on the act. "It took me an hour to get a drink," snarled one disgruntled nightclub patron to an entertainment reporter. "Even the waitresses were twisting!"
People of all ages and backgrounds embraced The Twist because, as Dick Clark commented one night while visiting The Peppermint Lounge, "It's fun and youthful, but not difficult to do." Chubby Checker concurred. "There are no basic steps in The Twist," he explained at the time. "You move chest, hips, and arms from side to side, and balance on the balls of the feet." Unwittingly, Chubby had ushered in Americas first "Disco" craze; he was now known as "The Leader" to millions of dance-crazy teens. The years 1960 to 1963 were an era of rocking dance music, and Chubby's releases dominated Top Forty radio along with those of his Cameo-Parkway labelmates The Dovells, The Orlons, Bobby Rydell and Dee Dee Sharp. Chubby teamed with Bobby to cut a best-selling album that mixed Twist with Swing tempos, and later scored a Top Ten dance duet with Dee Dee, "Slow Twistin'."
Although chiefly remembered for his Twist recordings today, Chubby also popularized The Pony, The Fly and The Mess Around, revived The Hucklebuck, and touched off a major Limbo craze in 1962 with his reworking of The Champs' instrumental hit, "Limbo Rock." People who enthusiastically rotated their pelvises at Chubby's command were no less obedient when he urged them to stretch their spines backward and limbo lower now! How low can you go?
Guitarist and arranger Dave Appell, who'd later produce big hits for Tony Orlando and Dawn, assisted Kal Mann in creating a chaotic frat party atmosphere on Chubby's records. Key elements were a drunken, bluesy saxophone(usually played by Georgie Young), and lockstep rhythmic interplay between piano, bass and drums. Appell's trademark choo-choo train rhythm was never more effective than on 1961's "Let's Twist Again," a record that literally propelled people onto the dance floor. It was huge overseas, especially in England. "Let's Twist Again" netted Chubby a Platinum record and a 1963 Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance. Jimmy Wisner picked up the bandleader's baton that same year and helped craft funky acoustic rhythm tracks for "Loddy Lo," "Hooka Tooka," "Lazy Elsie Molly" and other folk-based dance hits that Chubby cut after Twist mania had subsided.
In later years, up-and-coming Philadelphia producers like Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble and Billy Jackson supervised some of his hottest dance tracks, among them "You Got The Power," "You'd Better Believe It, Baby" and the fabulous "Karate Monkey." Over the top of it all boomed Chubby's wild man vocals, punctuated by spontaneous whoops and yells. "I've always liked to expend my energy, and make people (go) nuts," Chubby once said. "A going-crazy is what I was looking for . . . where the music is so good, you lose control." Judging from the sound of his hit singles, and the large quantities in which they sold, he definitely found what he was looking for. Female audience members would be so aroused by his energy, they'd jump up on stage and do the Twist with him . . . something that still happens today.
When the early '60s morphed into the mid-60s, Ernest Evans was able to look back on a remarkable series of triumphs. As Chubby Checker, he'd appeared in person all over the world, and starred in the motion-pictures Twist Around The Clock, Don't Knock The Twist and Ring-A-Ding-Rhythm(his performance of "Lose-Your-Inhibitions Twist" in the latter film burns up the screen). Most important of all, he charted a staggering 32 pop singles and 16 pop albums. His album sales are especially significant when you remember that the album Rock era didn't officially begin until after The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. By 1965, the tally for Chubby was well over 15 million records sold!
He gave legitimacy to dance music like no artist before him had ever done, thus paving a path for the Disco acts of the 1970s as well as for today's Hip-Hop and Techno crowd. In fact, Hip-Hop and Rap acts have sampled "The Twist" repeatedly on their records, most successfully in 1988 when The Fat Boys paid Top Twenty homage to the King with "Yo, Twist." Pop historians Bob Gilbert and Gary Theroux rightly call Chubby Checker "the most important Disco artist of all-time." It's an accolade that the King of the Twist himself takes in stride. As far as he's concerned, there's nothing complicated about his success: "My philosophy is to sing as many happy songs as possible, and to make people feel good." Over forty years later, he's still taking that philosophy with him wherever he goes.
A name: Chubby Checker. A dance: The Twist. A legend that's known the world over. Unfortunately, its also a legend that hasn't been well-served by the music industry. For over thirty years, there were no legitimate CD collections of Chubby's original Cameo-Parkway hits to be found anywhere. In fact, the last decent Chubby Checker compilation had come out in 1972! For reasons unknown, Abkco Records, the successor to Cameo-Parkway, kept Chubby's original hits off the market, as well as those of Bobby Rydell, Dee Dee Sharp, The Dreamlovers and his other one-time labelmates. Abcko finally reversed this questionable policy in the fall of 2005, releasing a box set of its highly coveted Cameo-Parkway master recordings. Soon afterward, a 24-track CD of Chubby's classic hits appeared, and quickly became a Top Seller on commercial Internet sites like amazon.com and cduniverse.com.
In the years prior to these releases, Chubby was persuaded to cut numerous remakes of his hits; unfortunately, most of these recordings are substandard. They might have tarnished his legend had oldies radio stations taken to playing them, but most did not. The original versions never left the airwaves, and for that reason, his legend survives. Well, not the only reason! You've also got to credit Chubby's relentless touring and concert schedule, which has barely slowed in four decades. His concert performances are as lively and infectious today as they were in his heyday; people to whom the 1960s are nothing but a history book chapter scream just as loud as Chubby's longtime fans do when he wiggles those famous hips of his. No matter how old or young you are, when you hear him shout "Let's Twist Again," it can feel just like 1961 all over again!
Special thanks to the late Kal Mann.