Checker, Chubby (1941—)

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Checker, Chubby (1941—)

One of several popular male vocalists to emerge from the Philadelphia rock 'n' roll scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Chubby Checker was the chief beneficiary of the fervor created by the dance known as the Twist.

Checker was born Ernest Evans on October 3, 1941 in Spring Gully, South Carolina, the child of poor tobacco farmers. At the age of nine he moved to Philadelphia and eventually began working at a neighborhood produce market where he acquired his famous nickname "Chubby" from his employer. Evans' big break, however, came at age 16 while working at a local poultry market. Proprietor Henry Colt overheard Evans singing a familiar tune as he went about his work. Colt was impressed with Evans' talent and referred him to a songwriter friend named Cal Mann who was, at that time, working with Dick Clark.

Dick Clark and his American Bandstand had a lot to do with the popularity of many Philadelphian singers who frequently appeared on the program. Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, and Checker were among the teen idols who careers took off after they gained exposure to millions of American teenagers via television. Checker was one of very few black teen idols of that period, however. In his case, even his stage name derived from contact with Dick Clark. Clark and his wife were looking for someone to impersonate Fats Domino for an upcoming album. Hoping to give Evans' career a boost, Clark's wife is said to have dubbed the young performer "Chubby Checker" because the name sounded like Fats Domino.

The song entitled "The Twist" was originally released as the flip side of a 45 rpm single by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, a popular R&B singing group. Checker released "The Twist" as an A-side on the Parkway label in August 1960, aggressively promoting the record and the dance in personal appearances and on television. Numerous Chubby Checker performances on programs like the Philadelphia-based American Bandstand helped fuel both the Twist Craze and Checker's career.

Chubby Checker's recording of "The Twist" went to #1 on the Billboard Top 40 charts in mid-September, 1960. Eager to capitalize on the success of that record, Checker released several other Twist-related singles such as "Let's Twist Again," "Twist It Up," and "Slow Twistin'." In fact, almost all of his records were dance tunes, such as the #1 hit "Pony Time," "The Hucklebuck," "The Fly," and the #2 hit "Limbo Rock."

Several films were produced in an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Twist, and Chubby Checker was the star of two of them. Alan Freed's Rock around the Clock and Don't Knock the Rock were the first rock 'n' roll exploitation films ever made, back in 1956; in 1961 Chubby Checker starred in Twist around the Clock and Don't Knock the Twist, remakes of the Freed films made after only five years had passed. Checker also went on to appear in other movies such as Teenage Millionaire.

Perhaps as a result of the Twist movies being released in the second half of 1961, the Twist craze resurfaced and Checker's version of "The Twist" was re-released by Parkway. The record was even more successful the second time around, and "The Twist" was the first #1 record of 1962. This is the only case during the rock 'n' roll era of the same record earning #1 on the Top 40 on two different occasions.

Four months later, in May 1962, Chubby Checker was awarded a Grammy for best rock and roll recording of 1961, ostensibly for "Let's Twist Again." The latter was a moderate (#8) hit in 1961, but in no sense the best rock 'n' roll song of the year. Checker's triumphant re-release of "The Twist" did set a new record, but that achievement took place in 1962, and technically the song was not eligible for a 1961 Grammy.

Chubby Checker continued to release singles and albums of rock and roll, primarily dance music. Although he had a few more hits, such as "Limbo Rock" in 1962, no subsequent dances were ever as good to Checker as the Twist had been. By the end of 1965 he had placed 22 songs on the Top 40, including seven Top Ten hits, but his best period was over by the end of 1962.

Since the mid-1970s Checker has benefitted from another trend, oldies nostalgia. Along with many other former teen idols, Checker has seen a resurgence of his career at state fairs and on oldies tours, playing the old songs again for a multi-generational audience.

—David Lonergan

Further Reading:

"Australian Fan Site of Chubby Checker." February 1999.

Morrison, Tonya Parker. "Chubby Checker: 'The Wheel that Rock Rolls On,"' American Press, 30 October 1998.

Nite, Norm N. Rock On Almanac. 2nd edition. New York, Harper Perennial, 1992.

Stambler, Irwin. The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul. Revised edition. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Whitburn, Joel. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. 6th edition. New York, Billboard Books, 1996.