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
Born Ernest Evans, October 3, 1941, in Spring Gulley, SC; son of a tobacco farmer; married Rina Lodder in 1964; children: three.
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.
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.”
Singles; on Cameo Records
“The Class,” c. 1959.
“Dancing Dinosaur,” c. 1959.
“The Twist,” 1960.
“Pony Time,” 1961.
“Let’s Twist Again,” c. 1962.
(With Dee Dee Sharp) “Slow Twistin’,” c. 1962.
“Limbo Rock,” 1963.
Albums; on Cameo Records except where noted
Twistin’ Round the World, 1961.
Your Twist Party, 1961.
Let’s Twist Again, c. 1962.
For Twisters Only, c. 1962.
For Teen Twisters, 1962.
Don’t Knock, 1962.
Limbo Party, 1963.
Let’s Limbo More, 1963.
Chubby Checker’s Biggest Hits, 1963.
Beach Party, 1963.
Chubby Checker in Person, 1963.
Folk Album, 1964.
Chubby’s Dance Party, Dominion.
The Change Has Come, MCA, 1982.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, Summit Books, 1986.
Atlanta Constitution, May 28, 1985.
Chicago Tribune, March 16, 1989.
Maclean’s, December 30, 1991.
Newsday, December 15, 1985.
People, April 5, 1982.
Rolling Stone, January 23, 1992.
Checker, Chubby 1941–
Chubby Checker 1941–
Chubby Checker is an enthusiastic promoter of his place in history. “Since I recorded ‘The Twist,’” he told the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, “people have never danced [close] together again, whether it was to my music or somebody else’s. That, to me, is as important in music as electricity is in the world of lighting. I’m the tires the cars roll on.” To some observers, on the other hand, Checker happened to be in the right place at the right time to ride a dance craze to the top—“a lucky clown,” in the words of Entertainment Weekly’s Ty Burr. The truth lies somewhere in between. Checker’s recording of “The Twist” was one of the definitive recordings of the 1960s and a huge success by any standard. And though Checker is almost exclusively remembered for “The Twist,” he was more than a one-hit wonder, placing 33 songs on the U.S. pop charts in the 1960s and bringing seven of them to the Top Ten.
The son of a tobacco farmer, Chubby Checker was born Ernest Evans on October 3, 1941, near Andrews, South Carolina, in the state’s coastal lowlands. He moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with his family when he was eight. As a boy he shined shoes, and in high school he worked in a butcher shop plucking chickens. An early indication of his talent came when customers noticed his skill at impersonating the leading vocalists of the early rock and roll era—Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, above all, a wildly successful New Orleans singer Checker admired, Fats Domino. Soon Checker was interested in music and performing with a streetcorner-harmony group, the Quantrells.
His first break came when the butcher shop’s owner introduced him to local recording entrepreneur Kal Mann. The recording industry in Philadelphia at the time was in the early stages of becoming a youth-culture hit machine that would spawn the careers of such figures as Fabian, Bobby Rydell, and Frankie Avalon; and Checker, still known as Ernest Evans, was quickly signed to the Cameo-Parkway label and given the chance to record. A song called “The Class,” on which Checker offered various impersonations, failed to crack the charts in 1959.
The style-making rock-and-roll-oriented television program, American Bandstand, with the perennially popular Dick Clark as host, was based in Philadelphia. Clark, on the lookout for new talent and alert to new dance trends emerging in the African American community,
Career: Pop vocalist and recording artist. Worked in butcher shop and performed with street corner harmony group, the Quantrells, late 1950s; signed to Cameo-Parkway label, 1959; appeared on American Bandstand and recorded “The Twist” 1960; appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, 1961; “The Twist” re-released, 1962; other top-ten recordings related to dance steps, 1962-63; touring artist, late 1960s-; recorded version of “The Twist” with rap group the Fat Boys, 1988.
Addresses: Management —Paradise Artists, 108 E. Matijila St., Ojai, CA 93073
booked Evans on the show to perform what would become his signature song. “The Twist” had originally been recorded by the Detroit rhythm-and-blues singer Hank Ballard, but had been released with little success. Clark’s wife re-christened Evans “Chubby Checker,” deriving the name from that of Fats Domino and alluding to Checker’s own portly build and, in October of 1960, Checker appeared in American Bandstand. Although his recording of “The Twist” was almost a note-for-note replica of Ballard’s, it was Checker’s version that topped the charts nationwide.
The innovative dance that accompanied the song with its hip-swiveling moves caught the spirit of rock and roll. Its unusual configuration, with dancing couples not touching each other but instead merely facing each other and displaying their own individual styles, seemed to offer a new spirit of freedom.
Chubby he may have been to begin with, but Checker lost thirty pounds as a result of demonstrating the Twist in concerts and media appearances over the next year. The singer enjoyed several more top ten hits in 1961, all of them drawing on the dance craze that Checker had already done much to set in motion. These included “Let’s Twist Again,” “The Fly,” and “Pony Time.” The latter provided Checker with another Number One hit. By October of that year, Checker was a bona fide national star, and received an invitation to sing and dance “The Twist” on the television program that still, seven years after it had made a superstar of Elvis Presley, reflected and formed the tastes of Middle America: he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in October of 1961.
Checker’s actual recording of “The Twist” had cooled somewhat by this time, but this television appearance prompted Cameo-Parkway to reissue the song. It once again rose to the top of the charts, remaining there for thirteen weeks at the beginning of 1962. “The Twist” remains the only song of the modern era to rise to the Number One chart position in two separate releases, and based on chart performance it has been counted among the top singles of all time.
In 1962 and 1963, Checker continued to hit the top ten regularly, playing a part along the way in popularizing new dances such as the Limbo and the Huckle-buck. In 1963 he married Catharina Lodders, a former Miss World from the Netherlands. His popularity finally sagged, along with that of many other American performers, during the British invasion years of the middle 1960s. Since then, Checker has made several comeback attempts, with only moderate success. He cracked the U.S. pop top forty with a cover of the Beatles’s “Back in the U.S.S.R.” in 1969, and with a rap remake of “The Twist” in 1988, undertaken, appropriately enough, in collaboration with the group the Fat Boys. That recording rose to the Number Two chart position in Great Britain.
The secret to Checker’s longevity as a pop icon was due less to new recordings than to his indefatigable energy as a touring performer. In the late 1960s, with his career at a low ebb, Checker put together a band and went on the road. “I said, ‘What do you got? You’ve got the Twist,’” he recalled in conversation with the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. “If you’ve got lemons, you make lemonade. Stop frowning. You keep your nose to the grindstone, be honest about your business and your fans will wake up.”
For much of the rest of the century, Checker spent well over two hundred nights a year on the road, making occasional movie and television appearances. Vigorously defending the rights to his prize property, he several times engaged in court wrangles over rights to “The Twist.” By the century’s end, “The Twist” was an indelible part of American culture, but Checker had not slackened his pace of personal appearances. In the year 2001 he appeared as himself on the hit television series Ally McBeal, performing in a bar that was hosting a Twist contest.
Twist, Cameo, 1960.
Twistin’ Round the World, Cameo, 1961.
Your Twist Party, Cameo, 1961.
Let’s Twist Again, Cameo, 1962.
For Twisters Only, Cameo, 1962.
For Teen Twisters, Cameo, 1962.
Don’t Knock, Cameo, 1962.
Limbo Party, Cameo, 1963.
Chubby Checker’s Biggest Hits, Cameo, 1963.
Beach Party, Cameo, 1963.
Chubby Checker in Person, Cameo, 1963.
Folk Album, Cameo, 1964.
The Change Has Come, MCA, 1982.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 7, Gale, 1992.
DeCurtis, Anthony, and James Henke, eds., The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Random House, 1992.
Nite, Norm N., Rock On, updated ed., Harper & Row, 1982.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Roll, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Billboard, February 26, 1994, p. 13.
Entertainment Weekly, December 24, 1993, p. 67.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 14, 1993, p. 0714K7854; May 11, 1995, p. 511K0364; July 19, 1995, p. 0719K6760.
—James M. Manheim
(b. 3 October 1941 in Spring Gulley, near Andrews, South Carolina), singer and actor who popularized the dance craze "The Twist" in the early 1960s.
Checker, born Ernest O'Neil Evans, was one of three children of Raymond Evans, a tobacco farmer, and Eartie Evans, a homemaker. In 1950 the Evans family moved to south Philadelphia, where Checker attended South Philadelphia High School, graduating in 1960. While in high school, Checker worked at a poultry shop plucking chickens, and he gained a reputation as an offbeat entertainer who sang and told jokes. His boss introduced him to song-writer Kal Mann, who recommended Checker as a singer to Philadelphia television personality Dick Clark, the host of the popular teen dance show American Bandstand. Mann also helped Checker secure a recording contract with Philadelphia's Cameo-Parkway label. Checker, whose nickname was "Chubby" because of his large size, was signed by Cameo-Parkway in 1959; and Barbara Clark, then Dick Clark's wife, added "Checker" to his name, playing off the moniker of blues star Fats Domino. The newly rechristened Chubby Checker released his first single, "The Class," that same year.
The single reached the Top Forty, but the subsequent "Dancing Dinosaur" fared less well. With his third single, however, released in 1960, Checker became a star. Blues group Hank Ballard and the Midnighters originally recorded "The Twist" on 11 November 1958 as the flipside to the single "Teardrops on Your Letter," released in 1959. Checker's version toned down the raunchiness of the song, opting for a slicker pop sound that propelled the song to the top of the charts on its release in August 1960, thanks to its additional exposure on American Bandstand.
The dance itself was simple enough, as Checker helpfully explained: "Work your feet like you're putting out a cigarette and work your hands like you're drying your bottom with a towel." Another key element of the dance was the fact that it broke a dancing couple apart. Instead of touching each other, as a couple would in a traditional dance like a waltz, the Twist made each dancer an individual who did not necessarily even need a partner. Oddly enough, Checker lost a considerable amount of weight in just a few months time demonstrating the dance and was no longer "chubby"!
The success of "The Twist" ushered in a period of national dance crazes in the lull between the initial rock-and-roll explosion of the mid-1950s and the "British invasion" spearheaded by the Beatles in 1964. Songs popularized such dances as the Mashed Potato, the Swim, the Watusi, the Frug, the Fly, the Hully Gully, the Jerk, the Hucklebuck, and the Locomotion. Checker himself wasted little time in jumping on the dance bandwagon, hitting the Top Ten with "Pony Time" (a number-one pop hit accompanied by the Pony dance), "Let's Twist Again" (which reached number eight on the pop charts), and "The Fly" (a number-three pop hit), all in 1961, and "Slow Twistin'" (which reached number three on the charts) and "Limbo Rock" (which rose to number two), both in 1962. In October 1961 Checker appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and Checker merchandise such as chewing gum, T-shirts, ties, and dolls was being sold everywhere. In May 1962 Checker won a Grammy Award for best rock and roll recording of 1961 with "Let's Twist Again," even though it charted lower than his other records. He also appeared in films, singing and dancing in "jukebox musicals" including Twist Around the Clock and The Teenage Millionaire (both in 1961), and Ring-a-Ding Rhythm (released in England as It's Trad, Dad!) and Don't Knock the Twist, both in 1962.
In January 1962 "The Twist" made rock music history by becoming the first number-one song to top the charts again, over a year-and-a-half after its initial release. The trendsetters and celebrities that patronized the Peppermint Lounge in New York City discovered the dance and helped rekindle interest in Checker's version. The Lounge's house band, Joey Dee and the Starliters, had a hit with "Peppermint Twist." Although some religious and civic leaders expressed outrage over the perceived raciness of the dance, the report that first lady Jacqueline Kennedy was said to have twisted in the White House bestowed a healthy dose of respectability on the dance.
From 1959 to 1965 Checker had twenty-two hits in the Top Forty, but 1962 proved to be the peak year for "The Twist," as well as for Checker's career. Although he continued plowing the dance-song field, his singles met with less success. In 1963 his songs "Let's Limbo Some More" peaked at number twenty on the charts, "Loddy Lo" made it to number twelve, and "Twist It Up" only reached number twenty-five. His 1964 single "Hooka Tooka," reached number seventeen. By 1965 Checker had his last Top Forty hit for more than twenty years with yet another dance song, "Let's Do the Freddie" (named after Freddie Garrity, the zany lead singer of the English band Freddie and the Dreamers). His albums of the period followed a similar decline; while Twist with Chubby Checker (1960), For Twisters Only, and Your Twist Party (both 1961) all reached the Top Ten, 1963's Let's Limbo Some More peaked at number eighty-seven on the pop charts, and albums after that year did not chart at all.
Checker married Catharina Lodders, 1962's Miss World from the Netherlands, on 12 April 1964, and the couple have three children. His later records found little commercial success, but Checker remained a popular performer and eventually found a niche on the oldies revival circuit, singing at local fairs and corporate functions. He continued to champion his status as "King of the Twist" in films, turning up in the documentaries Let the Good Times Roll (1973) and Twist (1992). He also acted in Purple People Eater (1988) and Calendar Girl (1993), invariably cast as himself, just as he was in his television appearances in Quantum Leap, Murphy Brown, and Ally McBeal. Checker endorses a line of beef jerky and snack meat products, and in the 1990s he formed his own recording company, TEEC (The Ernest Evans Company), to release his own records.
A rap version of "The Twist" recorded by Checker and the rap group the Fat Boys returned Checker to the charts when it reached number sixteen on the pop charts in 1988. In 2001 Checker took the unprecedented step of taking out an advertisement in the music industry weekly Billboard, arguing that his contributions to rock music merited his inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. (Inductees are voted in by a select group of artists, record producers, and industry executives.) He further raised eyebrows by suggesting that a statue of himself, in mid-Twist, be erected in the hall's courtyard, insisting that if he was inducted, but not given a statue, he would turn down the award. His demands were met with a mixed reception.
Information about Checker is in Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, eds., Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll (1986); Irwin Stambler, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul (1989); Jim Dawson, The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance that Changed the World (1995); and Joel Whitburn, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits (1996). Information on Checker's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum bid is in the Philadelphia Inquirer (4 Sept. 2001). The 1992 documentary Twist (directed by Ron Mann) is an excellent examination of the Twist phenomenon.
Gillian G. Gaar