Archive for Thursday, August 31, 2000

Chubby still twists to his own beat

Forty years ago, Chubby Checker and ‘The Twist’ revolutionized pop dancing

August 31, 2000


— Back in the era of sock hops and soda shops, couples held hands and bopped to the hits of Chuck Berry and Bill Haley.

Then came Chubby Checker.

Four decades ago, the tall, hefty Philadelphia tenor carved out a new niche in pop dancing when he introduced "The Twist" on "The Dick Clark Saturday Night Show."

Over the next several years, he followed it up with "Pony Time," "The Hucklebuck," "The Fly" and "Limbo Rock."

"Dancing apart to the beat -- before Chubby Checker -- it did not exist," said the 58-year-old Checker, who is touring the country with his band, the Wild Cats.

"Since November 1959, the world has been dancing the style of Chubby Checker," he said. "No other person -- Elvis or the Beatles -- can make a claim like that."

While at least one popular "dancing apart to the beat" sensation -- the Charleston -- preceded The Twist, Checker certainly has made his mark.

"Chubby Checker was the man who memorialized all of these non-touch type of dances," said Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. "He institutionalized them, popularized them and made people realize how much fun these dances are.

"And he's still doing it today."

Checker made his debut of "The Twist" -- his cover of the song by Hank Ballard & the Midnighters -- on Clark's Philadelphia show in August 1960. The following month, the song had topped the charts, eventually selling more than a million copies.

That same year, Checker scored with covers of Tommy Dorsey's 1949 dance hit "The Hucklebuck," Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and his second album, "Twist With Chubby Checker."

"'The Twist' was a huge, popular cultural sensation," said Howard Kramer, associate curator at the Rock Hall of Fame. "And it started a whole new dance craze that included the Swim, the Jerk, the Frug."

Kramer said that following the release of Checker's hit and new dance style, the song "Twist and Shout" scored well on the charts for the Top Notes in 1961, the Isley Brothers in 1962 and the Beatles in 1963.

Checker, born on Oct. 3, 1941, in Andrews, S.C., grew up in Philadelphia. He formed his first group, the Quantrells, while he was a student in high school. In 1958 -- when he was in 11th grade -- he recorded his first song, "The Class," which made a credible showing on the charts. That same year, he changed his name from Ernest Evans to Chubby Checker after Dick Clark's wife noted his resemblance to Fats Domino. He got his big break when -- after a recommendation from Clark -- he recorded "The Twist" with the Dreamlovers.

During the early '60s, his name and voice were almost synonymous with dance-craze tunes. He charted with "Pony Time," "Dance the Mess Around" and "The Fly," and had an impressive two-sided score with "Limbo Rock" and "Popeye (The Hitchhiker)."

His 1962 rerelease of "The Twist" became the only single to hit No. 1 on U.S. charts on two separate occasions.

Checker ventured briefly into disco with a pair of singles -- "Running" and "Harder Than Diamond" -- and hit the Top 40 with a rap version of "The Twist" in 1988.

During his recent show at the Camel Rock Casino, Checker transported the crowd -- a mix of young and old -- back to the early '60s with his two-hour dancerama.

Blending his repertoire of hits with classic covers of Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill," Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly," Gladys Knight's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and the Romantics' "What I Like About You," Checker's mix of dancing and singing was contagious.

When he literally jumped into a full-fledged rendition of Elvis Presley's "Blue Suede Shoes," Checker had the audience -- estimated at 1,000 people-- dancing on the floor and taking turns showing off on the stage.

"He's a great dancer -- adorable, sexy and enticing," said Sandra de Aguero, who offered up a sultry onstage rendition of The Twist.

For Checker, who does more than 100 shows a year, it all comes down to hard work.

"Tonight wasn't just another show for me. Tonight was my first show. I gotta get through this performance before I get through the next one. Tonight's show was my only show. This is it. Right now. Not tomorrow. Right now!"

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