Chubby Checker: Prisoner of the Twist

I have long been amused that the name “Chubby Checker” is similar to those of Fats Domino and Leonard Chess — this faction of the early rock and roll pantheon sounds like the game shelf. It turns out that in Checkers’ case it was intentional, the name was devised in imitation of Domino’s. Born Ernest Evans in Spring Gully, South Carolina in 1941, Checker was part of a second wave of rock and roll stars who came along around 1959/1960, the first batch having arrived in the middle of the decade. Having growing up in Philly, he was something of an aficionado of all that was going on up ’til then, His first single, recorded when he was 18 was a novelty record called “The Class”, produced by Dick Clark, in which he did imitations of all the major rock and roll stars — a very vaudeville impulse. He was clearly talented enough to do anything.

His second hit single, however, proved both a blessing and a curse. It was of course “The Twist”, released in 1960. A blessing, because it spawned a national craze and made him a household name. A curse because it boxed him in and forced him into a niche of recoding singles that promoted dance moves. “The Twist” made history as the only song to reach #1 twice (the second time was the following year). And though he had top ten hits with “Let’s Twist Again” in 1961, and “Slow Twistin'” in 1962, and recorded several other Twist themed tunes (although not “The Peppermint Twist”, that was Joey Dee and the Starlighters), history has done him an injustice by remembering him as just the Twist Guy. It’s more like he was the Dance Guy. He also scored big with “Pony Time” (#1, 1961), “Limbo Rock” (#2, 1962), “The Fly” (#7, 1961), and “The Hucklebuck” (#14, 1960), among many others. I am delighted to see that he did a tune called “Dance This Mess Around” in 1961. I first heard that phrase from a B-52s‘ song, clearly referencing him.

At his height, Checker also appeared in the films Twist Around the Clock (1961) and Don’t Talk the Twist (1962), and on TV shows like American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Shindig!

Checker’s peak time had ebbed by the mid ’60s, though he has remained in the business ever since, and even had some later hits, releasing a new single as recently as 2013. For better or worse, though, his name will always be linked with The Twist.

For more on variety entertainment, including TV variety, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,