Talk about a dancing sensation that swept the nation.
It was like trying to stamp out a cigarette with both feet.
Like trying to dry your back with a big towel.
Like, Chubby Checker is coming to town (he performs at Eskimo Nell's on Saturday).
Chubby Checker, who has never stopped touring and performing in the 23 years since "The Twist" came out, has been silent on the record front. Last year, 19 years after his last album had come out, he put out the fine "Change Has Come" on MCA, but programmers had a hard time associating the new music with an old name and it sank without causing many ripples. "Too bad for them," says an upbeat and intensely proud Checker. "We're going to keep on making some new music, so they'd better get used to it."
There are dozens of performers still traveling the nostalgia and rock revivalist circuit, trapped in their pasts. It's a circuit that Checker, 42, has cautiously avoided, though he does most of his many hits in his shows. "The Twist" may be an albatross, but Checker says, "It was a monster hit, and thank God: Because of it, I can still do what I'm doing."
Checker has one explanation for the long lapse between records: "I had nothing to say. What do you do, invent the wheel twice? Dancing as we know it right now, to everybody's music, is a vehicle that I built with the twist. People still dance apart, and it's because of me. People stood apart and they danced and had a good time. I guess that they forgot that Chubby Checker did it to them."
There's no deep bitterness, though. He's kept working, touring all over the world. He doesn't even call it work. "I play. I used to work. I have never been withdrawn from the scene, the scene has been withdrawn from me. I have been out here playing, so the scene hasn't seen Chubby Checker but Chubby Checker's always been on the scene."
Ironically, "The Twist" was on the scene before Checker. Hank Ballard and the Midniters had written and recorded it in 1959; it had even been a million-seller in the black market, where dance songs were common. Checker was Ernest Evans then, a tubby Philadelphia high schooler who plucked chickens after school and occupied his nights singing in rock 'n' roll bands (he was noted for his imitation of Fats Domino, which is of course where the name Chubby Checker was derived from, courtesy of Mrs. Dick Clark).
Evans was one of a crowd of Philly student-singers who benefited from the attentions of Dick Clark (others included Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell). When Clark saw some "American Bandstand" dancers kinda-twisting, he sought a single to push the new dance: Enter Evans/Checker, recording an almost note-for-note version of the Ballard tune . . . with a twist."Hank Ballard had a record, he didn't have a dance," Checker insists. "I took the record and gave it a dance."
And "The Twist" promptly became one of the most popular dance crazes in American history, aided by the television exposure from "American Bandstand." In those days, having Dick Clark in your corner was like having God on your side. There would be the inevitable follow-up variations ("Let's Twist Again," "Slow Twistin' " and "Twist It Up") and other dance tunes as well, including "The Hucklebuck" (which went to No. 1), "Pony Time" ("That's the dance that everybody does, that's more popular than 'The Twist' . . . it's what they do to everybody's music"), "The Fly," "Limbo Rock," and some others better forgotten. In 1961 and 1962 there were nine Chubby Checker albums, five of them with the word "Twist" in them. After having hit the top of the charts once, "The Twist" dropped off and jumped to No. 1 again a year later, a historic first.
And it wasn't only records and it wasn't only America: Chubby Checker was an international item. There were two Sam Katzman films, "Twist Around the Clock" and "Don't Knock the Twist" (if they sound familiar: Katzman had done the Bill Haley movies five years before). In 1963, Checker married Catherina Lodders of Holland, Miss World of 1962.
By 1964, the supernova flamed out, leaving a star who simply kept doing what he'd been doing all along, this time out of the limelight. "People are usually very surprised when they see me because they're expecting to see this old fat man singing old music that sounds like it came out of the dark ages," Checker laughs, hardly chubby at all--he still maintains his original singing weight. He's a serious jogger, saying that "you have to keep in shape 'cause if you don't, how you going to entertain these people?"
Checker performs on the road 30 to 35 weeks out of the year, still working out of Philadelphia. "After 27 years, I'm good at this," he says with unrestrained pride. "I do it better than anybody. I'm going to be Chubby Checker, I'm going to make my music and I'm going to have a good time. I play, sometimes the audience is not so big, sometimes it's sold out: that's the way show business is.
"I want to be like a $20 bill, I want to be timeless. I'm an item that you can spend, have fun with. For me it still goes on. I have created a great past, I'm enjoying a great present, and I'm looking forward to a great future."