Chubby Checker - Biography
By Nick Castro
Chubby Checker is one of the most famous r&b singers of the late 50's and early 60's, though his career has steadily continued to the present. He is most known for his rendition of the song, "The Twist", by Hank Ballard. This song alone solidified the artist as a staple of the 60's pop music scene and as one of the artists most closely associated with the dance trend from the early 60's, The Twist. Though he has often been criticized as an disingenuous, or derivative, singer, he has maintained his fame and popularity throughout the years, and has aged far better than many of his contemporaries.
Born Ernest Evans, in 1941, in Spring Gulley, South Carolina, Chubby Checker soon moved to the urban sprawl of Philadephia, Pennsylvania. Checker began working the city center as a show shine boy and was thrilled at how mnuch money he was earning, which was comparable to a middle class adult's wage. Checker was still in grade school at the time. Checker also worked other odd jobs in the area before he began taking up singing as a hobby. He learned to play rudimentary piano while in school. His first group was the Quantrells, who would busk the city streets of Philadelphia. The group was heard by a producer at Cameo Records, who learned of them through Dick Clark, and they were offered a contract to record, shortly later. Checker, who at the time was nicknamed Chubby, apparently got his name from Dick Clark's wife, who heard the young singer doing a Fats Domino song, and suggested the surname, Checker, after finding out his first name was Chubby. He released the songs, "The Class" and "Dancing Dinosaur" as Chubby Checker. "The Class" became a hit for Checker, and the one upon which he built his career at the time. Cameo offerd the young rising star to record another song, which he did.
By 1959, Checker had recorded the song that would follow him throughout the rest of his career, "The Twist", which at first, the Cameo label owner, Bernie Lowe, was not thrilled about. Checker believed in the song though and he pushed Lowe to release it as an a-side, rather than as the accompanying track, that Lowe wanted it relegated to. By 1960 the song was a smashing success and the dance craze began. Soon there were many imitators of the dance and songs began appearing, which incorporated the word "twist" into their song titles, such as "Twist and Shout" and "Twistin' the Night Away". This was the first time that the youth were began to dance, while not touching one another, but following the same rhythm. Many other songs began to show up that were trying to pin there own dances to the market, such as "The Boogaloo", "The Jerk" and "The Shake".
Checker began working hard, trying to find his next big song. Although he had much success at the time, he is till mainly remembered for the one song. He began to work with prolific songwriter and soul singer, Don Covay, who became famous for songs like, "Mercy Mercy", whose original recording features a young Jimi Hendrix, and the song, "Chain of Fools", which was a huge success for Aretha Franklin. Covay wrote the song, "Pony Time", which Checker recorded in 1961. The song went to number one and it continued to chart for several months.
Around this time, Checker began to get offers to appear in films, such as Twist Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Twist. Checker mainly made history though, when an unprecedented resurgence of the song, "The Twist" happened. The song shot back up the charts, after an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, and was an event which had never, and has never, happened since, over a year after its initial success. Checker began to license out his name and image and was one of the first pop stars to be branded in such a manner. Merchandise featuring his likeness began to appear everywhere and Checker became a pop icon. He became know as the originator of new dances and he had many followup successes the following year, such as the songs, "Dancin' Party", "Popeye the Hitchhiker" and "The Limbo Rock". All of these songs reached the top ten.
Something happened next, which happened to many American artist of the tie; the British invasion. musical tastes changed almost overnight. The youth became obsessed with this new form of rock and roll and artists, such as Checker, began to suffer greatly because of it. Although he tried his best to keep afloat his albums declined sharply. He did, however, maintain his status in the live club circuit and so was able to continue working as a performer, if not as a recording artist, although he did continue to record sporadic records, including his early 70's psychedelic record, Chequered (1971 - London), though he is too embarrassed to discuss it publicly. Checker has tirelessly kept up his live schedule and it is obvious that he loves his work.
in 1982, Checker made a slight comeback when he released the album A Change has Come (1981 - MCA), which was not well received. Many performers of the 60's were being rediscovered at this time, including Gary U.S. bonds and Mitch Ryder, but none of the new recordings seemed to stick in the world of punk and new wave pop music. The production on the album suffers from many of the trappings of its time, overly hot guitars and synthesizers. It sold relatively well, considering its anachronistic qualities, but Checker mainly remained a performing artist.
Checker still maintains a rigorous touring schedule, mainly performing in casinos around the country. Checkered continued to brand his name and image and license it out for commercial use, such as his famous early 90's Oreo cookie television spots, or his line of snack foods, which include Chubby Checker beef jerky. he also sued McDonalds in a famous lawsuit, in 1992, for using his song, "The Twist", without proper legal consent. Checker is still very active and intends to release another recording soon.