Chubby Checker

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Author: Gillian G. Gaar
Editors: William L. O'Neill and Kenneth T. Jackson
Date: 2003
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,256 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 910L

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About this Person
Born: October 03, 1941 in Spring Gulley, South Carolina, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Rock singer
Other Names: Evans, Ernest
Updated:Jan. 1, 2003
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(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.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|K3436600105