Chubby Checker (2003)

 

 

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Chubby Checker believes he deserves more than just a plaque in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He wants what he insists is his just due: a 30-foot tall statue on the plaza in front of the Hall of Fame building in Cleveland.

To his way of thinking, he did not just record “The Twist,” he changed the world by popularizing what he terms “dancing apart to rock and roll and popular music with a beat.” Or to put it another way, which he does, “Chubby Checker is the wheels of rock and roll.”

If you were not around in the early ‘60s, you may think that Checker is an unbridled egomaniac,  delusional or both. But when “The Twist” first exploded in 1960, rock and roll was in desperate need of a shot of energy – and Chubby Checker provided it. The Elvis phenomenon had gone p-f-f-f-t when Presley was drafted into the army; the anti-rock and roll forces were giddily anticipating the imminent death of this rowdy, immoral, unsophisticated youth music, if it even deserved to be called music.

And then Chubby and “The Twist” put a fresh blast of air into the deflating wheels of rock and roll.

While the song was not musically innovative, the dance that went with it was near-revolutionary: no steps, no touching, no hand holding, no partner required. Anyone could do it and most everyone did, including initially skeptical adults who, by the time the song topped the charts for a second time in 1962, were discovering what the kids already knew: The twist was freedom on the dance floor. Sexuality, too. “Dancing apart to the beat” was the physical expression of rock and roll itself.

I spoke to the South Carolina-born, Philadelphia-raised Checker (real name: Ernest Evans) exactly one week before the 2003 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony took place. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the Police, the Clash, AC/DC and the Righteous Brothers were set to be honored. Checker was not surprised that he had been overlooked again (as he’d been every year since 1986 when he performed  “The Twist” backed by Keith Richards, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others at the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony). But this time he was making his displeasure public via a full-page ad he took out in Billboard magazine stating his case for a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, I kid you not, a Nobel Prize.

The ad was ignored by the Hall of Fame honchos. They have continued to ignore Chubby Checker every year since (and no Nobel Prize either!). You could argue, and no doubt the Hall of Fame cabal does, that Checker was neither a notable creator nor an exceptional artist. He did not write “The Twist” or any of his subsequent records. He did not create the twist dance. He was a mere singer of novelty records, however successful.

All true. Yet inarguably Chubby Checker played a significant role in the history of rock and roll. Isn’t that enough to earn him – maybe not a 30-foot statue – some form of recognition? Isn’t Chubby a far bigger part of the story of rock and roll than Cat Stevens, Chicago, Donovan, Leonard Cohen and Percy Sledge, to name just a few of those embraced by the Hall of Fame?

When we talked, Checker of his quest with a near-robotic lack of emotion: slowly, softly, in the manner of a long-suffering teacher having to explain the obvious for the zillionth time.

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Above: the ad in Billboard. 

Below: The image of himself that Chubby Checker wants used for a statue to be erected in front of the Rock and 

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“There ain’t nobody clean in this rotten, amoral, freaky business that we’re in.”  – Chubby Checker

 

March 3, 2003

From his home in Pennsylvania.

 

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So it’s another year that you’ve been passed over by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Do you think you’re more deserving of being in there than some of those who have been inducted?

Whoever goes in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame belongs there. Whoever they’ve chosen, they’re very deserving. I agree with that. When the principals from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame get together and decide to induct someone, they have very carefully thought about what the person has done and their achievements and I think it’s wonderful.

But do you think that you’ve been overlooked?

No. They just don’t know anything about Chubby Checker. It’s like the telephone. How much do they know about Alexander Graham Bell? They use them so much they don’t even think about him. This is how it is. You look at a cartoon and you don’t think about Walt Disney even though he was the first guy to do that. You switch the lights on in your house, you don’t think about Thomas Edison. It’s just something we use every day, who cares about Thomas Edison. We don’t think about it because we use it so often. Chubby Checker. Dancing apart to rock and roll and popular music with a beat. Before Chubby Checker came on American Bandstand and did that, rock and roll did not have that. I know, people have been dancing apart to the beat since the cavemen came around, I know that. But rock and roll and popular music, the most influential music in mankind, and Chubby Checker came along with the twist, the pony, the fly, and the shake, and gave this movement. He gave it wheels, which it never had before he came along. And they use it so much they never even think about it. C’mon, Chubby, what are you talking about here? Dancing apart to rock and roll and popular music to the beat? I say, well, we can document that on American Bandstand. Chubby Checker came on American Bandstand in 1959 and in two minutes 54 seconds he changed the world forever, according to dancing to rock and roll and popular music with a beat – 24/7, it’s the biggest thing in the music industry.


My respect goes to all the people who make music on a daily basis and the producers of it. But it’s like producing a car. All the car-making factories in the world, they gotta put the wheels on. Well, Chubby Checker is the wheels of rock and roll. Because we guide the dances that people do. The twist. Putting out a cigarette with both feet. Coming out of the shower, wiping off your bottom to the beat of the music. You can’t touch your partner and do that at the same time, instantly giving us dancing apart. Followed by the pony. Followed by the fly. What’s the fly? In modern terms, throw your hands in the air and wave ’em like you just don’t care. And if you’re doing the fly, your body is automatically doing the shake.

I asked the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to put me in the courtyard to let me represent all the people that come to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and let the real man invite them in. Because everyone in there since 1959 that’s made any music that has a beat, Chubby Checker made all that possible, no matter what they think. This is why I want the courtyard to have a symbol to represent the people who have made all this great music and the people who dance to it. I didn’t think that was such a big thing to ask for, but everyone is bent out of shape because of it.

Do you think those in charge are too young to understand the impact the twist had?

It’s not just the twist. Like I say, it’s dancing apart to rock and roll and pop music with a beat. All they need to do is go back to 1959 and look at everything before Chubby Checker. No matter how young or old you are, all you have to do is go back on TV. Go to 1958. Work your way to Bandstand. All of a sudden, Chubby Checker comes on and the very next week the whole world changes. That’s not a big thing? It’s not like we’re hiding anything. All you have to do is watch rock and roll dancing and dancing to pop music with a beat before and after Chubby Checker and there it is. This is for the whole world to see. I want something special for that. In fact, I say it’s Nobel Prize territory and I’m not out of step saying that. The biggest thing in the music industry is the dances that the people do to the music that’s played on a daily basis. And that style, before Chubby Checker, was not here.

Above: Rock and roll dancing pre-twist (to a Fats Domino song)

 

Below: Everyone is twisting!


Truth is truth. I’m just telling the truth. Not by the way I see it, I’m just telling the facts. If they don’t want to see that, what can I do about it? The truth is, before Chubby Checker rock and roll didn’t have a dance. And after Chubby Checker, rock and roll and pop music was dancing apart to the beat 24/7 every day until this moment that we’re speaking. Somewhere on this planet somebody is dancing apart to the beat to rock and roll or pop music with a beat. I want something for that. There are people who have Tony Awards and Academy Awards and all kinds of awards. So I’m not excited about being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What I’m excited about is going on stage and playing in front of a live audience. That’s my reward. Hundreds of thousands of people will watch Chubby Checker perform this year. That’s my payoff. I get my reward every day. If I never make it in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so what? It doesn’t erase the fact that the dancing that they do to rock and roll and pop music with a beat, before Chubby Checker it wasn’t here, man. That’s just the way it is.

Hank Ballard died yesterday. It’s a very sad day to me. Because this man wrote “The Twist” [See note below on the origins of “The Twist”]. The kids in the neighborhood made up a dance to it. Radio stopped playing Hank Ballard’s song and Chubby Checker came along and took the dance that no one was ever going to see and the song that no one was ever going to hear again and put them both together and came up with something wonderful that everybody is still enjoying today.


 

Did you get the dance from Hank along with the song?

The dance he didn’t do. Hank Ballard wrote a song and the kids in the neighborhood made up a dance to go to that song. When they stopped playing his record, no one was going to hear that record. We’re talking 1958 here, the middle of racism. If you could get a record played, somebody white would cover it. You never heard your record. Like “Hound Dog.” Mama Lee [sic] Thornton [Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton] made “Hound Dog’’ and it was written by…..

Leiber and Stoller.

No no no! It was written by Otis Blackwell. Otis Blackwell wrote “Hound Dog” and Mama Lee Thornton sung it and Elvis Presley, while it was on the charts, covered this song and he became the Hound Dog man. Otis Blackwell wrote a “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and [Big] Maybelle had it on the charts and Jerry Lee Lewis came along and we know the rest of that story. Back in the ‘50s, black people couldn’t get their music played because the radio stations wouldn’t play their music. Alan Freed came along and capitalized on a situation that gave black people a chance to get their music played. [Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, not Otis Blackwell, wrote and produced “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton in 1952. The only Otis involved in the creation of “Hound Dog” was Johnny Otis, who was producing the session before he was drafted to play drums on it instead and turned the reins over to first-time producers Leiber and Stoller. Elvis Presley did not record “Hound Dog” until 1956, when the success of his version spurred Johnny Otis to claim he had written the third verse of the song. Leiber and Stoller denied Otis’s claim and emerged victorious from a lawsuit over royalties.]

Do you have supporters in the music industry who feel you have not gotten the recognition you deserve?

Well, I don’t know. People look at me and say, “Who does he think he is? Who do you think you are requesting your image in the courtyard of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inviting everyone in to rock and roll?” If they put Elvis there, they wouldn’t say nuthin’. He didn’t do nuthin’. We love him, but what did he change? Did he change anything? No. Did rock and roll change because of Elvis? No. The Beatles are wonderful, but did rock and roll change because of them? No. Britney Spears and Michael Jackson?  Has anything changed because of them? No. We changed rock and roll and everybody is changed because of us. Even the rappers today, when they do the dance, it’s my dance, the pony. We did that. That’s the pony, the biggest dance in the world. The pony is the gears of disco. I sit here and just smile. As long as I’m alive and can talk about it, it’s okay. There’s no bitterness here. All I do is say the truth.I write the truth. My grammar may not be so good. It’s the result of my one room education that was given to poor little black kids down south in the ‘40s. But you do understand enough of what I write so that you can respond to it, so it’s ok.

There’s no frustration and sense of disappointment to get to the point where you’re using your money for this ad to state you case?

This is a country where you have to advertise. There is another ad I’m coming out with in the gaming magazines. Guess what it says? I want to be a part of it [laughs]. That’s all. I want people to think, “My god, Chubby Checker, I didn’t know that. Let’s see what he’s all about.” I fight to get in the main rooms in Las Vegas where Tom Jones and Englebert and Paul Anka and Bobby Vinton and Neil Sedaka. I have to fight to get in these places. All they have to do is put me in and we’ll sell out every night. They’ll come. My fans want to see me in the right place.

The only thing that’s frustrating is that a whole lot of other people are determining my fate. If they don’t play me, I’m out of business. In my business, other people pull the strings. That’s frustrating. The only person in the world who’s a better stage performer than Chubby Checker is Michael Jackson. And look how he suffers. Poor little black kid who loves babies. He’s a little weird, but so what? We’re in a weird business. There’s no morals in this business, give me a break. There ain’t nobody clean in this rotten, amoral, freaky business that we’re in. As the rappers say, we’re all dogs in this business. We’re freaks. If you wanna hear real good black music, listen to the Rolling Stones, ‘cause you’re not gonna hear it from black people.

So what would you do if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducts you, but won’t give you the statue?

Thank you very much, I’m not interested. Because we’ve given everybody in the house something to shout about. What are they shouting about? They’re dancing, man. Chubby gave you the wheels to rock on, all that fun, all that booty shakin’ stuff. Chubby came along and discovered that for rock and roll and pop music with a beat. I want something special for that.

You said that the twist came from kids in the neighborhood? Was that the same way that the pony and the fly were created?

No, we made ’em up. It is an offshoot from the twist, of course, but we made ’em up. And all these other dances that people made up, they made ’em up from Chubby Checker. This telephone we’re talking on, I’m on a remote phone, but is it still not Alexander Graham Bell’s invention? I know America was always here, but Columbus discovered it. The moon’s been up there for billions of years, but someone went up there and discovered it. Nothing is new under the sun according to the scriptures, but Chubby Checker gave rock and roll something and I want something special for that. I ask for it and I want it.

[Note: The origins of “The Twist” are murky. Indisputably, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters recorded the original version of “The Twist” in 1959 as the B-side to their first hit, the doo wop ballad “Teardrops on Your Letter.” But who wrote “The Twist”? Ballard is credited as the sole songwriter, but his authorship is disputed by at least one of the Midnighters, Lawson Smith, who claims that the song was written by Nathaniel “Nate” Bills of the Sensational Nightingales, a gospel group. Jim Dawson, who wrote “The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World,” credits its creation to a different member of the Sensational Nightingales, Joseph “Jo Jo” Wallace, and says that Ballard and Midnighters’ guitarist Cal Green used Wallace’s song as a “jumping off point” for their version.

Whoever wrote it, the music and melody seem borrowed from “Whatcha Gonna Do,” a song recorded in the early ’50s by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters.

The lyrics to “The Twist” also had antecedents. In 1912, Perry Bradford wrote and sang “Messin’ Around,” which started a dance craze of its own, the Mess Around: “Now anybody can learn the knack, put your hands on your hips and bend your back/Stand in one spot nice and tight, and twist around, twist around with all of your might.” This was probably not the first and certainly not the only pre-Hank Ballard mention of doing the twist. Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters sang about doing it (and not necessarily on the dance floor, wink wink) in their 1953 song “Let the Boogie Woogie Roll”: “When she looked at me her eyes just shined like gold/and when she did the twist she bopped me to my soul.”

But back to Ballard & the Midnighters. Their sexually suggestive “Twist” caught the fancy of several deejays who started playing what was recorded as a throwaway B-side. Teenaged listeners liked it too, and began “dancing apart” to it on a local Baltimore TV show and who knows where else. The song and its accompanying dance created enough of a stir in the mid-Atlantic area that it came to the attention of Dick Clark, host of the Philadelphia-based “American Bandstand.” Clark thought “The Twist” had potential and asked a local label, Cameo-Parkway, to record a twist record. Why not simply play Ballard’s version? It appears Clark wanted a tamer and/or less black version for his young (and predominantly white) audience, which may have had less to do with racism than with Ballard’s relatively advanced age (he would have been 31 or 32 at the time) and his reputation for recording salacious material. His first major r&b hit, “Work with Me Annie,” was banned by the FCC in 1954, which only increased its popularity and created a ready market for its equally suggestive followups, “Annie Had A Baby” and “Annie’s Aunt Fanny.”

Clark recommended an upcoming local singer, Ernest “Chubby” Evans, to Parkway-Cameo (Evans got his Chubby Checker stage name when Clark’s wife said he reminded her of Fats Domino – or so the story goes). Checker was younger, lighter-skinned and more innocent-appearing than Ballard. His recording of “The Twist” was a virtual copy of Ballard’s, but it was unburdened by the Midnighters’ notoriety for singing “dirty” material. “The Twist” entered the Billboard 100 on August 1, 1960. Five days later, Checker performed it on “American Bandstand,” launching a worldwide dance craze.]

 

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