Since Chubby Checker’s performances of Hank Ballard’s The Twist ignited the dance floor in the early ’60s on American Bandstand, the artist, the song and the dance are still with us, compelling us to move.
And no one can do The Twist without a big smile on their face, no matter who they are.
The song was the first and only 45 single to rise to Billboard’s No. 1 spot in two different years and launched a career that earned Checker the first platinum album in rock’n’roll history and the first rock’n’roll Grammy Award.
“Truthfully The Twist is simple but so much fun and sexy and suggestive. Anything you want on the dance floor, you can get away with it, you can do whatever you want ’cause you’re dancing,” says Checker in a phone interview. He performs May 18 at the Rialto Theatre.
The artist is credited with revolutionizing North American dance by popularizing the moves that allowed for individual freedom of expression as opposed to dancing with a partner to prescribed steps.
“Before The Twist, you didn’t get a chance to look at the goods moving in front of you. That’s the most exciting thing, dancing, all that sex, all that excitement—the Twist, the Fly, the Pony and the Hucklebuck, we brought all these things to the dance floor,” Checker says. “We changed everything. We gave the music industry a fire it never had. Dancing as we know it is not attached to anybody, just to music. People having a good time—still having a good time.”
When asked why he uses the collective pronoun, Checker answers without hesitation. “It’s because I never do anything by myself. First of all, we owe it to God because he gives us everything. We don’t even belong to ourselves. Even the breath we breathe, the person you marry, the children you have are just loaned to you. We’re just passing through and it takes a lot to make one person successful. It’s because of us that I exist, it’s because of us that I survive.”
In his upcoming show, Checker will present his new single Changes, loosely based on his life through decades of being in the music industry. In collaboration with studio musicians, he has a strong musical input in the creation of the song in addition to singing it. “I had too much music in my head and I knew I would never be able to play it all,” he recalls of his early piano training. “I learned how to arrange and put things together. I have all the imagination but don’t play well. I put my creation into what the musicians were doing.”
A born performer, the young Checker, born Ernest Evans in 1941, entertained friends and family at the Philadelphia poultry market where he worked and in the streets with his singing group, the Quantrells. His first record at 17, The Class, showcased his extraordinary ability to imitate the rock’n’roll stars of the day. Though it became a minor hit, it is not something Checker wants to dwell upon.
“I thought I was just too cool to imitate anyone. I was a clown. I think there is nothing worse than a black guy being a clown. I was so glad when the Pony and the Fly came out, ’cause you could be a man. I’m macho, I can kick butt.”
Nor is he inclined to discuss the tumultuous times he has lived through, such as the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement. “I don’t go into that room. I just go out and make music. I was the first black performer that was No. 1 in the world.”
As for the strife, he says, “It is what it is, the more things change the more they stay the same—I have to live in this world. The weather is not gonna be good everyday.”
More than a half a century after his first hit, Checker continues to tour and says the show is the most important thing to him. He has no plans to stop, though he has some business ventures—in chocolate—coming out in a few months.
“I like to involve myself in good things. Picasso painted until he died. I always think if you quit, God closes the reservation in the hotel. I don’t care about winning the race. I want to be in the race.”
He has a healthy pride in his accomplishments and says we never think of Thomas Edison when we turn on the light, or Alexander Graham Bell when we use the phone or of Walt Disney when we watch a cartoon, but we should.
“When you go on the dance floor and do The Twist, Chubby’s there.”