Chubby Checker knows what made him famous: A 2-minute, 40-second song that reached the top of the charts twice that was then twisted into possibly a dozen or more variations in the years to follow.
He’s not about to let “The Twist” fade away, and he still boasts about the ways it changed music and dance for decades after. It was his pumped-up version of Hank Ballard’s “The Twist” that made America dance a new way and topped the charts in both 1960 and 1962.
“The Twist” is probably the biggest event in the music industry,” Checker said in an interview from home in Philadelphia. “It’s the No. 1 song of all time (according to Billboard) and changed the dance floor. You were looking at the girl, she’s looking at you, you weren’t touching each other. You might have called it the boogie. That’s what I put on the dance floor. Anyone who has a song that has a beat, that’s what they do when they dance. Before Chubby Checker, that wasn’t true. ‘The Twist’ is probably embedded into most people’s lives one way or the other. You may not realize it, but when you turn on the lights, you’re not thinking of Thomas Edison. If you’re on the phone you’re not thinking of Alexander Graham Bell.”
In the years that followed “The Twist,” Checker released other singles and albums — “Pony Time,” “Limbo Rock,” “The Fly” and “Let’s Twist Again” among the most successful — and tried his hand at The Checker Bar, a candy bar made of white and milk chocolate that looks like a checkerboard that he sells for charity. He’s also got his own line of beef jerky that he’s trying to get off the ground.
“We’re still struggling, but we did a food show and we’ve got a couple big stores that want to put our jerky in their stores,” Checker said. “We’ve been trying to do it for a very long time.”
Checker’s fortunes faded after the mid-’60s, not that that makes him forget his achievements.
He still speaks fondly of his 1988 Super Bowl halftime show appearance with The Rockettes and 72 pianos, and claims it was the greatest halftime show ever with his performance of “Let’s Twist Again.”
“That halftime show we did, they’re still trying to make another one that good,” Checker said with a laugh. “They haven’t had a great, great halftime show. They’re all good, but they have to build them up to be so big. We had the best Super Bowl halftime show there ever was.”
Checker and the Wildcats
It was also in the late ’80s that Checker started hitting the road with a large band called the Wildcats; they’ll play with him for his two shows at The Nugget.
“It’s a six-piece band,” Checker said. “It’s a rock band. I started having a band in 1966, because with The Beatles around, I said if I’m going to be great wherever I go, I have to have the same guys playing the music.
“The players that I have, they’re young players. They need to be young to hang out with The Chub,” he said, laughing. “We have to work hard. We just play and really put it together. It’s like watching a rock band what we do out there.”
In addition to the old favorites, Checker’s made new music in recent years, including the unexpected dance-chart topping “Knock Down the Walls” in 2008. While the dance version had an adult-contemporary sound that fit right into today’s landscape, Checker said one of the other little-heard versions of the song was his favorite — the urban version that could make R. Kelly’s ears perk up.
“The urban version blows the dance version away,” Checker said. “It was so amazing, it scared black people. They didn’t believe Chubby could do that.”
‘Beautiful out there’
When in Reno, Checker said he likes to hit the road with his wife of more than 50 years and walk in the trees.
“Usually when I get out there in the summer, we get in the car and we drive where the highway runs out where the pine trees are,” Checker said. “We pick up pinecones, we just get in the car and go. It’s beautiful out there.”
He fondly recalled playing the Hot August Nights festival three times or so.
“That was a big one,” he said. “Really huge, a lot of people and it was really awesome.”
Checker barely has lived up to his name over the years. The 75-year-old, born Ernest Evans, is remarkably spry and healthy and said he still sings his songs in their original keys. But he doesn’t attribute any of it to a particular fitness regimen.
“Your health and strength come from The Lord,” Checker said. “You only know when you don’t have it.”
Hall of Fame?
He has yet to be nominated for a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but said that’s just not a big deal to him. He said he protested a Hall of Fame event years ago in New York City because of a different problem he was having: lack of radio airplay.
“I was in New York City and I protested,” Checker said. “I used the Hall of Fame to get attention to my problem. My sign said ‘play Chubby Checker’s music.’ That was my protest.
“Most of the people in there are dead already,” Checker said of the Hall of Fame. “All the dark ones are dead,” he said, referring to black inductees. “I don’t want to be in the Hall of Fame. I wanted to get my music played. It would be nice (to be included), but I’ve got news: if I’m 85 years old and they want me, give it to my friends. The thing is, what’s the big deal? The Beastie Boys got in there.
“The music industry has given me everything I have, but the racial undertones are as big as ever. I see “Twist and Shout” played more than Chubby Checker’s song, and that breaks my heart. I say that racism is an ocean and my boat’s too small. Forget the Rock and Roll Hall. I’ve got the No. 1 song in the world.”