Concert preview: Chubby Checker twists at Nugget in Sparks
Dance music pioneer Chubby Checker will serve up hits with a twist when he and his band The Wildcats take the stage at the Nugget Casino Resort on July 11.
It's been 55 years since the musician struck gold with his swinging cover of Hank Ballard's R&B hit, "The Twist."
The song has the traction of a monster truck, though, topping the list of the most popular singles ever to hit the Billboard Hot 100.
Buoyed by fat horns, exuberant vocals and a strategic "American Bandstand" appearance by Checker, the song first reached No. 1 in September of 1960.
"The Twist" spurred a seismically popular dance craze, with throngs of people — from teens to their parents to jet-setting celebrities — eager to try the waist-whittling maneuver.
It had some aftershocks, too, resurfacing in 1961 for another chart-topping stint and appearing in 1987 as the gyrating backbone for the the Fat Boys rap hit, "The Twist."
Checker chalks up the enduring popularity of the song to the way it got people moving.
"Anyplace on the planet, when someone has a song that has a beat, they're on the floor dancing apart to the beat," he explained to AP in 2011. "And before Chubby Checker, it wasn't here, and I think that has a lot to do with me being on the charts."
Also charting in 1960 was another dance song, "The Hucklebuck" at No. 14. You don't mess with a winning formula. Checker, who was 18 when "The Twist" was unleashed, went on to release a slew of songs urging folks to shake their moneymakers.
In 1961, he scored his second No. 1 hit with "Pony Time." "Let's Twist Again"— a song urging listeners to dance like they had the previous summer — was a No. 8 hit. It also notably earned Checker the Grammy Award for Best Rock and Roll Solo Vocal Performance.
After ringing in the holidays with a rendition of "Jingle Bell Rock," he embarked on another kinetic year. In 1962, he released several tunes with galvanizing names like "Let's Do the Freddie."
The most successful of these were "Slow Twistin," which reached No. 3 on the charts and "Limbo Rock," which made No. 2.
By 1963, the dance guru was a millionaire. In 1964, Checker celebrated his success by marrying Catharina Johanna Lodders, a Dutch model who won the 1962 Miss World title for the Netherlands.
Checker, who by age 8 had founded a street-corner harmony group in the projects of South Philadelphia where he was raised, once aspired to be known for his range. But with musical tastes changing, "Limbo Rock" would mark the last of his top 10 hits.
Call it typecasting or call it painting yourself into a corner. Either way, he was inextricably associated in the mind of the public with dance songs.
"In a way, 'The Twist' really ruined my life," he has said.
If twist tunes have been his downfall, they have also helped keep his career going. Checker has toured constantly since his debut, drawing crowds looking for a high-energy act laced with rock 'n roll nostalgia.
His performances typically include other mid-century gems along with his own rock and R&B stylings. He's known for an interactive show, where he highlights the crowd's swiveling abilities.
He also occasionally delves into deeper fare, including his inspirational 2013 song "Changes," which has been well received in the adult contemporary and gospel genres. The song finds him on his knees, asking for redemption after years of "running wild."
Though he loves gigging, there's one thing that brings down Checker's mood. He feels radio stations don't play his songs much, or near enough.
In a recent phone interview with Best Bets, he described a recent experiment he undertook — more anecdotal than scientific.
He listened steadily to the radio for two weeks, hoping to hear one of his hits.
While he heard the Beatles' "Twist and Shout" several times, "The Twist" never appeared.
Lack of airplay is a problem that's hit black performers with disproportionate force, says Checker, citing Lionel Ritchie and Prince among the sonically disenfranchised.
"To me, it's racism at its best," he said. "I don't hide the way I feel. I'm in the midst of it."
While his music is no longer ubiquitous, Checker has a self-image to match his larger-than-life stage persona.
He knows he's a legend, and wants to be treated as such.
You can argue that humility is a virtue, but it takes confidence and resilience to tour steadily for more than half a century. Checker has both, with some to spare.
"What keeps me in the industry is my great talent," he said. "You see the rest of those guys, and you see Chubby and say, 'I've never seen anything like that.'"
He's grateful for his career longevity. Now 73, Checker wants people to know that, with a little luck, life can get better and better.
Although some people tend to have a midlife crisis when they hit 40 or thereabouts, Checker has a different perspective.
At midlife, he says, "You're just starting to get turned on. Where you've been is good, but where you're going is so much more."
IF YOU GO
Who: Chubby Checker
When: 8 p.m. July 11
Where: Nugget Casino Resort