Chubby Checker:
twistin' his life away

An interview by Tom Knapp,
October 1997

Chubby Checker is the music business, and the music business is Chubby Checker. And Checker doesn't feign modesty over the issue.

"I am the business," he said during a telephone interview. "The music business uses Chubby Checker like we use the telephone. And that's because any music with a beat started right here. ... Millions of dollars are being made by the music industry every minute of the day, and it all started 39 years ago with Chubby Checker."

Songs like Checker's signature tune, "The Twist," started a new wave of fast dancing with partners who don't touch during the song. Pre-Checker, that just didn't happen.

"If you dance or have danced to anybody's music with a beat, I've touched your life," he said. "Before Chubby Checker, that never happened. Dancing apart to music with a beat is my legacy. ... That's why I'm still here."

Checker said his influence on music is as significant as Walt Disney's was on animation.

"It's not always a conscious association," he said. "People spark when they hear my name. But they might not know why."

With more than 20 Top 40 hits to his credit, Chubby Checker's impact on the formative years of rock 'n' roll is undeniable. His name is most strongly associated with "The Twist," which rocketed to No. 1 in 1960 and again in October 1961, and related tunes "Let's Twist Again" (No. 8 in 1961), "Slow Twistin'" (No. 3 in 1962) and "Twist It Up" (No. 25 in 1963).

A South Carolina native who now calls the Philadelphia area home, Checker was born in 1941 with another alliterative name, Ernest Evans. "Chubby" was an unkind nickname from his youth, he said, and "Checker" was suggested by Dick Clark's wife because it sounded good.

Checker didn't make a fortune on records in the '60s, but he isn't bitter about the multi-million-dollar contracts awarded to young artists today. "There's a lot of money around," he said. "And the technology is right. You can come into the business and make $25 million in 25 months, then disappear. It can happen. ... It's like fast food, you know? But there are few artists that survive. The good ones survive. ... It's the way the business is."

When he takes the stage for a live performance, Checker said he performs exactly the way the audience expects. "Chubby Checker is a product," he said. "You come see Chubby Checker, you want to see Chubby Checker. ... It's like buying a Hershey bar. People don't want surprises; they want what they know."

He remembers attending a Chicago concert in Maryland many years ago. He's forgotten most of the details of the show, but he remembers vividly being disappointed. "They didn't do any of the music I came to see. I was upset about that."

Even so, Checker doesn't usually prepare a playlist for his shows. "I want to be surprised like everybody else," he said.

[ by Tom Knapp ]