He changed the way people danced during the second half of the 20th Century, but Chubby Checker won’t claim all of the credit for creating the foot-sliding, tush-swiveling steps that accompanied his cover of Hank Ballard’s song “The Twist.”
“The kids of the inner city always come up with everything,” says Checker, born Ernest Evans 77 years ago in Spring Gully, S.C. “Even Michael Jackson said that the dance (moves) that he did came out of the inner city. It was called ‘the slop,’ and (Jackson) picked (his steps) up from that.”
“The Twist” — the song, not the dance — was introduced by Ballard and The Midnighters in 1959 and was the B-side to the single “Teardrops on Your Letter.”
But “The Twist” ultimately became the hit after radio disc jockeys began playing that tune more than “Teardrops.”
Neither Ballard nor his band were dancers, so initially there wasn’t a dance that was singularly identified with the tune.
Checker, who was still in high school in Philadelphia and was taking the first steps in his recording career, ended up recording his version of “The Twist.”
He hadn’t been on “American Bandstand” yet, but it was the TV music and dance show’s host, Dick Clark, who pushed Cameo-Parkway Records to let Checker record a cover of the tune “because the kid needs to have a hit,” Checker says with a laugh during a recent conversation.
Checker, just 17, recorded the song, and his interpretation was virtually identical to Ballard’s. Sure enough, inner city kids heard the song and began crafting a version of the dance that would ultimately become an international sensation.
It was the first time, he adds, that kids — mostly teenagers — exploited their sexuality on the dance floor without touching.
“The guy was looking at the girl, the girl was looking at the guy, and we’re not touching, but we’re still dancing and exploring (our) sexuality and we’re fully dressed,” he says, chuckling quietly as he looks back nearly 60 years to the global influence the song had on the way young people danced.
But for years, despite the worldwide recognition and societal impact of the song, Checker had long been ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He took the snub personally, and even staged a one-man protest outside the HOF installation ceremony in 2002.
But good things often happen to those who wait, even if they wait impatiently.
Last year, “The Twist” was among the first songs inducted into a new HOF category: Hit singles.
Checker himself still isn’t in the hall, but at least the song that put him on the map is. And according to E-Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who introduced the first class of singles, it doesn’t rule out Checker one day becoming a rock hall member.
“(The category is) a recognition of the excellence of the singles that shaped rock ’n’ roll, kind of a rock ’n’ roll jukebox, records by artists not in the Rock Hall,” Van Zandt said at the 2018 ceremony. “Which is not to say these artists will never be in the Rock Hall. They just are not in the Rock Hall at the moment.”
Checker, who will transports audiences back in time with The Wildcats when they perform 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, in the Superstar Theater at Resorts Casino Hotel, was thrilled that his song was included in the inaugural batch of tunes in the new “singles” category, he also says it’s not his biggest contribution to the music industry.
That, he says, is the fact that age 77, he’s still performing, still filling venues, and still watching his fans — some of them now armed with artificial hips — performing the dance craze he introduced before man first flew into space.
“My biggest contribution to the music industry is what’s going to be happening at Resorts on February 16,” he says. “That’s where it’s at. I mean, it’s nice to get little awards and it’s nice to get little plaques. But performing for the people is where it’s at for me.”
He’s happy his signature recording has finally found a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nearly 60 years after it had a major impact on popular music and dance. And if he’s ever — or finally — inducted into the HOF, which had ignored him for years, he admits he’d be very happy.
But, in a change of heart from 20 years ago, he isn’t losing any sleep over it.
“‘The Twist’ is the number one song on the planet and … you can’t do better than that,” he says.
He says the fact that he’s still in demand as a performer, and the fact that people still remember his song, is a true blessing from above.
“Any time I’m going to appear with my band is the greatest gift from God,” he adds. “Everything else — like the awards and stuff — is just OK,” he adds.
Checker enjoys playing gigs at the Jersey Shore, and he’s always had a soft spot for Wildwood. It was there, at Harry Levy’s Rainbow Club at Spicer and Pacific avenues, that Checker first performed “The Twist” in 1960, just weeks after graduating high school.
At first, there was some concern that Checker, who was just 18, was too young to perform in the club. So Levy and Cameo-Parkway songwriter Kal Mann avoided any potential problems by stashing Checker in the club’s office, bringing him directly onto the stage to perform, then hiding him in the office after his set.
“It was the beginning of ‘The Twist,’ and there were lines around the block,” Checker remembers. The song shot to the top of the charts and spun off several sequels.
In 1962, the original “The Twist” was released again. The second again went to No. 1 and became the only song of the rock era to reach No. 1 twice in two different years, a record that stands today.
Wildwood was such an important part of his career that while he lives outside Philadelphia, he considers himself a Wildwoodian, perhaps once removed.
He’s especially fond of how the people of Wildwood have treated him over the years. Besides playing gigs at the Convention Center there, Checker is one of just three acts whose musical contributions to the island were so impactful for tourism they have murals on the sides of buildings depicting them in their early years.
The others are Bill Haley & The Comets, who introduced “Rock Around the Clock” at Wildwood’s old HofBrau Hotel in 1954, and the city’s longtime summer son, Bobby Rydell, who put the resort on the musical map with the Top 20 hit “Wildwood Days.”
Wildwood is still so special to Checker that on every bag of the beef jerky product that bares his name — he’s got a little side business going outside of music — are messages encouraging people to visit several places, including Spring Gully, S.C., where he was born, and Wildwood, where he introduced “The Twist.”
“New Jersey will always be special to me, especially Wildwood. And I love Jersey tomatoes,” he adds with a big laugh.