By Tim Kelly
Speak with Chubby Checker for any length of time – the iconic rocker generously spent 50 minutes on the phone with us Tuesday – and it’s impossible not to feel energized.
The man who popularized the Twist and other dance moves, and who recorded arguably the biggest selling single in the history of music – “The Twist” – is just as busy today as he was more than 60 years ago when his show biz career first blasted off like a 1960s NASA rocket.
Checker, 77, whose real name is Ernest Evans, was excited to discuss his July 12 concert at the Ocean City Music Pier as part of the city’s 60th anniversary celebration of the Night in Venice boat parade.
“I love Ocean City, it’s an amazing place,” he said. “It’s incredible what that city has going on.”
He previously performed three abbreviated New Year’s Eve shows during “First Night” festivities.
He said Ocean City “has great audiences” and he was looking forward to doing his complete concert this time.
Tickets are $25 to $30 and are going fast but still available at www.oceancityvacation.com/boxoffice or by calling 609-399-6111 or by stopping at City Hall or Welcome Centers around town.
Chubby called at the appointed time for this article, even though he had returned to his home in suburban Philadelphia just 12 hours after a gig in El Paso, Texas, and approximately 15 hours before he and his band were scheduled to load up the tour bus and travel to a show in Oklahoma.
“My dad (Raymond Evans, an entrepreneur and longshoreman on the Philly waterfront) instilled that work ethic in me,” he said. “If I was hanging around the house, he’d ask what I was doing and I’d say ‘nothing.’ He would say, ‘There’s always something to do’ and kicked me out. I took it to heart.”
Shining shoes, doing odd jobs in his South Philly neighborhood and working in the nearby Italian Market gave him the foundation for what was to come: being at the epicenter for a dance craze and smash hit record that would set the stage for a cultural revolution.
He was 17 years old and getting ready to graduate from South Philadelphia High School when the record began getting airplay.
“I said ‘whew’ because I had been telling people since I was eight years old that I was someday going to be a big star,” he explained.
Even in his most wild and ambitious dreams, Chubby never expected what was about to unfold.
“The Twist,” a rock ‘n roll cover version of the Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ R&B version, went on to become the only rock song to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Magazine “Hot 100” list during two separate chart runs.
In 2008, Billboard put Checker’s version of the song at the top of its list of most popular records to appear on the list since 1958, and named it first again when it updated the list in 2013.
But it was more than that. “The Twist” became an international smash hit and a pop culture phenomenon.
In this YouTube video, Chubby Checker performs on American Bandstand in 1962.
“It was something different. The dance partners were standing apart, facing each other and they were doing something,” Chubby said. “They were exploring their sexuality without touching each other. Everything else came from that basic aspect. The Pony, the Fly, the Hucklebuck (all Chubby Checker dance hits) grew from the Twist, and everything since, from disco to hip-hop.”
It might not have happened at all without a break from Dick Clark, whose American Bandstand TV show was then being produced in Philly and who had a chance meeting at a poultry market with young employee Ernest Evans.
He was entertaining the customers with an impression of Fats Domino when Clark and his first wife Barbara Mallery took notice.
“She (Mallery) was my fairy godmother,” Checker recalled. “They asked me my name and when I said ‘Chubby’ she made an off-hand comment ‘so you’re Chubby Checker,’” making reference to another table game immortalized by the man he was imitating, Fats Domino.
“Nobody paid any attention to me as Ernest. I never would have had the opportunity to sign a contract with Cameo-Parkway using my real name,” he said.
Clark put Chubby on Bandstand numerous times, and the teenagers dancing on the show helped turn the Twist into a nationwide craze.
“By the time I performed it live for the first time, at the Rainbow Club in Wildwood, there was a packed house waiting and a line out the door.”
The site of the old club, Pacific and Spicer Avenues, now has a “Chubby Checker” marker on the street sign.
Checker became an instant celebrity and would meet and become friends with many of the pioneers of rock and R&B, including Fats Domino, and other famous people such as the soon-to-be heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
“After a show in Louisville, young Cassius Clay came up to me and said he wanted my advice,” Chubby said, referring to Ali’s original name. “I’m wondering what advice can I give to the greatest boxer in the world. He wanted to know what he could do to become more popular.”
Chubby said because he was the toughest man on the planet, Clay “could say anything he wanted and nobody could stop him. So I told him to talk about how good looking he was and how he was going to beat up each of his opponents. I put that in his head.”
Soon after that, Clay began speaking in rhymes, predicting what round he would knock out his opponents and bragging about his good looks, Checker said.
“That’s where his whole persona began, and we stayed great friends for the rest of his life.”
Checker also told of a meeting at Graceland with Elvis Presley, and Elvis attending one of his shows and giving him the thumbs-up sign after the encore.
In 1961, his follow-up song “Let’s Twist Again” reached No. 8 on the Billboard chart and won a Grammy for best rock single. Other hits would follow including, “Pony Time” his second No. 1 single, and “The Fly” which made it to No. 7.
In 1963, he met his future wife, Catharina Lodders, a model and former Miss World from the Netherlands, whom he would name a song after, “Loddy Lo.”
The nuptials, held later that year at a Lutheran church in Pennsauken, Camden County, attracted such a large crowd that area streets had to be closed off to traffic, according to news reports at the time.
The couple remains happily married “and we still live in the same house, since ’63,” Checker said.
Over the years, he remained health-conscious and jogged before it was trendy.
“I started jogging in the ’60s and kept going until I hurt my hip a few years ago. Now I do floor exercises,” he said. “I looked at movie stars like Clark Gable, Gregory Peck and guys like that who looked great when they got older. When I was younger I started working out so I’d have a chance to look OK (now).”
In 2016, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” into the Hall, but individual enshrinement has eluded him thus far.
“I really have a perfect life,” he said. “The only pain that I feel is when many of the big stars talk about their influences and I’m rarely mentioned. It makes me feel as if I’m excluded from the family.”
Other moments have the opposite effect, he said.
“(The band members from) ZZ Top came to one of my shows and I told those guys I would love to tour with them. They said, ‘No way. We’re not letting you make us look bad. We would never go on stage after you.’”