Interview with music icon Chubby Checker

To hear Chubby Checker explain it, “The Twist” is ingrained in the DNA of every human being born after 1960. Frankly, he’s not wrong. In 2013, Billboard Magazine named “The Twist” the No. 1 single of all time, above every song released since 1959. Playing on his calling card, Chubby will be in Lancaster tomorrow at the home opener of the Lancaster Barnstormers to both perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” and participate in a Guinness World Record attempt of most people Twisting at one time. The last record of 3,040 people was set at a minor-league baseball game in Mississippi. Read below about Chubby’s thoughts on his place in music history, his relationship with Fats Domino and of course, “The Twist.”


Chubby on performing at the Barnstormers game:

I got the call and it seemed like a good idea. Thanks to “The Twist,” we get to go around to places like the Barnstormers and do what we love. I’m looking forward to the Barnstormers event. I’m going to be singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I did it at a Celtics game before. I usually have a guitar player but this time I’m going to go out and sing it dry and see if I can pull all of the elements together. To me, it’s one of the greatest, if not the greatest patriotic song ever written. Francis Scott Key had no idea that he had done such a great thing. It’s wonderful song. I don’t like to play around it, I just like to do it the right way. Some people like to do those extra little things to it that don’t need to be done. I’ll be doing my best Mario Lanza impression. He was born right down the street from my house on Christian Street in Philadelphia.


Chubby on inventing dance styles:

When I see people dancing on the dance floor, it’s all me. It really is. That style of dancing never happened until we came on the dance floor. All they did to the Twist, the Pony, the Fly, the Shake, the Hucklebuck, is that they slowed the beat down and it became the Boogie. That’s all that happened. When you see [the Twist], you recognize it because it’s so unlike anything else. But I think they fail to realize that style of dance is what we do to everything that we dance to.


Chubby on being a star while still being in high school:

I had a song before [“The Twist”] called “The Class” and my classmates still knew me as Ernie, you know? And then all of a sudden I went on American Bandstand and they say, “Oh, are you Chubby Checker?” and I’m like “Give me a break, guys” [laughs]. Then we recorded “The Twist” and that started to get played as I was graduating. I graduated in February of 1960, and by the summer, that song was climbing the charts and we didn’t know that the world was being changed as a result of that song. I was still in South Philadelphia High School and I was graduating. I was so glad that I had something playing on the radio, because it meant I had a job, thank you! [laughs]


Chubby on his pre-“Twist” first single, “The Class”:

It happened maybe six months [before “The Twist”]. Dick Clark wanted someone to do “Jingle Bells” for him, and he wanted an impressionist. I was that person. Now, my boss at the poultry market took me to the recording studio and a friend of his was a songwriter. They wrote up a script and I was the guy doing impressions of Elvis, Fats Domino, artists of the day and the Chipmunks, that thing. Now, I was sitting at the piano doing my Fats Domino impression, this lady says “Is that Chubby?” because “Chubby” was my nickname since I was ten years old. She said “Chubby like ‘Fats,’ why don’t we put ‘Checker’ at the end, like ‘Domino?’” And that woman was Mrs. Dick Clark. After the “Jingle Bells” thing, then Kal Mann wrote a song called “The Class” which was like the version of “Jingle Bells” but with “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” As a result of that, we had our first hit, which went to #34 at the time. And I was in 11th grade.


Chubby on contributing to the fitness industry:

That song changed the world and changed the dance floor forever. The way we dance is as old as my career. And, exercising to music did not appear until someone said “Hey, ‘The Twist’ is a great exercise.” And that’s how that industry began. I have an album called “The Sixty Minute Workout,” which came out in 2001. There’s a new thing coming out called “Chubby Checker’s American Dance Party,” and I think that’s going to be exercise thing that’s coming out. [The people behind that] said, “Look, you started all this stuff, why don’t be bring the original back and let’s see if we can put it together?” It’s out there a little bit now, but I really think it’s going to hit in September.


Chubby on his good friend, Fats Domino:

He’s always been my favorite person. Every time I go to New Orleans, I see him. I go to his house, meet with his children. My last birthday, I got a call from Fats Domino. “Happy birthday, Chubby!” I just had to stop – Fats Domino called and wished me a happy birthday, oh my God! I was so excited; even talking about it, I get excited.

Chubby on “The Twist” being ingrained in music’s DNA:

We were leading the parade. Not only was I the No. 1 singer, but we were doing something no one had ever done before and no one ever did again. We got on the dance floor, we did something there. It was a movement that started on the dance floor and never left. Disco, the Boogie, the funk, was all based around what we brought to the table as kids. The Pony, for example, that’s breakdancing, and the Pony turns into a musical movement known as Hip-Hop. What does a pony do? It hips and it hops! Also, if you “throw your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care,” you’re doing the Fly! It’s Chubby Checker. It became an expression, “That’s Fly.” A lot of things that are in music today are woven in with what we put there. It’s as old as it is and as new as it’s ever gonna get.


Chubby on Jimmy Fallon and other people doing “The Twist”:

In my lifetime, I don’t want anyone to sing that song but me. And that’s the end of that. I don’t even want to entertain that idea, I don’t want anyone singing “The Twist” but me. When I’m dead, they can sing it all they want. And I want to go on The Tonight Show and Twist with Jimmy Fallon, cause every time someone comes on his show, he outdoes everybody. You ever notice that? He does that Neil Young impression, I think he has the real Neil beat! I want to bust his chops and see if he can do a Chubby Checker impression.


Chubby on his new single “Lookin’ For Me”:

We wanted to do something different. I was born in South Carolina, so all I heard was country music because there was no rock and roll when I was a kid. There was a little bit of the blues, that didn’t really reach my dad’s farm and we were very religious people. We lived like the Amish people, we didn’t have any running water or electricity. But I loved country music growing up, and my mom took me to see Ernest Tubb at one of the fairs, and that did it. I was four years old, and I didn’t know 14 years later that I’d be doing it. I told my mom that that was all I wanted to do, and it was all I dreamt about day after day. Until one day I was finally on TV! I was so glad when it finally happened, because that’s all I wanted to. So this country song came out of it. I did a country album in 1994 called “The Texas Twist,” and one of the great songs on it was the second cut, “Honky Tonk Girls” and I thought that was one of the most amazing country songs that anybody ever did, no matter who they were. We came up with this “Lookin’ For Me” because some bluegrass guy was around playing his banjo, and I snuck in there and stuck in that “She was there in Oklahoma” line. And then the producer taped it and wrote a song around it and we recorded it not long after.


Chubby on the radio:

I just can’t get radio to play my music widespread. I just can’t get it, but whatever it is, we do what we can do. Paul McCartney came out with a song a couple years ago and every radio station played it. But it wasn’t a success, so they got rid of it. Elton John came out with something like that as well. They didn’t give me the same opportunity. I thought that I would at least get the opportunity to get turned down by the public, not by the radio establishment. And something else bothers me about radio. I have the No. 1 song of all time since you’ve been listening to music, and since Genghis Khan came here and since the Magna Carta was signed. I have the No. 1 song of all time. “The Twist” is the No. 1 song of all time from 1958 to 2008. In 2013, Billboard magazine named it again the No. 1 song every year from 1958 to 2013, which gave it 55 years in a row. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why radio is not playing my song. That’s the only thing that I’m sleepless about. Please, someone help me to understand why my music isn’t being played on the radio. There’s no format for the No. 1 song of all time. I don’t get it. Why am I not hearing it on the radio? It’s baffling to me. I hear “Twist & Shout,” but I don’t hear Chubby. But other than that, life is OK. I’m on tour all the time and we get the chance to play for people and have a good time. I’m well and I’m healthy, and I’m thankful for that.


Chubby on various other versions of “The Twist”:

Zsa Zsa Gabor did the Twist at the Peppermint Lounge, and I think at that time she had enough equipment on her body to burn up the planet. Earl Wilson saw it and he wrote about it and took pictures of Zsa Zsa Twisting and it was so amazing. Then we wrote a song about “Let’s twist again, like we did last year, let’s twist again like we did last summer.” While that was going on, that same song, “The Twist” was rapidly becoming a hit all over again. And Zsa Zsa Gabor was really the one that started the mess, because “The Twist” was getting old already after 18, 19 months, but she just revived it all over again. It was quite amazing what happened there. And then later The Fat Boys came out with “Yo Twist” later and I did a country version at one point…you can’t escape the fact that that song, “The Twist,” is with us. Like I said before, it’s like the electric light, like animation, like the telephone, the minute it’s gotten into the hands of the public, it’s theirs forever.

Chubby Checker will be performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and participating in a World Record attempt for “Most People Twisting” at the Barnstormer’s Opening Night tomorrow at 7 p.m.

Where were you when you first twisted?



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Posted in Music, Music – Lancaster, Music Features

Kevin Stairiker is a features writer for Fly. He is a graduate of Temple University and enjoys writing in third person. When he isn't writing, he's probably playing guitar for a litany of bands, reading comics or providing well-needed muscle at The Double Deuce.

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