Gary James' Interview With
He's called "The King of The Twist", "The King of Dance". His name is Chubby Checker.
Chubby Checker has amassed a host of accomplishments in the last four decades. He was awarded the first ever platinum album in recognition for record sales; "The Twist" by Chubby Checker is the only record in Pop music history to become number one in two different years by the same artist (1960 and 1962); according to a survey of jukebox programmers by the Amusement And Music Operators Association, Chubby Checker's "The Twist" is one of the all-time Top 40 jukebox singles; and Chubby Checker's total record sales are in excess of 250 million copies worldwide, placing him in the number 56 spot in all time record sales.
What else is there to say?
Q - Didn't you release a CD a couple of years back called "The Texas Twist"? Whatever happened with that?
A - Well, I never released it. I didn't like the reaction I was getting in Nashville. I didn't like their attitude towards what I was doing. I just froze the product and didn't do anything. In fact, I only pressed 5,000 copies of music. And then I went and re-packaged the same album, took a few songs out of it and put it out...and we have success! And that album is five or six years old. But it was good back then and I just figured let me just put it out. Do it myself. Put my own label out. Get my own promotion man. Just become a record company. If you got ideas, don't depend on people out there. Do it yourself. And, I did and as a result, we're having some success.
Q - I would say more people in the industry are following your lead.
A - Sometimes you have to. Not all people. People like me that have been in the business for a long time. The music industry doesn't think we're worth it. Maybe we don't have the appeal they're looking for. We're not marketable. Old cars never get back into the showroom for some reason and then some of the cars they get in the showroom are priceless. I'm hoping I'm one of those.
Q - There's never been a more universally accepted dance than The Twist, has there?
A - Well, it's not The Twist we're talking about. We're camoflaged in our thoughts about The Twist. The Twist is dancing apart from the beat. Dancing apart from the beat is a dance that we do when we're dancing apart to the beat of anybody's music, 24 / 7 since Chubby Checker went on American Bandstand in 1959. You blame me for The Twist, but what about the rest of it? If you watch people dance right now, if you're watching TV or in the movies, that's the Chubby Checker. Dancing apart to the beat is when you look at someone and they look at you and you're doing something together, but you're not touching. That's Chubby Checker. The Twist is just part of it. The biggest dance we do is called "The Pony". Two on one side, two on another. The kids call it The Boogie. It's been with us since February 1st, 1961, when we brought it to the scene. "The Fly" is the dance we do with the hands. The kids call it throw your hands in the air, wave 'em like you just don't care. If you do The Fly, you'll automatically do The Shake. The Beatles picked it up, "The Hippy, Hippy Shake". Sam Cooke, "Let's Shake". This is what it was all about, the dancing apart from the beat is The Twist, The Pony, The Fly or The Shake. The most recognizable of all of the dancing apart from the beat movements is The Twist because it is the beginning of all of them. It is the national anthem of the dance to popular music and Rock music. These movements have been with us 24 / 7 since 1959. It's the biggest thing that happened in the music industry and still is. Before Chubby Checker, Rock 'n' Roll didn't have it.
Q - Did you have some success with Disco in the early 1980s, when you recorded for MCA?
A - Disco. I already created that. That was already done. I can't invent the wheel twice. That's the dance I was telling you about. Two on one side, two on another. That was the epitome of the dance called The Pony. People called it The Boogie. Let's go out and Boogie. That's what The Pony is. The Pony is The Boogie. Disco is just more dancing apart to the beat with more intensified rhythm. That's all it really is. When you see people dancing apart to the beat to anybody's music, they call it The Boogie. But, what you really call it is The Chubby Checker. Rock 'n' Roll, when the beat comes on, kids go on the floor and dance. What are they doing. They're doing the Chubby Checker. Before Chubby Checker, dancing apart to the beat wasn't here.
Q - Hank Ballard created The Twist phenomenon didn't he?
A - No, he did not. Hank Ballard wrote a song called "The Twist". And the kids in the neighborhood made up a dance to it. And, the radio stopped playing his song. That's when Chubby Checker emerged.
Q - So radio made all the difference in who became successful with The Twist?
A - Radio didn't play his song.
Q - And they played your song?
A - No. They didn't play my song because I didn't record no song. The only reason I recorded The Twist is because the kids in the neighborhood made up a little dance to it and they titled their dance after that song. The radio stopped playing that song and no one was ever gonna see that dance and no one was ever gonna hear that song. In 1957, 1958, no one was gonna hear that song. I saw the opportunity. I went in and recorded the song.
Q - Were you in fact "discovered" by Dick Clark?
A - I don't know. Not really. I was already out there doing what I was doing. I met Dick Clark at a studio, doing some work for him. My name is Chubby at that time. His wife said "Chubby, like Fats. Checker like Domino," and Chubby became Checker. I became Chubby at eleven years of age, working in the produce department of my boss. When I came to the studio for Dick Clark when I was about 16 1/2 years old, his wife said "Chubby like Fats. Checker like Domino." And that's when I became Chubby Checker. We made a song called "The Class", which went to #34 on the charts when I was in the eleventh grade. And then, between that song and my next record, which was a hit, is when we discovered The Twist.
Q - While you were in high school, you worked in a poultry shop. Your boss there put you in touch with Philadelphia's Cameo Parkway label...
A - The only reason that happened is Henry (Chubby's boss) and the guy who was a songwriter at Cameo Parkway were in the chicken / turkey business together. I was always singing and so all this came together, and that's how it started.
Q - How many records of yours did Cameo release before "The Twist" became a hit?
A - We had "The Class". We had "Dancing Dinosaur" and we had "Private Eyes". "The Class" was a hit, "Dinosaur" was not a hit. "Private Eyes" was not a hit. And I thought it was really all over by then. Then my mother had a dream. She said I was going to record a song that wasn't going to be my song but it was going to cover the whole world and nothing was ever going to be the same again. Then, four or five months later I said "Mom, I'm going to sing this song by Hank Ballard." I said "it's not my song. Do you think this is it?" She said "I had a dream." That's all she said.
Q - Has she been dreaming lately?
A - My mother has visions and they come true. She's a Holy women. She's bathed in the Holy Spirit. She speaks in Tongue.
Q - Is that the only time she had a vision?
A - When I was in her stomach she said there was going be a war and Pearl Harbor happened.
Q - Why do you think Philadelphia was such a force in the music business for a while there? Was it because of Dick Clark's American Bandstand?
A - It is the Mecca of teenism. The Mecca of teenism is Philadelphia. The most important place in America for many, many years, 46 and Market Street, American Bandstand. That's where music was born. That's where everything happened. And I happened to be in the town where the Mecca was. And not only that, in Philadelphia we changed the music industry forever. Dancing apart to the beat is the biggest thing that happened in the music industry. It really is. Without me saying this, it is the biggest thing that happens, not happened, in the music industry. The singers are important because they create all the excitement, but if they had no dances to do their songs to, where would it be? Dancing apart to the beat is the most important thing that happens in the music industry and it was born in Philadelphia on American Bandstand, on TV for everybody to see. That's quite amazing. In fact, we're working to put a TV show out where we go from the 50s and get into 1959 and then Chubby Checker goes on TV and we continue to watch TV people dancing and watch what happens over the next five to six years. It's hard to believe the impact of dancing apart to the beat. It's still with us. In fact, it's bigger now than it's ever been. I compare dancing apart to the beat with Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Dr. George Washington Carver, Walt Disney, Henry Ford. I compare it to these things because before these people came along, the phone wasn't here until Alex came along. Dancing apart to the beat wasn't here until Chubby came along. Listen, a lot of people and a lot of things came together to make this a reality, but I'm the person that carried it. I'm the person who made it happen. Dancing apart to the beat belongs to me, for the world to enjoy. Dancing apart is the most important thing in Rock 'n' Roll. The reason why I asked the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame to put a statue of me in the courtyard is, who is more fitting to invite everybody into Rock 'n' Roll? I mean, the wheel that Rock rolls on is the dance that's done to the Rock 'n' Roll music that's produced. If one man or woman did that, they deserve to at least invite the world into Rock 'n' Roll. Who else is more fitting to do that?
Q - Are you in The Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame or being considered?
A - No. I don't want to be in the Hall, and I stress this, I want to be in the yard.
Q - What do you have to do to make that happen?
A - Well, it's kind of new for everyone right now. It's a new thing for them. This is a one time thing that's never happened before to anyone since time began. I gave them a big pill to swallow. They have to swallow this thing.
Q - What type of venues are you performing in these days?
A - Oh, boy...everywhere! Colleges, Casinos. A lot of those.
Q - Do you remember performing in the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York?
A - Yeah. There was a big crowd of people.
Q - I believe you were one of the first performers to play the showroom.
A - Yeah, and they haven't had a crowd like that since! It was fabulous. I remember it. I've been there twice. You know, that's what I do. Everybody shows up. I'm playing someplace in Texas next week or the week after and they're already sold out. And that's very nice.
Q - Do you travel with your own band?
A - Always. I'm a professional. You know when Chubby Checker comes, I come with my group. They're called The Wildcats. We all have one of those buses. I own a bus, you know, one of those Greyhound looking things. They call 'em a Rock bus. We travel around the country in that and it's kind of neat. When we play, we're serious. We hurt people. We wound them. (laughs) It's like somebody getting ready to do a football game. They want to go out and kill. We're licking our chops, rubbing our hands together and do what we do. It's very exciting.
Q - It's a refreshing change to hear someone who actually still caries that enthusiasm with them after all these years.
A - Look, if you don't have it, stay home! There are guys who say I don't like to go on the road. Well, why did you get into this business to begin with? If you don't like the dirt that it takes to do it, go home! Don't come out here and complain! You gotta get over the 'star' thing. The 'star' is when you're onstage. When you're offstage, forget about it! You're nothing. You're nothing but dirt.
© Gary James. All rights reserved.