A Connoisseur of Fine Things: Interim Thoughts on the Life and Career of Chubby Checker

Scott Schoenberg
The Best of Chubby Checker 1959-1963 (ABKCO, 2005)

While Bob Dylan was furiously writing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” Chubby Checker was busy with his Trinidadian dance for the teenybopper diaspora. Dancing one’s ass off is as reasonable a response to impending nuclear annihilation as anything.

"I want my flower while I'm alive. I can’t smell them when I’m dead."

-- Chubby Checker

"Good-bye Johnny B. Goode"

-- Chuck Berry

I. Poor Chubby Checker

Chuck Berry died in March 2017, but here I am thinking about Chubby Checker again. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. It was only recently that I learned that it was he who sang the Caribbean-tinged “Limbo Rock”, and it’s unclear to me as of this writing whether the song kicked off the dance craze or the dance craze impelled Chubby to record the song. But that’s how things go with Chubby -- you never can tell.

Obviously I knew about “The Twist” and its sequel, “Let’s Twist Again”, but I had no idea that there were five additional “Twists” -- “Twistin’ USA”, “Slow Twistin’” “La Paloma Twist”, “Teach Me To Twist”, and “Twist It Up”, and a subsequent limbo song as well, “Let’s Limbo Some More” -- all recorded between 1961 and 1963. It wasn’t only the limbo and the Twist either. Checker had minor hits that celebrated several other dance fads: “Pony Time”, ”The Hucklebuck”, “The Fly”, and “The Freddie”. To hear Chubby tell it, these movements are foundational for every type of zeitgeist dance that’s come and gone in the intervening years, including breakdancing, pop and locking, the macarena, and twerking. He’s proud of this legacy and sees his dance-floor innovations as his primary contribution. But is that all there is? Just a few archaic dance moves buoying his ramshackle career?

As a child of the ‘80s, the names Chuck Berry and Chubby Checker were roughly equivalent in my imagination, denoting rock 'n' roll stars from a long-passed epoch. It wasn’t obvious to me that “Johnny B. Goode” was a more important -- or better -- song than “The Twist”, nor was it clear that there was a gaping chasm in their respective statures. They both were comically anachronistic, still playing music that predated the Beatles. And each had a bit of a moment, too, when I was a just becoming a teenager -- Taylor Hackford's documentary Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll came out in 1987, and a year later Chubby teamed up with the Fat Boys to record “The Twist (Yo Twist)”. Score this one for Chubby.

They were both featured in the 1973 concert film by Robert Abel and Sidney Levin, Let the Good Times Roll along with Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bill Haley and His Comets, the Coasters, the Shirelles, and various other legacy acts from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. The tour that the movie depicts and the film itself owed their existence to the wave of nostalgia that began in the late ‘60s. Understanding this as a popular trend helps explain Sha-Na-Na’s inclusion at Woodstock. George Lucas's American Graffiti came out the same year, and the long-running ABC series Happy Days, which trafficked in a certain type of rose-tinted nostalgia, premiered the following year, in 1974.

Let the Good Times Roll begins and ends with Chuck Berry, and that’s as it should be. He’s in fine form, bantering and flirting with the audience, charming, erudite, winking and wagging, doing the duck walk -- he really seems to be enjoying himself. There’s some terrific non-concert footage of Chuck walking through a field where his old touring bus sits abandoned, slowly being consumed by nature. He talks about the bus taking him and his group all around the country, and his description sounds very much like the travelogue he depicts in the lyrics of “Sweet Little 16”, which is one of the songs featured in the concert footage ("They're really rockin' Boston/ In Pittsburgh, P. A./ Deep in the heart of Texas/ And 'round the Frisco Bay/ All over St. Louis/ And down in New Orleans/ All the cats want to dance with/ Sweet little sixteen").

There’s some other fun non-concert footage throughout, most memorably of Bo Diddley going to a supermarket to buy some chicken and then frying it in an electric skillet backstage. He says he’s learned through hard living that to avoid the “ptomaine poison” one’s gotta do one’s own cooking. Bo’s performance is raw and muscular, perfectly in tune with where popular music was headed in the mid-’70s, and was responsible for a renewed interest in his particular monomaniacal thrump of primitive proto-punk. His guitar sounds like a hyper-rhythmic Moog, all buzzy and out of this world, or a plague of cicadas. Fred Parris of the Five Satins relates to a bandmate that he’s reluctant to follow Bo Diddley onstage. The other fellow says, “You don’t have much faith in yourself,” to which Parris ripostes, “You ever see Bo Diddley?” The modern construction “enough said” was invented for just this moment.

The filmmakers utilize a lot of split screens, contrasting the live performances with the artists in their hit-making primes, often to highlight satirical and politically ironic material from the halcyon days of the Cold War -- Ike and Doris Day and mushroom clouds and poodle skirts. During the Little Richard segment, on one side of the screen we see Little Richard’s manager going over the songs with the house band; on the other side, we see Bill Haley and Chubby Checker, their sets already in the books, come to pay tribute to the self-described “King of Rock and Roll” -- an obvious dig at the still-alive Elvis Presley -- in his dressing room as his dynamic coiff is being attended to. Haley, his signature Superman twirl of bang hair-sprayed in place, looks old and haggard; Chubby Checker, still only in his early 30s (not much older than Chuck Berry was in his ‘50s hit-making heyday), looks like any regular schmoe. In Roger Ebert’s contemporaneous three-star review, he describes the two as follows:

“But it’s also interesting when it [the film] gives us Chubby Checker and Bill Haley -- because then we can begin to understand how really good the others are. Poor Chubby Checker, the invention of a moment; we remember the Peppermint Lounge and the newspaper photos of Jackie Kennedy doing the Twist with Leonard Bernstein, but when we see him again we understand why the Peppermint era was so brief. He can’t sing. Nor can Haley get out of the past and connect today. He’s a wind-up golden oldie.” [emphasis mine]

Now here’s the thing about Chubby’s performance in this film: It straight kicks ass. When I first saw the picture a few years ago, it was this above all else that I found most remarkable. Not because it was the best performance in the film (that distinction belongs to Bo Diddley), but that it so thoroughly exceeded my expectations. I didn’t understand his inclusion in the picture in the first place, a one-hit-wonder no-talent like I knew him to be and clearly out of his depth among the titans. But his infectious brio and good-natured banter made a convert of me.

The footage begins with him straightening out his white leisure-cum-jumpsuit, stiffly jogging and shouting, “I gotta pee! I gotta pee!” and then he disappears into the men’s room. The emcee announces “Chubby Checker!” but he hasn’t yet come out of the can. When finally emerges, he sprints onto the stage and projects a boundless energy throughout his performance. He announces, “It’s Pony Time! Come on!” with a force of ecstasy that’s borderline manic. He sings a few lines of the song with a crazed grin overtaking his face and then he shakes his head back and forth, like a wet dog, as if the spirit of music has so possessed him that he can’t possibly stand it.

Ebert’s right. Checker can’t sing. But for those of us who came up in the post-punk era, his lack of technical prowess can be viewed as a possible asset. An inspired performance trumps virtuosity any day of the week, and, boy howdy, is this an inspired performance. When I first saw the film a few years ago, I didn’t realize that Chubby’s spastic gesticulations were his renderings of the moves about which he was singing: the Pony, the Twist, the Twist again -- always on point, that Chubby. But watching it now, I can see that this is precisely what he’s doing. The moves don’t seem forced though, but rather natural and seamless. I don’t mean to imply that they’re smoothly performed. On the contrary, they seem like random wild flailing, jerky and convulsive and weird, not that different from Ian Curtis’s so-called epilepsy dance. But unlike Curtis, Chubby does it with a smile. A big, fat, terrifying smile! And when his act is over, he looks spent as a prizefighter after defeating a game opponent. Spent but triumphant.

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It’s difficult to gauge Chubby’s legacy. It’s difficult to even assess his level of fame. I doubt that most people under 30 would have any idea who he is. But then again, how many had heard of Chuck Berry before his death trended on Facebook? They’ve probably heard his version of “The Twist”, whether in commercials or in films or over the PA at Walmart. And, yes, “his version”, because Chubby’s signature song was written and first performed by Hank Ballard and his band. The year before his “Twist” was released, Chubby came to note as the singer of a novelty song called “The Class”, in which he does impressions of Fats Domino, the Coasters, and Elvis Presley. What’s most immediately striking about Ballard’s original version of “The Twist” is how much Chubby’s voice sounds like his, as if here too he’s doing an impression. The Ballard version is performed at the same tempo, more or less, but it’s got a more loping, laid back rhythmic quality to it, and this might explain why Chubby’s more rocking rendition is the one that caught on.

Another possible explanation is that Chubby was chosen to cover Ballard’s minor hit by none other than Dick Clark’s wife, Barbara Mallery who, along with her husband, thought that Chubby Checker, a winsome light-skinned black man with a self-deprecating and memorable stage name (Chubby was never actually very chubby -- he was just young enough in the early '60s to still retain some of his baby fat), would be more appealing to the teenybopper set than no-getting-around-his-blackness Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.

He was still two weeks shy of 19 when “The Twist” hit number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. Then he had that string of dance-craze hits. And then, by the time he was in his mid-20s, it was all over. The ‘60s had happened and he was left in the lurch, a young millionaire with a Dutch pageant wife, a mansion outside of Philly, and no immediate prospects. It’s a testament to his perseverance and to his survivorship that he’s parlayed “The Twist” into a multi-decade career. And it’s not a radically different path from the one Chuck Berry took. This is how they both ended up in that film: legacy acts just a decade -- or, in Chuck’s case, a decade and a half -- removed from impacting the world. And poor Chubby Checker, still a relatively young man.

“Limbo Rock” was released in October of 1962, the month of the Cuban Missile Crisis. While Bob Dylan was furiously writing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” in some kind of fevered dream state, each line the title of a new song he wouldn’t have the opportunity to write -- at least that’s what the apocryphal liner notes announce on the back cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan -- Chubby Checker was busy popularizing this Trinidadian dance for the teenybopper diaspora. Dancing one’s ass off probably seemed as reasonable a response to impending nuclear annihilation as anything.

There’s an amazing clip on YouTube of Chubby lip-syncing the song on the Australian version of Bandstand. After his lip-sync, the host interviews him about various subjects, including the dance, and specifically about what the dance imported in the West Indies: “It was signifying something, the passing from death through the twilight zone to heaven,” and an astonished young Chubby can only muster a “Huh?”

To watch Chubby’s performance on that program is to watch a man out of his depth. Out of his depth on a teenage dance show! He slow-walks out onto the stage, his lanky arms strangely affixed to his body, his pate swaying back and forth like a bobblehead figure. Here I’ve got to mention something about his walk because it was a singular and an omnipresent aspect of his television performances during this era: His feet robotically propel him forward, but the rest of his body resists, as if trying to steer his legs in the other direction. He takes on the affect of a comedic actor in a mistaken identity scene, like Frank Drebin singing the national anthem in The Naked Gun, or Leonard Zelig being confronted by Mia Farrow’s psychiatrist after she discovers that he’s not really a shrink. It looks like he’d rather be anywhere but there! Then he opens his mouth to lip-sync, but he’s several bars early. Not knowing what else to do, he snaps his fingers a couple of times and then claps his hands once, randomly. Once calibrated, he turns in a fine, if uninspired, lip-sync performance, his eupeptic boyishness a counterweight to his odd body language and low-energy dance moves.

The awkwardness of the interview afterward cannot be overstated. Chubb wants to talk about the mechanics of the dance, the height of the bar, how low one can go -- he wants to keep it anodyne. And it’s not that the interviewer is overly keen on taking things very deep either. It’s just that Chubby is wholly unprepared for it going anywhere at all. With the one observation about the dance’s religious significance, the interviewer has effectively transfixed Chubby on a spit and roasted him alive. “Limbo Rock” was Chubb’s last top-ten hit, and it looks as though he knew his days were numbered.

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