If the popular opinion that singer Chubby Checker was a one-hit act was to be considered, one had to take into consideration that the hit in question was "The Twist," one of the mightiest dance songs ever recorded, and the only track in history to reach the No. 1 spot on the charts twice in two separate years. The song was also responsible for making dance and pop music socially acceptable among adults, who took to the floors in 1961-62 to follow the lead of celebrities and socialites who embraced the song in clubs across the globe. The truth about Checker was that from 1959 to 1965, he was an astonishingly prolific and successful singer who netted 20 Top 40 hits during his time in the spotlight, including "Pony Time," "Limbo Rock" and "Let's Twist Again." Shifts in music tastes in the late 1960s hobbled Checker's career, and his long association with "The Twist" relegated him to the status of novelty act, which may have prevented his entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for decades. If the prospect galled him, Checker refused to show it, preferring instead to lead the faithful into twisting again at concerts around the world for over four decades.
Born Ernest Evans in Spring Gulley, SC on Oct. 3, 1941, Chubby Checker was raised by his parents in South Philadelphia, PA. He developed a passion for singing at an early age, forming his own vocal group when he was just eight years old. As a student at South Philadelphia High School, he was well-regarded by his classmates, who included fellow future pop idol Fabian, as a talented mimic who could accurately reproduce the rock-n-roll performers of the day. He also earned a reputation as something of a ham at his after-school jobs by regaling customers with songs and jokes. One of his employers was in business with songwriter Karl Mann, who wrote for the Cameo-Parkway label. The duo arranged for Checker to record a private single for "American Bandstand" (ABC/USA Network/syndicated, 1952-1989) host Dick Clark. Checker introduced himself to Clark by his schoolyard nickname, "Chubby." After hearing his impression of Fats Domino, Clark's wife suggested that he use "Checker" as a stage surname, which offered a sly verbal pun on the R&B singer's moniker. Checker's single for Clark was a novelty recording that featured his impressions of various pop performers, including Domino and The Chipmunks. Clark sent out copies of the single as a Christmas gift, which received such an overwhelming response from industry figures that Checker was soon signed to a contract with Cameo-Parkway. His song for Clark, "The Class," became his first single and reached No. 38 in 1959.
However, Checker's next few singles failed to make an impact, and his career appeared to be foundering until Clark tapped him to record a version of "The Twist," a salacious R&B tune by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Checker's version toned down the lyrics' overtly sexual innuendos and recast the song as a good-time dance number. Cameo-Parkway was indifferent to the song, and sought to downplay it as a B-side, as King Records had done with Ballard's version. But Checker believed that "The Twist" was a hit, and promoted it tirelessly through television appearances and live performances. His hard work paid off in late 1960 when "The Twist" shot to the top of the charts. It dropped off after a few months, during which Checked scored an impressive string of upbeat, dance-themed hits, starting with "The Hucklebuck," which preceded his second No. 1 song, 1961's "Pony Time," and Top 10 hits with "Let's Twist Again" and "The Fly" that same year. The Twist" came roaring back to the charts in 1962, thanks in no small part to its growing popularity among celebrities. Manhattan's Peppermint Lounge nightclub was the epicenter of Twist fever, with Gotham columnists reporting on which movie or television star was sighted mid-Twist. Such gilded promotion helped to make it of the first rock-n-roll songs that adults over the age of 21 would embrace. In doing so, they gave "The Twist" its second tenure at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, making it the only single in history to top that chart in twice in two separate years.
Despite the global fervor generated by "The Twist," Checker himself had mixed feelings about the song. While it had given him a career beyond most people's wildest expectations, he also felt that it marginalized him as a performer. He had hoped to ride the song's success into more mature work as a nightclub entertainer along the lines of Sam Cooke, who had done just that with 1961's "Twistin' the Night Away." But the public wanted more dance songs from Checker, and he gamely obliged, releasing more Twist songs as well as paeans to the Limbo and the Popeye and starring in the dismal "Don't Knock the Twist" (1962). The results were largely positive - from 1962 to 1965, he enjoyed 13 Top 40 singles, including two Top 10 hits with "Slow Twistin'," a 1962 duet with Dee Dee Sharp, and "Limbo Rock" in that same year. But by the mid-point of the decade, pop music had drifted away from dance songs, and with them went Checker's career.
He recorded sporadically throughout the 1960s and 1970s, scoring one final Top 100 hit with a cover of the Beatles' "Back in the U.S.S.R." in 1969. He found greater acceptance on the oldies tour circuit, where audiences gamely responded to his exhortations to twist one more time. In 1982, he took a page from fellow '60s outfits like Gary U.S. Bonds and Del Shannon, who were enjoying semi-revivals, by releasing The Change Has Come, a rock- and dance-flavored LP that generated a pair of minor hits with "Running" and "Harder Than a Diamond." But the Twist proved to be his enduring legacy, as well as his touchstone on the charts. In 1988, he recorded a new version, subtitled "Yo, Twist," with the novelty rap act The Fat Boys. The song shot to No. 16 in the States, marking Checker's first Top 40 hit in over a quarter century. He continued to mine the song for its nostalgia value in television commercials and on TV talk shows while mounting a campaign to have a statue of himself erected in the courtyard of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to commemorate his contributions to pop and dance music. In 2008, he released the single "Knock Down the Walls," which defied most expectations by reaching the top of the dance charts that year.