The Twist, Dance
Chubby Checker reflects on latest career "Twist"
"Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you."
It's that famous moment of discovery, spoken by telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell to assistant Thomas A. Watson, that Chubby Checker most likens to his musical legacy.
"Before Bell, there was no telephone. Before Chubby Checker, there was no dancing apart to the beat," he says, referring to his 1960 No. 1 hit "The Twist."
"In two minutes and 42 seconds, when I sang on 'American Bandstand' and did the dance -- which is like putting out a cigarette with both feet or wiping off your bottom with a towel to the beat -- the world forever changed the way it danced," Checker says.
While still his signature song -- and the only title to reach No. 1 in two different years (it did so again in 1962) -- it is far from Checker's only chart achievement. In all, Ernest Evans (who refers to his musical persona in the third person) has sold 250 million albums worldwide and charted 35 times on the Billboard Hot 100, including top 10s "Pony Time," "Let's Twist Again" and "The Fly" in 1961 and "Slow Twistin,"' "Limbo Rock" and "Popeye" in 1962. In 1988, "The Twist" was reborn as a No. 16 hit with rappers the Fat Boys.
This month, Checker, 65, extended his chart span to more than 48 years with his entree on adult contemporary (AC) radio: "Knock Down the Walls" on TEEC Records, which hit No. 30 August 3 and continues to increase in spins. The cheery uptempo track's underlying message calls for reliance on a higher power.
While on the road in Houston, Checker checked in with Billboard.
Q: So how does it feel to be back -- again?
A: "It's a miracle. All of my success is from the 20th century. Most artists who got their play from another era live on because people love their past successes. But this song is a 21st-century contribution to the music industry, and I tell you, it's a blessing from God."
Q: How did "Knock Down the Walls" come about?
A: "In 2001, I released 'Chubby Checker's Sixty Minute Workout,' an aerobics album that no one paid attention to, and 'Knock Down the Walls' was on it. My producer, Gary Lefkowith, thought there was more to it and he had me come in to the studio and rerecord it acoustically to a guitar. I'm too stupid to write a song like that, but I was inspired. ... I am the best of white, black, brown and everything you can put in one package. I address the entire human family."
Q: Meanwhile, after 40 years, you continue to tour.
A: "The best way to describe what Chubby Checker does onstage: You've heard of the '66 Mustang Cobra? That's us, running as fast as the Porsche 928. We go onstage and kick some nasty butt. My people are all ages: grandmothers and their kids and their kids. Everybody knows Chubby."
Q: You've also branded your name with a line of food products, including a candy bar, flavored popcorn, hot dogs, steaks, even bottled water.
A: "When I'm not on the road, I'm at home in the business world with TheLastTwist.com. We've got the world's only Checkerboard chocolate bar that blends milk, white and dark chocolate. So I've kept busy selling beef jerky and hot dogs -- but music continues to be the tender part of my soul."
Q: You've noted that it's bothersome to be so well-known for "The Twist" when you had numerous other hits. Have you made peace with your namesake song?
A: "Walt Disney is stuck with Mickey Mouse. The two are just never going to get away from each other, even though there's Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs, Donald Duck and Goofy. The only thing I was ever concerned about is that 'The Twist' is just one character I have."
Q: So what ambitions remain for Chubby Checker?
A: "I'd love to play with Justin (Timberlake) or Beyonce, because every time these kids throw their arms up in the air or move their feet, they're doing my dances. I have a connection with these young people. I'm one of the best performers that ever lived; I don't mean to sound big-headed, but I know what I can do onstage. Since 1966, we get out there and it's all over."