The Mountain Times

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Chubby Checker: Pop icon through the decades

By request, Leone profiles American music legends he has worked with directly

Greetings friend and neighbors, as this wonderful season comes to a glorious end I reflect back to some comments I have fielded from you the readers, whether they be via email, Facebook or running into me at the market. A good bit of these comments are general encouragements for the "Legends" column, but some are more specific and personal, asking for more in depth profiling of some of the legends of American music that I have worked with in the past. It is hard to do so in the short column format but starting with this column I will try to do just that.

One of the earliest legends I can remember is a man who was the first pop star I can remember seeing and hearing. He rose to stardom right between Elvis and the Beatles. He championed a dance craze that swept the world and had many Top 40 records to follow. He was an African American singer who haled from outside Philadelphia and was born with the name Ernest Evans. Any idea who I'm speaking of? As Regis Philbin would say "you're right for $100" it's the great Chubby Checker.

Chubby Checker has one of the most recognizable voices in the history of rock and roll, funny thing is that its not his natural voice. The young Ernest Evens grew up impersonating all the great pop stars of the day. Artists like Elvis, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Little Richard became the staple of his repertoire, one which he would entertain friends and neighbors with throughout his childhood and early teens. It was through his impressions that led to an audition with the great Dick Clark.

Clark, impressed with the young Evens' ability to copy other artists and his friendly demeanor gave "Ernie" the chance to record.
Ernest Evans had a nickname that followed him throughout school and work: "Chubby." Upon hearing that name (legend has it) Mrs. Dick Clark coined the name "Chubby Checker" as a play on words of the popular "Fats" (Chubby) "Domino" (Checkers.) After recording a novelty record for Clark called the "Class" in which Chubby got to imitate all his idols, Chubby Checher got a recording contract with Cameo-Parkway Records. But it was his imitation of R&B singer Hank Ballard on a cover of Hank's song called "the Twist" that sent the 18-years-old former Ernest Evens into pop superstardom.

On a personal note, I worked with Chubby very closely in the late 80s and I co-produced Chubby's comeback record called "Party Up" that was featured in the Roseanne Barr/ Meryl Streep comedy "She Devil." Chubby also performed this song at halftime during the 1989 Super Bowl. It was during this time that Chubby, although showing great respect and thankfulness toward his mentor Dick Clark, expressed a frustration that he had to "use that voice" throughout the rest of his career. The covering of not only Hank Ballards song but of his vocal sound was a profound price Chubby paid for his success.

Among Chubby's achievements, he is the only pop artist to have five albums in the Top 12 at the same time. His hits during this short period of time (61-63) were "the Hucklebuck" (#14), "the Fly" (#7), a Grammy in 1961 for the Twist follow up, "Let's Twist Again" as well as "Limbo Rock", Slow Twistin'" with Dee Dee Sharp, and his only other #1 hit "Pony Time".

The arrival of the Beatles signaled the end to Chubby's chart topping career, but he is very proud of the fact that he never stopped touring and playing for his fans, and that he has never played an "oldies" show. He always went out under his own name, leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table for that reason. Chubby never sold out, and for that Ernest Evans you will always have my undying respect. (Side note, in all my years of performing, Chubby was the only artist I've ever seen that carried full health insurance benefits for his band and bus driver.)

Chubby Checker still performs today at theaters, concerts and state fairs, amazing his audience with his energy and good old time family friendly rock and roll show. Chubby Checker, pop icon, family man, and great human being.