By Brian M. Howle
Odds are, a music artist and a lowly music writer – who both hail from a big city – is not that uncommon an occurrence. The odds of having one of the seminal music and pop culture icons and an entertainment editor from the same small town have to be astronomical.
I should have bought a lottery ticket last weekend. Because against all odds, I had the good fortune to interview the legendary Chubby Checker, who completely changed the music and pop culture scene in 1960 when he appeared on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” and introduced “The Twist” to the world. Both a song and a dance, “The Twist” solidly engraved his name in rock ‘n’ roll – and American – history.
Oh … and did I mention, he grew up in my hometown?
Born Ernest Evans in 1941 in Philadelphia, PA, the family moved to the little community of Spring Gully on the outskirts of Andrews, S.C., Chubby Checker turned two minutes and forty-two seconds of recording history into a lifetime of achievements. The amiable superstar granted me an interview last weekend, and I caught him tooling down Highway 101 on the California coast. With technology bridging the 3,000 miles of continent between us, he pulled over to a scenic overlook and reflected on his life, and his upcoming appearance at The Palace Theatre in the Broadway musical, “Grease!”.
Howle: Well, I guess I should tell you – you and I have something in common – I’m from Andrews.
Checker: Oh, you’re from Krypton, huh? (Both laugh)
Howle: Yes sir, it’s true.
Checker: Well, there aren’t many of us around, you know!
Howle: So how long has it been since you’ve been back home?
Checker: Well, if you remember, up until three years ago, I came back to Andrews every May for 18 years to raise money for the local kids. We helped them obtain books and school supplies, things they would need for schoolwork. And now I’m coming to Myrtle Beach to do “Grease!”.
Howle: So, how did your role In “Grease!” come about?
Checker: I started doing “Grease!” in 1996, when it first went on Broadway. Then they called me about three years later and I did it again, and then they called me about a year later – the intervals are starting to get closer together. (Laughs) They call me because I know the show, and if I’m not doing anything, I’ll do it – because it’s fun to do!
Howle: That’s great. How often does the tour come this way?
Checker: Well, I’ve never done the tour before, just Broadway. But I’ll be in Birmingham, Alabama on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and then Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Myrtle Beach at The Palace.
Howle: Well, I just wanted to let you know that I’m not going to take up a lot of your time – but when they told me I had a chance to interview you…
Checker: Oh, it’s wonderful .. Hey, listen, there aren’t many of us, you know … South Carolinians are very special people. Most of them are very successful, and you constantly find them in places you’d least expect. Did you know that Chris Rock is also from Andrews?
Howle: Of course! His mom (Ruth Rock) is a friend of our social editor (Hilda M. Carter).
Checker: There are some incredible people in South Carolina. And, not only I’m I doing “Grease!” in South Carolina, but you know the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain? Chubby Checker’s Checker Bar; Chubby Checker’s “Outside The Bun” Hot Dogs – you’ll find them at all the Piggly Wiggly stores starting next week!
Howle: Well, our connection just gets stronger, because my father owned the Piggly Wiggly in Andrews for about 30 years!
Checker: What a blessing! I mean, my first big account is in my home state, where I was born. It’s just incredible. They will also be sold in Pennsylvania, in Giant Eagle stores. And there are some large drug store chains that are going to be carrying our products, and that will cover all 48 continuous states.
Howle: Hey, that’s quite an achievement for a hometown boy!
Checker: Yeah, how about that?
Howle: Well, how has the industry changed over the course of your career? I mean, how does it stack up now as opposed to, say, forty years ago?
Checker: The industry, to me, is like these telephones that we’re using right now. How do you ask Alexander Graham Bell, “What do you think of the telephone these days?” What would he say? Alexander would say, “Well, it’s gotten better!” But before I happened along, we weren’t doing this. Now, how do I use that, in comparison to me? Well, Bell said to Mr. Watson, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” And then we knew we had the telephone. Chubby Checker went on American Bandstand, and the whole world was watching – and in two minutes and forty-two seconds, we did “The Twist”. Freestyle dancing to rock ‘n’ roll; pop music, and now, hip hop. “The Twist” started it, and then came “The Pony”, and then came “The Fly”, which is “The Shake,” and then “The Hucklebuck” – and it changed the world forever. Whenever I see people doing what they do, all I see is what we did to the music industry, and it’s been going on 24/7 as a result of the opportunity that we got to do back then.
Howle: It’s interesting how everything seems to be cyclical; that it keeps reshaping and reinventing itself, but it basically goes back to the same format.
Checker: Like I say, there is no performer who has ever lived that can say, before they came along, rock ‘n’ roll did not have a dance. We gave rock ‘n’ roll its dance, and it evolved. In fact, right now, a whole new generation of music is named after one of our songs: “The Hip Hop” is “The Pony,” it’s my dance. “Throw your hands in the air, and wave them like you just don’t care” … that is “The Fly” … and if you’re doing “The Fly,” you’re doing “The Shake,” and then that very nasty thing that we did, that’s “The Hucklebuck”!
Howle: (Laughing) Hey, that’s right!
Checker: Hey, it all goes to the forefront of the dance culture. How does that go? – “I like it, it has a good beat, and I can dance to it.” I know the dances they do to the beat; we discovered the movements that make it all happen. So I feel very incredible about it all. And you have to understand, the only song that was #1 twice since God breathed breath into Adam, was “The Twist.” No one had done it before Chubby Checker, and no one has done it since. We had the first Platinum record. Many have achieved it since, but we were the first. We also had 9 double-sided hit songs, and no one has every done that. Also, in 1960 or 1961, there were 100 albums on the charts. In the top 12, Chubby Checker had 5 of them. All at one time!
Howle: Well I’m 50, and the first dance I ever did was at the National Guard Armory in Andrews, when I was 7, and it was “The Twist!”
Checker: Well, if you weren’t doing it, you weren’t doing anything. (Laughs) I mean, it was the biggest explosion in the music industry. Look around a convenience store or grocery store sometime, at all the products that have “twist” in the name. It didn’t happen before 1960 and Chubby Checker, and the business community realized they wanted to be a part of that success, so they started naming their products after it.
Howle: I have tell you, it’s always been sorta neat to be able to tell folks that Chubby Checker is from where I’m from …
Checker: Hey, you’re from where I’m from! (Laughs) Hey, you have no idea how much I appreciate the people of Andrews and Spring Gully, of Williamsburg, Georgetown and Horry counties. The most important part of my life, and the seed that went into what is me, was developed right there. By the time I left South Carolina, when I was eight years old, the good stuff was all there. If it weren’t for the values of South Carolina and the things my dad instilled in me, I wouldn’t be the man I am now. Why do you think I went back for 18 years? I wanted to give something back to the place that had given me so much. I’ve never really done charity for anything else, because it’s that important to me.
Howle: And we appreciate it. Is there any particular message you want to give to the folks here?
Checker: Please – come see me! (Laughs)
Heed Chubby’s plea, folks. Make plans to come see this enchanting icon in “Grease!” at the Palace Theatre on July 2, 3 and 4. For tickets and information, call (843) 448-0566, or visit their website, http://www.palacetheatremyrtlebeach.com .
The previous article was originally published on July 1, 2004 in Alternatives NewsMagazine.