Chubby Checker's performance needs no new twist to remain popular

February 26, 1993|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

In one week, you can "Hooka Tooka" like you did last summer.

You could also "Twist," "Limbo Rock" and "Hucklebuck," because the man who performed those hits and revolutionized the dance floor is coming to Ellicott City.

Chubby Checker will present a "Rock and Roll Dance Party" with his band, The Wildcats, March 5 at Turf Valley Hotel and Country Club, singing several of his biggest numbers and pop rock classics from the last four decades.

Mr. Checker, who put 23 songs on Billboard's Top 40 chart, including nine on the Top 10, achieved what no parent could.

"We separated the dance floor," he said. "Before The Twist, everyone did the Jitterbug. Anyone born after 1951 doesn't even know how to dance together. Anyone who dances apart are my people. I invented them. The Twist is still the biggest force of music today."

For those who have forgotten how to do The Twist, the 51-year-old rock and roller offers his own set of instructions.

"Twisting is like drying your bottom with a towel while grinding out a cigarette," he said.

Mr. Checker's music career began in the poultry section of South Philadelphia's Italian Market, where he worked while attending high school. Born Ernest Evans in 1941, the South Carolina native entertained customers with his vocal impersonations.

His boss put him in touch with a music company executive who put him in touch with Dick Clark, the host of the Philadelphia-based "American Bandstand."

Mr. Clark commissioned the 17-year-old to perform a personal Christmas recording for the Clark family.

While rehearsing, Mr. Checker, who was already called "Chubby" because of his build, acquired the "Checker" from Mrs. Clark, who likened his nickname to Fats Domino.

Two years later, on Mr. Clark's advice, Mr. Checker recorded "The Twist," adding his own vocalizations and movements to a tune that was originally penned and performed as a rhythm and blues song by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.

"The Twist" became, and still is, the only single to rise to the top of the charts twice -- in 1960 and 1962.

Variations followed as one Twist beget another -- even by other performers -- including "Twistin' USA," "Let's Twist Again," "Twist It Up," and "Slow Twistin.' "

Mr. Checker, who lives on an estate in the Philadelphia area with his three children and wife of 29 years, Katharina Lodders, the Dutch-born 1963 Miss World, has kept visible by performing at amusement parks, state fairs and radio promotions.

Five years ago, his career took a twist for the better when Mr. Checker cut a rap version of "The Twist" with the Fat Boys on an album and video. The song made it to the Top 20 in the United States and was No. 1 in six European countries.

Mr. Checker, who recently performed in several commercials, also will make a cameo performance in the soon-to-be-released movie "Calendar Girl," starring teen idol Jason Priestly.

"I would like the people to see Chubby Checker in more circumstances because, one day, I will be too old and people will miss me," said Mr. Checker, who often refers to himself in third person.

Though music with a message rooted itself in the '60s, Mr. Checker made a point of steering clear of politics. "People ask me what I sing. I say my music is dumb. You don't need to go into the dictionary to understand it. You love it or hate it.

"I focus on Chubby Checker the myth, the music, what is, what was and what people deal with when they come face to face with Chubby Checker and 'The Twist.' "

Mr. Checker may not sing about politics, but he is involved. Last month, he met with U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, Maryland's 1st District Republican, to pitch an environmental proposal on waste distillation technology in which he had become interested. A friend from the Eastern Shore directed him to Mr. Gilchrest.

"He wanted us to let others know about this technology, see if we can share the information with people in a position to adapt it," said Cathy Collier, press secretary for Mr. Gilchrest.

But even on such a serious mission, the King of Twist could not prevent several Congress members from turning into frenzied fans.

"Members of Congress were jumping up and down and waving from the House floor, poking other [representatives], saying, 'Look, there's Chubby Checker,' " Ms. Collier said.

"As we left, a couple of members were waiting by the entrance to meet him and shake his hand and hug him. Some wanted to have their pictures taken with him. It was amazing," she said.

As he left the House of Representatives, Mr. Checker ran into 75 students who recognized him.

"They all just ran over to him," she said. "They were mauling him. We had to drag him away."

Though time marches on and contemporary touches have been added to his classics, fans young and old can still expect a whole lot of gyrating going on.

"I'm no old, fat man," he said. "I do Chubby Checker. If someone wants to come and have pity on me, if they think they're coming to see some washed-out performer, don't come. We're still little boys and we create excitement and magic."

Chubby Checker and the Wildcats will perform from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. March 5 at Turf Valley Hotel and Country Club. Tickets are $20; the overnight package is $95 per couple. Information: 465-1500.

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