Chubby Checker

TrackSource
The ClassTop Rank JAR 154
The TwistColumbia DB 4503
The HucklebuckColumbia DB 4541
Let’'s Twist AgainColumbia DB 4691
Slow Twistin'Columbia DB 4808
Dancin’' PartyColumbia DB 4876
Twenty MilesCameo Parkway P862
Black CloudCameo-Parkway P873
At The DiscothequeLondon HLU-10515 (1976)
GypsyChequered!

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Contributor: Peter Viney

American Bandstand booked Hank Ballard to sing a minor hit, The Twist, originally a 1959 B-side, which got flipped and reached #28 in the US chart in 1960. It wasn’t exceptional, as dance craze songs had been coming and going for years. Ballard declined to appear on TV without his group, The Midnighters, so Bandstand booked a young local Philadelphia singer to cover the song on air, and his version got to #1 in September 1960, And then again in January 1962, and was a hit again in 1988 in a version with The Fat Boys. That young singer was Chubby Checker, and Ballard’s loyalty to his band cost them all dear.

It changed the world, popularized solo dancing, and sent many ballroom dancing classes clean out of business. There are hundreds of records with “twist” in the title as everyone from Petula Clark to Frank Sinatra scrambled onto the bandwagon. Checker was bright, personable, energetic with a light easy voice. He also got stuck with trying to follow the success with dance after dance from the limbo to the fly to the pony. This Toppermost will mainly be singles. He did LP after LP of Twistin’ Dancin’ songs and covers of other Cameo-Parkway hits, but it was the era when given a backing track, Motown or Cameo-Parkway would get their whole artist roster to do a song.

Chubby Checker had already released The Class before The Twist, which is a mixture of rhythmic chatting, nursery rhyme and impersonation extracts from songs like Teddy Bear and Hound Dog. It’s more sought-after than the subsequent dancing hits.

The Hucklebuck was a cover of an older dance craze, dating back to the 1940s. Tommy Dorsey did it in 1949, Frank Sinatra re-did it with lyrics in 1950 and then Louis Armstrong did a version, as did blues singer Earl Hooker. Post-Chubby Checker it’s been a hit for Coast to Coast. Chubby’s version was the follow-up to The Twist.

We couldn’t have a list without The Twist, though Let’s Twist Again was a bigger hit and the one that comes to mind first. It’s catchier. Hank Ballard didn’t get to write it. The professional Kal Mann-David Appell team were the bedrock of Cameo-Parkway’s success with teen music. They were both in their forties. Mann’s name is on much of Chubby Checker’s output. Appell started in the 1940s as a jazz/big band arranger, and Mann was a comedy writer persuaded to switch by Cameo-Parkway’s Bernie Lowe. One of his first hit’s was Elvis Presley’s Teddy Bear. Lowe and Mann co-owned the label.

Checker was manipulated, very much part of a system, but he had records in there worth listening to. Slow Twistin’ was much earthier and funkier, mainly because of the soulful assistance of the great Dee Dee Sharp. The other Cameo-Parkway duet is Teach Me To Twist with Bobby Rydell. Avoid that one.

Dancin’ Party had the party noises a decade before What’s Goin’ On (not that it’s of comparable quality, but it is a great party record). It also has the odd distinction of being released just as Cameo-Parkway was switching from EMI to Pye, and you can find 45s on three labels: Columbia, Pye International and Cameo-Parkway.

Limbo Rock, Let’s Limbo Some More, Lazy Elsie Molly saw Chubby going for a Caribbean lilt in an attempt to follow the twist with the limbo, a dance where you had to gyrate under a stick that got progressively lower. It was a chiropractor’s gift.

Black Cloud is a gospel-tinged song that I bought new and have always loved. It was the B-side of Birdland, but is easily my favourite of his songs. That and his previous B-side, Twenty Miles showed an alternate career path, and it did better in the charts than the A-side, Let’s Limbo Some More. I could certainly imagine Sam Cooke doing Black Cloud and even Twenty Miles if only they dropped the whistling. Brian Poole & The Tremeloes covered Twenty Miles on their first EP. They may even have improved it, but Chubby Checker’s version is a change from him exhorting contorting on a dance floor. Those dance instruction songs dominated the A-sides. Cameo-Parkway is an odd label. The Orlons or Dee Dee Sharp are close to early Motown, but Bobby Rydell is a mile away. Chubby Checker is somewhere in transition between the two, lumbered with recording the utterly dire like Do The Freddie or The Girl With The Swinging Derriere, but also able to turn in something like Black Cloud.

The 1970s Northern Dance scene in Britain latched onto At The Discotheque from 1965 (which he pronounces Disco-Tay). It’s on several compilations. Any vinyl copy you find will be from its re-release in 1976 with Slow Twistin’ on the B-side. If you can find a 1965 DJ copy in mint condition, it goes for £150. That’s Northern Soul for you.

There is a legendary “lost-treasure” “psychedelic” album from 1971 called Chequered! which Chubby is said to get furious about if mentioned; he has a clean-cut image. He wrote every track with titles like Stoned In The Bathroom and an outtake, The Ballad Of Jimi. The Sunbeam label exhumed it in 2012. Slow Lovin’ has much the same tune as Slow Twistin’ but Chubby had been listening to a lot of Hendrix vocals and tries to emulate the Hendrix narrative style and intonation. And with Dee Dee Sharp’s singing on the earlier one, I think most listeners knew that’s what “slow twistin’” meant. Gypsy gets the tenth place, because it’s such a surprise and has terrific drumming … much more Sly than Chubby.

In 2007 he had a surprise AOR style #1 dance hit with Knock Down The Walls from a charity show.

Cameo-Parkway has been ill-served with reissues, being without an official distributor for years. Single artist compilations are coming out and there’s an “out of copyright” budget set of the first four albums for £6.99.

The official Chubby Checker website

Chubby Checker biography (iTunes)

The above listing is in chronological order. Maybe someone can fill in with the dance craze tracks from before? Bill Haley toppermost perhaps …

TopperPost #115

2 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Nov 3, 2013

    A little more on those Bandstand origins. Ballard insisted that The Midnighters be brought on to mime with him. Dick Clark didn’t want to pay miming backing guys, so that’s why he passed the song to Chubby Checker, who copied Ballard’s vocal, and more importantly, invented the dance. Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why early 60s films show girls dancing while chewing gum, American Bandstand was sponsored by Beech Nut chewing gum, and gum-chewing dancers were part of the deal.

  2. Keith Shackleton
    Nov 3, 2013

    Nice one, Peter. A quick thumbs up for this great Northern stomper from Mr. Checker.

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