Born October 3, 1941, in Spring Gully, South Carolina, and raised in Philadelphia, singer, songwriter, and dancer Ernest Evans would go on to popularize several dance styles in American culture throughout his career as Chubby Checker.
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Growing up in the projects in South Philadelphia, Evans knew his destiny before he was a teenager. After his mother took him to see country singer Ernest Tubb and child piano prodigy Sugar Child Robinson when he was a young boy, Evans knew he wanted to be an entertainer and formed a street corner singing group when he was 11 years old.
Still in his teens, Evans later got his life-long stage moniker, which came from a few unlikely places: a poultry market, Fats Domino, and Dick Clark’s wife.
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Working at a Fresh Farm Poultry, the owner, Henry Colt, first christened Evans with the nickname “Chubby” and would often show him off to customers on the loudspeakers and let him sing.
Through his connections, Colt later arranged for Evans to make a recording of “Jingle Bells” for Dick Clark, who sent the holiday greeting out to his friends and associates in the music business.
“I was 16 years old when I first met Dick,” said Checker in 2012. “It was about two years before we did ‘The Twist. I was ‘Ernest’ at the time.’
Executives at Cameo-Parkway Records liked Evan’s yuletide song, which featured him singing in different impersonations, and gave him his first song to record in 1959 called “The Class.” The novelty song, also featured him impersonating other singers like Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and even The Chipmunks, and became his first charting track at No. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100.
As he was recording Evans needed a good stage name, and Clark’s wife, Barbara Clark, who was inspired by Fats Domino, later gave “Chubby” the other half of his full stage name: Checker.
“You’re Chubby Checker,” she said, “like Fats Domino.”
Just out of his teens, Checker began popularizing different dancing styles with his catchy songs, starting with his first No. 1 hit “The Twist,” Recording his rendition of the Hank Ballard & The Midnighters’ song in 1959 with Cameo-Parkway, “The Twist” introduced the concept of “dancing apart to the beat.”
In 1960, Checker made his debut on Dick Clark’s The Bandstand. “History was made the day Chubby Checker went on Bandstand with ‘The Twist,’ said Checker. “Going on Bandstand was like getting a Nobel Prize.”
After twisting, Checker introduced the Pony dance with his 1961 hit “Pony Time,” and hit No. 1 on the R&B charts, with the cover of a song originally recorded by The Goodtimers in 1960.
Checker went on to popularize more dance styles with music by revisiting more songs like the other Champs song, “Limbo Rock,” along with showcasing the limbo dance, and “The Fly,” which was written by John Medora and David White for Checker and featured the sound of an electric razor as a buzzing fly.
Following the release of “The Twist,” and its 1961 follow-up, “Let’s Twist Again,” a number of artists were jumping on the “Twist” in a number of new songs that started incorporating the word into the title, from The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” “Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee & the Starlighters, and Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away.”
Checker: The Songwriter
Though Checker covered many of his dance hits and had other songs written for him, in 1971, he penned the entirety of his album, Chequered!
Chubby Checker Today
Checker continues to perform to this day.
In 2013, Checker released a new single, the ballad “Changes,” which was followed by “Rock and Roll to The Rescue” in 2015 as part of a benefit show to help raise funds for rescue animals in need.
Nearly 60 years since the release of “The Twist,” Checker released a remixed and remastered version of his classic in 2016.
“The energy I get from singing and dancing with all these people over the years is unlike anything else I experience,” said Checker. “I never want it to end.”
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images