THE CHUBBY CHECKER INTERVIEW
Rock 'n roll icon Chubby Checker continues to make history when he brings his tour to Belterra Casino in Florence, Indiana, which is a short drive from Cincinnati. I've interviewed Chubby twice before, in 1999 and 2000, when he was coming to Evansville, Indiana, and I was a writer for a paper there called News4U (which I think is now defunct). I took the occasion of Chubby's coming to my town to reconnect with him and hear what he's thinking about these days.
The last time I interviewed Chubby, he was very emphatic about his legacy, what he calls 'Dancing apart to the beat'. You see, according to Chubby (and his website), 'dancing apart to the beat', where couples dance together without touching, did not exist before he did "The Twist" on "American Bandstand" in 1959. Ergo, everything that followed, from disco to the rave, owes something to Chubby Checker. He makes a good case, but the way he was so emphatic and adamant about it took me by surprise back then. Eight years later, he's mellowed about it...or not. "In the 20th century", he says, "we’ve done things that no ones ever done. Like on this telephone, we’re talking right now. I always call myself the Alexander Graham Bell of the music industry because I gave rock ‘n roll the dance that it never had: The Twist, The Fly, The Pony, The Shake, The Hucklebuck. I mean, all these dances have been going on since I came on the stage on “American Bandstand” in 1959. I went on “American Bandstand” when I was in high school and changed the world right then, right then and there. “The Twist” is the only song to be #1 twice. It’s the biggest song of the Sixties. Think about that. All the British Invasion and all of the Woodstock, “The Twist” was the biggest song of the Sixties. We’re the only people that had five albums, not in the Top 100, we had five albums in the Top 12, all at the same time on the chart…nine double-sided hit songs, first platinum – “Let’s Twist Again”, first Rock ‘n Roll Grammy – “Let’s Twist Again”."
Rattling off his impressive resume is second nature for Chubby, but what really gets him excited is when you ask him about his new single, "Knock Down the Walls." Chubby hasn't had a major label release since 1982's 'The Change Has Come' on MCA, and his last releases, like 2001's instructional 'Sixty Minute Workout', went by mostly unnoticed. But now Chubby Checker has gone digital - "Think about that. “Knock Down the Walls” you can get on iTunes and Amazon.com. That song is Chubby Checker 21st century. It has even no shades of the 20th century. In fact, most performers, your great performers and the most popular people that are making millions of dollars today, can’t even come near that song. That song is 21st century. I don’t think any man or woman that comes from the 20th century can match what we’ve done with “Knock Down the Walls”. And there’s nothing like it. It’s totally…don’t expect to see the Chubby Checker that you knew. All my old fans, I don’t know that they might want to gravitate to this song because it’s so unlike anything that I’ve ever done. In fact, I have a lot of new, young fans, that start at about nine or ten years old to 25 years old, that covet this song, “Knock Down the Walls”. It’s nuts. It’s crazy. I’m getting play on Adult Contemporary. I’m getting played on Top 40. I haven’t been on Top 40 radio since 1965. “Knock Down the Walls” has given me some new territory…familiar territory that I’m familiarizing myself again with Top 40 radio. Some of these disc jockeys weren’t even born when Chubby Checker came around, but they really love this song and the song is getting a lot of airplay."
For all of his talk about hit records, it struck me that his desire to get the song played went beyond fame or profit. I mean, a legend like Chubby Checker can't get any more famous. He really wants to share this song with the world: "Only about 5% of the people have heard this record. We’re struggling getting airplay, but you know something? I think they’ll come around...when they realize that we’re making a statement in the music industry once again with a great new song that the new people that really like it are picking up the phone and asking for “Knock Down the Walls” and the message that “Knock Down the Walls’ has is probably the best message in the music industry today. Not because I did it. I just think God gave it to me and I put it out there."
You can hear the song for yourself on MySpace, download it, or wait for it's release as part of a new 'greatest hits' package: "July 22nd is the official release of “Knock Down the Walls” and what we did – it’s a double-sided CD. One side is the 20th century and the other side is the 21st century." But don't just settle for the music, as Chubby explains:"We have a new t-shirt, called ‘King of the Twist’ t-shirt, and we have a new candy bar, the world’s only checkerboard chocolate candy bar. By September 1st, 10,000 stores will have all these records and t-shirts and candy bars. So, I’m really excited. I’ve got a second chance. It’s just great."
So, if you're heading out to see Chubby, expect to hear his new song and his old favorites, but prepare yourselves: "We're gonna kill 'em. That's what we do. Take out your insurance. We’re coming. That’s what we do. You know the centerpiece of this show is not about me. It’s about the people. They are the centerpiece of this show. They always have been. I play for them. I mean, they are the most important part of what I do. And this is why out of all that we’ve done – we don’t get a lot of airplay, we should; we don’t get the recognition that we deserve; we’ve done more things than most singers have ever done – but what’s kept me in business is what we’re going to be doing at Belterra. That show that we have…nothing can touch it. It’s just so perfect. For some reason, we’ve created perfection when we do our live show. Our live show’s kept us in business all of these years. This has been the pearl of my success – the live show."
I couldn't let Chubby off the line without getting him to say something controversial (unless he already had!), so I turned the conversation to politics and the burning question - has Chubby Checker endorsed a candidate? "A long time ago...and I’m not saying who I did, either. But I’ll tell you something. Something wonderful is happening in America right now. I think that our country is getting ready to look totally different in the face of the entire planet. We’re the greatest country in the world and I think this election is going to prove that we are the greatest country in the world. We’re able to reach out to all the countries in the world and make peace in the whole planet. I really believe that. We’re at a time in our lives right now where America really stands up for something. It’s wonderful."
Chubby Checker and the Wildcats will be appearing May 24th at Belterra Casino, Resort and Spa in Florence, Indiana. For ticket information visit their website. For more Chubby Checker tour dates, visit chubbychecker.com.