In the summer of 1960, Chubby Checker’s influence loomed enormous. His cover of Hank Ballard’s “The Twist” shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and kicked off the era of the dance craze. The Watusi, the Jerk, the Alligator, the Bristol Stomp, the Alligator, the Monkey….all were on the near horizon.
The dance craze was an important part of the mainstreaming of rock and roll. In the brief historical gap between Elvis and the Beatles, dance crazes regularly ‘swept the nation,’ as was the parlance of the time. Artists now long forgotten (like the Orlons, the Dovells and Major Lance) would launch from urban nightclubs to the top of the charts seemingly overnight. In the early sixties, which is often thought of as something of a deadzone between the Class of ’55 and the British Invasion, rock and roll assumed dancehall dominance. But there has never been a dance so dominant as “The Twist.”
Chubby launched the twist craze and a thousand imitators, not least of all, his own reiteration with 1961’s summer smash, “Let’s Twist Again.”
He is also the progenitor of The Pony, The Fly and The Limbo.
British Invasion and the Oldies Bargain Bin
Without question, Chubby had inserted himself in the national consciousness and really never left it. But just like those summer nights in the waning days of August, the Golden Age of the Dance Craze was not long for this world. By the mid-‘60s, the Beatles and Bob Dylan had re-written the rules.
Rock music became a more sophisticated and experimental medium. By the Summer of Love, the dance craze was a relic. Hit-makers like Chubby watched as post-Revolver full-length platters crashed their jukebox world. The LP was in and the 45 was out.
By 1971, Checker’s days as a chart-topper were behind him. So he did what a lot of smart people might do. He went to Amsterdam, got super high and made a psychedelic soul record.
Let’s Get Twisted Again
Never officially released in the United States, Chequered! follows in the tradition of such famously unsuccessful psych-reinventions as Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud. This full-length disc pairs the Twist King with fuzz-laden heavy rock arrangements and Band of Gypsies style power-soul. The material and the singing are a dramatic departure for Checker. His voice is actually borderline unrecognizable when held up against “Limbo Rock.”
The material is also a far cry from the teen-friendly dance sensations upon which his reputation was built. Tunes like “Slow Lovin’”, “No Need To Get So Heavy,” and “Stoned in the Bathroom,” aimed at a more adult rock world.
Ironically, Chubby’s effort at updating his sound was itself a step behind. By 1971, psychedelic music was already something of a dying breed, or at least a creature in a state of continued evolution. Frustration over the ongoing misery of the Vietnam War and a devastating string of high-profile rock and roll overdoses gave prelude to the great country comedown of the early ‘70s. From Dylan to the Dead, the Byrds to the Beach Boys, the great LSD warriors of the 60s embraced the more earthly strains of Americana.
This probably best accounts for the fact that Chequered! never saw the light of day in an official capacity. Its reputation would grow instead only as curiosity and bootleg. To listen to it now, I wouldn’t necessarily make the argument that its non-release was a great crime against the legacy of recorded music.
Worth Chequing Out
I would, however, suggest that a unique and sometimes excellent performance is lost in the shuffle. In spite of a band and a set of arrangements that lack character and a concept that could be interpreted as inauthentic or pandering, Chubby’s performances actually keep the whole thing afloat.
On “Goodbye Victoria,” Chubby’s layered vocals place him somewhere in space between Funkadelic and Buddy Miles. He leads into “Gypsy” with a gutbucket scat and follows with a persuasively howling blues workout. The ballad “If The Sun Stops Shining,” is actually downright gorgeous. In short, Chubby proves himself a soulful singer and one capable of far greater range than perhaps his dance craze hits ever really hint at.
It’s no mystery why Chequered! wasn’t released in 1971. It would most certainly have been an aborted and potentially even embarrassing misfire from a marketing standpoint. No good could have come from it at the time.
And of course, the ‘70s and the disco era would revitalize interest in both the dance craze and nostalgia acts. Since the resurgence of interest in what was by the termed “oldies,” Chubby Checker has enjoyed lifelong visibility and relevance both as a vital legacy act and as the man responsible for a song that is played at pretty much every wedding ever.
In spite of his one false attempt at reinvention, time has proven his most popular contributions to be his most important. As for Chequered!, it was ultimately released from limbo through historical reissue in 2012. Now readily available for your consumption, it’s a record that sounds better now than it ever could have in its time and place. Derivative though it may have been, to our ears, this is simply an artifact from a briefest moment in history when psychedelic soul was a fertile genre.
A footnote to be certain, it’s still worth listening to now. Chubby is rightly remembered for “The Twist,” but he should also be recognized as the soulful and emotive singer heard on Chequered!.