June 23, 2017 | by James Greene, Jr.
Chubby Checker has been a novelty guy from day one. His debut 1959 single “The Class” introduced Chub as a rock ‘n’ roll impressionist, peeling off expert mimics of Fats Domino and Elvis reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to a choice sax riff. A year later, Checker achieved his immortality with a powerhouse cover of Hank Ballard’s instructional dance nugget “The Twist.” The world went “Twist” crazy and so did Chubby — the singer pumped out endless sequels to his number one hit, including but not limited to “Let’s Twist Again,” “Twistin’ U.S.A.,” and a “Twist” interpretation of “Hava Nagila” (sung in Hebrew, if you can believe that).
By the mid-‘60s most of Earth was through with twistin’, forcing Chubby (né Ernest Evans) to explore strange new avenues. In 1964 he released Chubby’s Folk Album and would you also believe Chubby Checker’s folk album is not a particularly stringent exercise in the genre? Chubby’s Folk is more Americana pop, like the banjo-infused soundtrack to a forgotten live-action Disney film. Still, it’s more charming than those derelict and barely clothed Country Bears.
As the 1960s drew to a close, Chubby Checker’s résumé included a spirited cover of the Beatles classic “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and a swingin’ piece of weird garbage called “Karate Monkey” (it was meant to be the new dance craze; sadly, “Karate Monkey” is not about any specific martial arts trained simian). Suddenly, in 1971, the Chubster did an about face. Perhaps he began to feel “woke,” in the parlance of our current times. At any rate, he surmised it was time for his psychedelic rock “message” record. Time to try and relate to the new generation, “rap with the kids,” as it were, kids who preferred pipin’ hot bongs over bobby socks. And lo, Chequered! was born. The world’s collective confusion over this feel good hit-maker’s sudden decision to “get real” was mirrored in the LP’s cover image, a close up of Chubby as uncertainty clouds his normally jubilant expression.
Seven-and-a-half minutes is excessive for any album’s opening cut; it feels like twice that as Chubby drags us through the mediocre, repetitive Byrds-like ramble of “How Does It Feel.” Check comes off like the awkward aging hipster uncle he probably was in ’71 as he talks to you, a member of the youth, about your life and place in the world. Near the end of this slog, Checker looks ahead to that far off year of 1983, where he’s sure everyone will be doing a drug called “t.” Then he whimsically adds, “We’re gonna make some love and have a couple space babies!”
The second track on Chequered! is probably its most infamous: “Stoned in the Bathroom,” a warmed-over pot rhapsody that at least offers an impressive marriage of organ straining and rhythm guitar crunch. Alas, this is another song that never breaks out of second gear. Chubby can’t stop marveling that he’s “stoned in the bathroom on a Sunday afternoon … stoned in the bathroom, just sittin’ on the moon!” And so it goes: The majority of Chequered! feels hampered by Checker’s non-fluidity as a hipster figure or serious lyricist. Furthermore, no argument can be made that Mr. Twist was working on this LP with anything resembling an immense budget. The scuttlebutt is Chubby had a helluva time getting musicians to even appear on this misguided effort. “Karate Monkey” really fucked up some lives.
If there’s a diamond in all this roughage it could be the jaunty rocker “Love Tunnel.” It’s not hard to imagine the Stones scoring with a version maybe a decade earlier (and possibly without the stalling “White Rabbit” type breakdown mid-song). “Don’t get hung up / in the love tunnel!” Checker admonishes. The best advice offered since “Let’s Twist Again.”
Chequered! goes into an fantastic tailspin near its end, beginning with Chubby’s ode to a nice long hot fuck called “Slow Lovin’.” “A little crazy mo-shun is all you need!” he enthusiastically offers. It would be no surprise to learn “Slow Lovin’” was ghost written by a dyed-in-the-wool virgin. Immediately after the aardvarking song comes Chubby Checker’s somber tribute to Jesus Christ, “He Died.” “They nailed you to the cross — oh, how you bled!” Chubzo painfully intones over gentle instrumentation. I beg your pardon, Mr. Chub. Were we not just going at it like a pair of drugged possums in a drainage ditch? Now you want to talk about the crucifixion? The album’s final entry, “If The Sun Stopped Shining,” feels like another hymnal but if you’ve made it this far you won’t be able to focus on it or anything else around you.
The 2012 reissue of Chequered! carries a bonus track, a tight, fast, n’ sparse funk blast from 1973 called “Gypsy” (it was originally the flip side to an abysmal single, “Reggae My Way”; reggae Chubby Checker’s way is Hindenburg-ish). “Gypsy” is just as ridiculous as the rest of Chequered! — it begins with Chub cawing like a crack-addled rooster — but there’s a layer of grime and odd desperation that sells the tune harder than anything that precedes it. The extra busy drum work seems to pinch a better performance out of not just the rest of the band but Checker himself, who has no trouble keeping up and uses a beautifully impassioned vocal to convince the listener he is in fact a nihilistic, ornery hobo ridin’ America’s rails.
And really, that’s how all of us imagined Chubby Checker in the 1970s. As a weathered rail rider out for adventure, grit, a can of beans, and maybe one last twist.