Born October 3, 1941, in Spring Gulley, South Carolina, the son of a tobacco farmer. His family moved to Philadelphia, and as a young boy, Checker worked various jobs shining shoes, selling ice and assisting in a butcher’s shop. Because of his heavy build, he got his nickname, Chubby, while working as a teen at Tony Anastazi’s Produce Store. With a natural gift for imitation, he enjoyed impersonating the styles of his musical heroes Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. He began performing in churches and on the streets with his singing group, The Quantrells, and soon attracted the attention of music executives in Philadelphia.
Checker signed with Cameo-Parkway Records in 1959. His first two singles, “The Class” and “Dancing Dinosaur” were minor hits. Cameo encouraged him to make his own version of “The Twist,” a song originally written and performed by Hank Ballard, which was already having modest success on the charts. But it was Checker’s version and his accompanying dance routine that gave the song new life. He was dubbed “The King of the Twist.” In fact, it was Dick Clark’s wife who came up with the name Checker, a reference to the similarity between the portly singer and Fats Domino.
As a dance movement, the Twist revolutionized popular culture by giving couples the freedom to break apart on the dance floor. An appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand launched Checker’s version of “The Twist” to the No. 1 billboard spot in August 1961, where it remained on the charts for 18 straight weeks. In November of that year, it reentered the charts again for a record-breaking 21 weeks. With this formidable achievement, “The Twist” became the first and only 45 single to ever appear in the No. 1 spot in two different years.
Although Checker recorded many more songs in the following years, none ever matched the success of “The Twist.” He continued to capitalize on the twist theme with similarly titled songs, such as “Twistin’ U.S.A.” and “Twist it Up” in the early 1960s, and even “Let’s Twist Again” in 1999. He also starred in two films featuring the twist sensation, Twist Around the Clock (1961) and Don’t Knock the Twist (1962).