Chubby Gets Stoned In the Bathroom

MI0003377193In 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 dance craze was an important part of the mainstreaming of rock and roll. In the brief historical gap between Elvis and the Beatles, a new dance craze ‘swept the nation,’ as was the parlance of the time, nearly every week.  Bands now long forgotten (like the Orlons, the Dovells and Major Lance) would launch from urban nightclubs to the top of the charts seemingly overnight. The Watusi, the Jerk, the Alligator, the Bristol Stomp, the Monkey….all were on the near horizon.

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 was no 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.

Without question, Chubby had inserted himself in the national consciousness and really never left it.  But just like these waning summer nights, the Golden Days of the Dance Craze were not long for this world. In the mid-‘60s, the Beatles and Bob Dylan had re-written the rules.

chubby-checker-the-slop-cameoparkway-3Rock 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 people might do. He moved to Amsterdam, smoked a lot of weed and made a psychedelic soul record.

Originally unreleased in the United States, Chequered! follows in the tradition of such famously unsuccessful psych-reinventions as Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud by pairing 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 post-Woodstock generation.

Ironically, Chubby’s effort at updating his sound was already a step behind. By 1971, psychedelic music was itself a dying breed. Frustration over the continued misery of the Vietnam War and a devastating string of 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 warriors of the 60s embraced dirt roads, green pastures and the bucolic splendor of old America.

This probably best accounts for the album’s original failure to see the light of day. 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.

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 genuinely gorgeous.  In short, Chubby proves himself a soulful singer and one capable of far greater range than 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.

And in spite of the relative disinterest that young listeners of the ’60s showed for the music that came immediately before them, the ‘70s and the disco era would revitalize interest in both the dance craze and nostalgia. Chubby Checker has enjoyed lifelong visibility and relevance both on oldies circuits and as the man responsible for a song that is played at pretty much every wedding ever.

In spite of his attempt at reinvention, time has proven his most popular contributions to be his most important. As for Chequered!, it was ultimately released from limbo as a reissue called New Revelation in 2011. Now readily available for your consumption, it’s a record that sounds better today than it ever could have in its time and place. Derivative though it may have been in 1971, to our ears, this is simply a satisfying artifact from that 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, moving and occasionally raw singer heard on Chequered!.

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