Fame is often dealt cruelly, like a handful of cards. The sharp who has played the game faithfully and fed the pot all night, draws a bust and coughs away into oblivion; the kid who just sat down with a silly grin, catches the inside straight and forever after is known as The Kid. It isn't supposed to be a fair system. People in pursuit of fame ought to know that, especially those on the winning end. Generally, they don't.
Over the phone from his 14-acre estate in Paoli, Pa., west of Philadelphia, Chubby Checker, the famous ex-chicken plucker, sounds as if he is one of those who doesn't know it. "I wish the radio stations would play me like they play Eric Clapton," says Chubby, who will be at the Turf Valley Country Club in Ellicott City tonight. "I don't know why they don't."
He says this with genuine hurt in his voice, and only days after Eric Clapton needed a wheelbarrow to cart off his half-dozen Grammy awards. This is the very same 52-year-old Chubby Checker whose last record was a late '80s cameo appearance on the Fat Boys' rap version of his 1960s' monster hit "The Twist."
"I think I'm one of the most famous people alive," says Chubby with the self-awareness of a checker. "My biggest success is still the biggest success in the music business. My records aren't oldies. My records are hits. I am still everything that people saw. Nothing's been taken away. I'm like a 1964 Chevy Corvette. You are still excited by it because it was way ahead of its time."
If he's not exactly ahead of his time now, he wants very badly to think that he is at least even with it. Because, from the very start, Chubby has had a thing about timing. In 1958, for instance, Hank Ballard wrote and recorded a tune called "The Twist." Remember Hank? No, of course not. But how about Ernest Evans?
He was the overweight teen survivor of the poultry business in Philadelphia, tapped by entrepreneur Dick Clark to reproduce Ballard's song for "American Bandstand." Nick named Chubby Checker by Dick Clark's wife, he did an almost note-for-note version of the Ballard song, and in August 1960, "The Twist" went to No. 1.
It was a time that Chubby's manager calls the "latency of rock." Buddy Holly was dead, Chuck Berry was in jail, Dick Clark was in power and the only competition was a guy named Fats Domino. By November 1961 "The Twist" had cooled but emerged anew to regain the top -- making it the only tune in chart history (other than Der Bingle's "White Christmas") to repeat at No. 1.
Yet, after a delightful spree with other dance fads like "The Fly," "The Hucklebuck," "Limbo Rock," "The Pony" and "Dance the Mess Around" came that fateful February of 1964. It was the month the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan. That month, in one of rock's worst moments of timing, Chubby released "Chubby Checker's Folk Album." Not only did his career evaporate almost overnight, it seems pretty clear now why folk music went the way of the dinosaurs.
Between then and now, he has done fairly well, schlepping almost nonstop across the country to sing "Slow Twistin' " and "The Twist" and "Let's Twist Again like We Did Last Summer" and "Twist It Up" with the same cheerful chubbiness of those golden '60s days, although to much smaller crowds. Along the way, he has put together a showcase of other songs, newer material with no connection to "The Twist," that he has tried desperately, and without success, to convert into hit records.
"I can't get record companies to put my records out," he says bitterly. "It has to be with 'the Fat Boys' and that lasted for a few seconds and then here we are again. I create rock-and-roll perfection every day of my life. I'd like for more people to see me. I'd like to play with ZZ Top or the Rolling Stones. If Billy Ray Cyrus would only call and say 'I'm going on a 40-day-tour and I want Chubby Checker to play with me,' it would get me so motivated.
"It would be a breath of fresh life to play in front of thousands of people. Playing in small places is OK. I don't complain. But when I'm on Main Street, it becomes the main place. And I don't get enough of that. I don't know if the public will allow that."
The answer, of course, is they won't allow it. The rules of fame are very particular about that: Chubby's ticket was punched by "The Twist" and that is the name of that tune.
Yet Chubby sees his fame as much broader than one song. He sees himself as the inventor of a dance form he feels links him intimately with every human being born after 1951.
"Right now, someplace on this planet, it's dark and people are dancing apart to music," he says. The key words are dancing apart, which he recites constantly like a mantra. The idea is that before 'the Twist,' people actually touched while moving on the dance floor, although such a notion now is considered not only unnecessary but bizarre.
"If you dance fast, who the hell wants to dance with someone?" he says. "You knock into each other, you sweat." Chubby figures that everyone born after 1951 learned to dance apart, which traces to "The Twist," which traces to him. "All of them are my people," he says. "When they learned to dance, 'the Twist' was there. They are all my babies. I'm as much a part of their lives as they themselves. I would like to be reunited with them, but I don't know how to do it."
Luckily, he is prepared to wait a bit longer.
"I keep on making music," he says. "I'm gonna hang up the phone and play this silly little song, it's called 'The Zombie.' It's so cute. It's much better than 'the Twist.' I'm very patient. I've been waiting for the public to allow me to show my talents. But I don't want to be too old when they say, 'OK, we'll let you come out now.' I just want to be like all the other big boys."
L The big boys, one of whom he used to be, have what he wants.
"Success, that's American, that's what was promised to me," he says. "This is my quest. If it doesn't come fast, fine. If it never comes . . ."
There is a pause, and then the anguished cry of a man realizing he needs four more cards to fill that inside straight.
"Man! I was on my way there!"
Where: Turf Valley Hotel and Country Club, 2700 Turf Valley Road, Ellicott City.
When: 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. today.
Call: (401) 465-1500.