Chubby Checker doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Not only did he popularize Hank Ballard’s rhythm and blues hit “The Twist” beyond belief, but he revolutionized pop culture with the matching dance. He’s also responsible for “Limbo Rock” (as well as that corresponding dance) and is the reigning champ when it comes to having five hit albums out at once. And beyond all this—at the sprightly age of 71—he can still put on one rowdy show.
It was a strange mix of demographics during the Aug. 27 afternoon show at the New York State Fair’s Chevy Court. It was Senior Citizens Day, but many of the front rows were dominated by an audi ence that could be those seniors’ greator great-great-grandchildren. No, they weren’t intentionally there for Checker, but they got a killer lesson in showmanship as they waited for Austin Mahone, the Chevy Court evening act who, much to the tweens’ delight, would appear at the end of Checker’s show.
The Wildcats, Checker’s band, started the show with class. The drummer gave the legend a proper introduction as the youthful four-piece (drums, guitar, bass, sax) warmed up. Although the group was clearly decades younger than Checker, they understood the style of his time and brought justice to the swinging tunes that took the audience back to the era of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
Checker made his entrance like a true pro. Years of experience were obvious in his every move. The quick twists, the sharp “Ow!s” and the charm to work an audience had all ages (yes, even the tweens) invested in the show.
Ten minutes into the set, the band had already blown through four songs that had Checker and his blue-checkered shoes cutting one serious rug.
“Good Good Lovin’,” “Let’s Twist Again,” “Slow Twistin’” and many of Checker’s other dance-defined songs kept the energy up even in the muggy heat. And when it started to simmer down, Checker did things like take a walk through the crowd while the band played. . . for about five minutes. He wandered looking for dance partners saying, “You got somethin’?” as he approached various women. It worked like a charm for Checker as one woman after another danced, hugged and kissed him.
When he made his way back to the stage (on his way, he made a State Trooper shimmy), he decided to keep the dance party going and had four women show everyone how to shake on stage. All drew enthusiastic cheers with their dancing and, when two of the four even hopped up and latched onto the twister, the applause equaled the laughter.
Checker only slowed once to perform, “Changes”, a song released in February. The ballad was beautiful and showed off the singer’s sturdy voice before he broke back into more fever-pitched covers “Good Golly Miss Molly”, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “I Saw Her Standing There”.
Then, Checker remembered there were guys in the audience too and about 20 mounted the stage for a twist contest as hilarious as you are imagining right now. Men of all shapes, sizes and ages gave it their best shot before the final male dancer—a man dressed in an all-green (including his fanny-pack) St. Patrick’s Day getup with a braided ZZ Top-like beard—shook it like a Polaroid picture.
The show closed on a high note and with a standing ovation for the singer-songwriter and his flawless band. As he went to leave the stage, he instead returned with Mahone, waving to the crowd and delivering the young pop star to his ravenous fans. The shrieks were incredible.
Age is a funny thing in the music business. While so many fear it, it’s the artists who use the experience to their advantage, realize who their audience is and cater to them, that do best. Checker wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone; he was out there to have as much fun as anyone in the audience. Judging by the sweat and the smile on him, he did just that. o