Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Day Gigs

“Don’t give up your day gig.” Along with “don’t eat yellow snow” and “fake it ‘til you make it”, “don’t give up your day gig” remains one of the oldest, hoariest, clichéd pieces of advice anyone can give or receive.

But unless you were lucky/wise enough to heed the other greatest piece of advice any musician can receive, that being “marry rich”, “don’t give up your day gig” is still among the very best pieces of advice a musician can receive. Very few of us get our dream job right out of school; hell, very few of us ever get our dream job. All too rapidly, reality intrudes on youthful artistic idealism and no matter how much one wants to compose, or play violin, or sing, unless we can find someone willing to pay us to do so, we must all do something to make money. And then, as we get older and develop a taste for the finer things in life – like feeding, clothing, and housing our children – our day gigs become not just a matter of survival for ourselves but for those around us.

Chubby Checker circa 1961
Chubby Checker (born Ernest Evans; October 3, 1941) circa 1961

Now, here and there and every now and then, someone gets very lucky and actually scores a career and, as a result, can give up their day gig. Such fine people are the subjects of today’s post. Let us begin, then, with our date-appropriate example.

On September 19, 1960 – 62 years ago today – Chubby Checker (born Ernest Evans; October 3, 1941) went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart with his performance of the rhythm & blues song The Twist.

(For our information, on October 11, 2012, the Chubster set a “world record” in DeLand Florida. That’s when and where he sang The Twist to a crowd of some 4,000 people, who twisted along with him, breaking the previous Guinness World Record for most people twisting at once.

One wonders what the record might be for the most people doing the boogaloo?)

Young Ernest Evans was lucky enough to score what was his first major hit some 5 months before his nineteenth birthday. As a result, he was able to quit his day gig: that of a chicken plucker for a firm called “Fresh Farm Poultry”, which was located at the Italian Produce Market (or the South 9th Street Curb Market) in South Philadelphia. (For our information, though born in Spring Gully, South Carolina, Evans/Checker grew up in the projects of South Philly.)

(A great story. The naturally outgoing young Evans entertained customers at the poultry market with his singing even as he shucked ‘n’ plucked. It was his boss at the market – someone known today only as “Tony A.”, who nicknamed him “Chubby.” But even more important was the owner of “Fresh Farm Poultry”, a man named Henry Holt. Holt was so taken with Chubby and his talent that he arranged for him to make a private recording with Dick Clark, the host of Philadelphia’s own American Bandstand. It was Dick Clark’s first wife Barbara – née Mallery – that completed Chubby’s stage name. She asked him what his name was, and he replied:

“Well, my friends call me ‘Chubby.’”

“As he had just completed a Fats Domino impression, she smiled and said, ‘As in Checker?’ That little play on words [‘chubby’ describing a degree of fatness and ‘checkers’ being, like ‘dominoes’ a tabletop game] got an instant laugh, and stuck: from then on, Evans would use the name ‘Chubby Checker.’”)

To the point: after July of 1960, Earnest Evans/Chubby Checker never had to pluck another chicken (at least not for money!).

I have done some research and have discovered that Chubby Checker’s day gig was not even close to being the worst among certain popular musicians of note.…

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