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Still Loving the Grind

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tom Jones and Chubby Checker have little in common beyond their status as pop music legends, road warriors (both play more than 200 shows a year) and, along with Nancy Sinatra, the hottest old-school acts performing in Southern California on New Year’s Eve.

A thousand fans will be swinging their hips, party favors and wine glasses to Jones’ “Delilah” at the House of Blues tonight, while a different crowd will be twisting to Checker and his group, the Wildcats, at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. These shows are like festive party hats on the singers’ career achievements.

Jones, 58, first hit big in 1965 with “It’s Not Unusual,” and overnight he went from playing pubs in his native South Wales to performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Since then he has delivered more than 50 albums, hung with Elvis, released dozens of hit singles and is worshiped by both over-50 fans and a whole new audience of Gen-Xers.

Checker, born Ernest Evans in 1941, became a phenomenon in 1960 after performing “The Twist” on “American Bandstand,” and is largely responsible for the way we dance to music today--couples dancing apart to music with a beat. He has been entertaining audiences with that breakthrough song and dance ever since.

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The L.A.-based Jones and Philadelphia’s Checker discussed the aspects of New Year’s Eve, their past successes and their career expectations for the new millennium.

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Question: Is a performance on New Year’s Eve any different to you from one of your regular gigs?

Checker: I’ve played at least 38 [New Year’s Eve] shows, and it’s no different to me. I have this philosophy that every day is a new holiday. I’m the kind of guy that celebrates every day. I don’t believe in holidays, they mean nothing to me. People are always asking, “Why are you so happy? What’s the occasion?” and I say, “I’m just happy, leave me alone.” New Year’s is another day. By the time you get to Jan. 7, you forget the new year. The bills keep coming, you’re trying to get skinny. . . . Life goes on.

Jones: This show at the House of Blues is actually the first pre-planned New Year’s show I’m gonna do, so really, I can’t say. But I’ll also be on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” and England’s “Jules Holland Show.” That’s the beauty of pre-recording. You can be in two places--no, three [laughs]--at once.

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Q: What would you normally do on New Year’s Eve?

Jones: I generally stay at home and ring it in with my mother, sister, wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. It’s always been a family thing. I played the House of Blues earlier this year, and they asked me to play New Year’s Eve, and my son Mark, who’s also my manager, said, “Do you fancy playing it?” And I said, “Sure, we’re all gonna be here, aren’t we? Why not?” Even if we were at our house, I’d be bloody singing anyway. We might as well make a party out of it, and the House of Blues is a good place to do it. My whole family’s coming.

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Q: So what do you have lined up for 1999?

Jones: I just played myself in a film directed and starring Anjelica Huston called “Mammy.” That’ll be out next year. I’ve also signed to a new label in England called Gut Records and I’m putting out an album of duets, I hope in March or April. I’m recording songs with the Manic Street Preachers, Shirley Manson of Garbage, Van Morrison, Mick Hucknall from Simply Red and some other younger [laughs] artists. Some are their own songs they wrote for the album, and others are soul numbers, etc. I just wanted to do songs that they fancied doing but have never had a chance. These people have their own ideas of what they want, and I like that.

Checker: I’m putting together a television show with Dick Clark Productions for New Year’s 2000. It’s “Chubby Checker’s 40 Years. The Twist: Dancing Apart to Music With a Beat.” I’m also setting up a marketing machine of Chubby Checker memorabilia, so I’ll be like Mickey Mouse. And in supermarkets, you’re gonna see Chubby Checker’s peanut butter and beef jerky.

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Q: You both are infinitely performing. Do you ever get burned out?

Jones: For me, it’s the easiest thing I can do. It’s not like work to me. I love to sing. It’s a very natural thing to me. The actual being on stage is fun, it’s a charge, an up. You learn over the years things to do and not to do. You can’t burn the candle at both ends all the time. You can do it once in a while. I think that’s what happens with a lot of young bands when they start off. When you first start, you run a little too fast. You’re so excited, you try to do too much. If you don’t watch it, you can get burned out. If you can get over those early years fairly unscathed, you can handle it.

Checker: I get paid to do what I love to do. I still just sing to myself. Also, you gotta give the people what they want. Chubby Checker has to be the most important entertainer that ever lived. Before Alexander Graham Bell, we couldn’t talk on the phone. Before Thomas Edison, we had candles. Before Chubby Checker, no one danced apart to music with a beat. I’m a living entity, every place on the planet people aren’t just dancing apart to music with a beat, they’re doing the Chubby Checker.

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Q: Would you have believed back as a teenager that at this point in your lives, hundreds of people would be paying good money to spend New Year’s Eve with you?

Jones: I would have believed it. I was aiming for it. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an entertainer. I knew I had the talent for it, as long as I was able to meet the right people and get the right records. I didn’t have any doubt in my mind about giving it the best shot. I wouldn’t have been satisfied. I would have died trying.

Checker: I always wanted to sing, though it didn’t matter if people heard me or not. I sang as a kid shining shoes, and later as part of a street corner quartet called the Quantrells. I love to sing still, even to myself, in the car, the market, whatever.

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Q: What are your hopes for the new year?

Checker: I think since every day of 1999 is the last of the millennium, every day should be a double holiday. All the gigs I have, I’ll charge everybody double.

Jones: I want more of the same next year. I’d love to have a hit record. If bands say they don’t want that, they’re lying. You can’t get paranoid about it, but you still have to strive for it. I do. If you’re gonna make records, it’s nice to be successful. Then you know people like you, like what you’re doing. If it’s not successful, you gotta try and work out why. Was it the songs? The performance? Then move on. It’s like being on stage. If you don’t get that audience excited, then there’s something wrong. You can’t turn your back on people if you want to be a performer. I want to keep moving, trying different things. That’s what I want for 1999.

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BE THERE

Chubby Checker & the Wildcats, tonight at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, 7 and 10 p.m., $36.50-$77. (562) 916-8500.

Tom Jones, with the M-80’s, tonight at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 9 p.m. Sold out. (213) 848-5100.


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