Thursday, August 10, 2006

Checker salutes Elvis at 1977 Fair

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For rock music fans, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 1977 was a day not soon forgotten.

As Chubby Checker readied a performance at the Upper Peninsula State Fair, word spread around the grounds that Elvis Presley-- the King of Rock 'n' Roll-- had died in Memphis.

My wife Sue heard the tragic news while she was at a vendor's booth where her dad, Harry Hahn, sold turquoise jewelry he made. "I was shocked," she remembered.

Rain had soaked the fair grounds late Monday and early Tuesday, with the wet conditions causing exhibitors to set up late and dampening attendance at Checker's afternoon show.

You may remember Checker as the only rock star to have the same song reach number one on two different occasions. "The Twist" topped the charts in September, 1960 and again in early 1962.

In fact, Checker's cover version of "The Twist," originally by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, started a world-wide dance phenomenon that the performer used as the linchpin of his act.

Tickets for the 8:30 p. m. concert, booked through Northern International Agency, were just $2.50. Despite the price, Sue and I were among only 866 people to attend the evening show.

A rock 'n' roll party band called Wedsel's Edsels, which boasted $15,000 in stereo equipment and $20,000 in lighting, opened the program with a nostalgic 50's performance, reminiscent of Sha Na Na. In tribute to Elvis, the group added "Jailhouse Rock," a monster hit by the legend from Tupelo, to their set.

Checker, who toured 250 days per year, pumped up the crowd when he appeared on stage clad in a white jump suit open to the waist and platform shoes, along with a modest afro.

With his band "Ships," the veteran entertainer played his signature song, plus "Let's Twist Again," "Pony Time," "Popeye The Hitchhiker," "Slow Twistin,'" and many more from his long list of hits.

During the show, Checker explained that dancing to "The Twist" was easy: just pretend you're smothering a cigarette butt with one foot, then simultaneously do the same with the other.

Checker invited audience members, including both kids and adults, on stage for a "Limbo Rock" contest. But, virtually no matter how low the limbo stick got, the 35-year-old singer was able to shimmy his way under it, even with those platform shoes.

The Cameo- Parkway recording artist added a poignant moment. "Many of you probably know Elvis Presley died this afternoon. I sure will miss that man." With that the band played their take on "Hound Dog," Presley's giant smash from 1956.

On Wednesday, Aug. 17, the Escanaba Daily Press carried the sad story about the death of rock's greatest star under the page one headline "Elvis Presley Heart Attack Victim." The Associated Press dispatch, with a Memphis dateline, said "Elvis Presley, the one-time truck driver who as a rock 'n' roll singer was idolized by fans and denounced by preachers as the devil's tool, is dead of a heart ailment at 42. Doctors denied Presley's death was drug connected."

Each year since his death, devotees have gathered at Graceland in August to commemorate Presley's life during "Elvis Week." He is still one of the top earners at RCA Records and has a catalog containing over 200 albums and dozens of movies.

So many fans are still devoted to Elvis that new products appear monthly to meet the demand. Such is the affection his fans hold toward their idol.

Perhaps, like President Kennedy's assassination, you even remember where you were when you heard about Elvis' passing, so significant was his stature in modern music.

Like Chubby Checker's show at the Fair that day 29 years ago, rock 'n' roll will go on but Presley's incalculable contribution-- just like the day he died-- won't soon be forgotten.

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