ALVIN CASH AND
C'mon, let's Twine! We can twine awhile, jerk it a bit, then unwind the twine! Try to picture what that looks like! Or maybe you've attempted the body-contorting, rump-twirling, leanin', divin' and slidin' moves associated with the dance. If so, you were either a student at Dunbar High School on Chicago's south side in the mid-1960s...or you learned the dance by watching Alvin Cash and the Crawlers on television. I never got into the dance myself, it was always just a great tune with some crazy shouting and that "ooh, aah, ooh-aah-ooh-aah' salaciousness that went right over my juvenile head.
Notorious music biz hustler Andre Williams (best known for "Bacon Fat" in '57) was hosting one of Dunbar High's dances when he picked up on the Twine moves the kids had created. A producer for the city's One-derful!, Mar-V-Lus and M-Pac! group of record labels, Williams figured to capitalize on the local craze, widen its reach, and line his pockets with some much-needed green. He and Verlie Rice (a cowriter with Williams on The Five Du-Tones' 1963 hit "Shake a Tail Feather") came up with an instrumental track to fit, booked a small, hungry group of musicians from Louisville, Kentucky called The Nightlighters and brought in a young dancer he'd met to front the whole thing.
Alvin Welch wasn't really a singer, or a musician. How many dancers have ever become a recording act without these necessary skills? The list may start and end with Alvin. He was born and raised in St. Louis and attended Sumner High School, where he was a classmate of Anna Mae Bullock (the future Tina Turner). His uncle, a professional dancer, taught him some moves; it appears a flair for rhythmic steppin' was a family trait. Around 1959 or '60, Alvin (in his twenties by this time) put together a dance group he called The Step Brothers with his three much-younger siblings, Robert, Arthur and George (all in the eight- to ten-year-old range). Robert Burris, a popular radio personality at black-formatted KATZ in St. Louis, was known to his listeners as Robert BQ. When he saw the Step Brothers perform, he came up with a new name for them, The Crawlers, jokingly referring to their young ages. Eventually, Welch switched to Cash and Alvin Cash and the Crawlers became the act's professional name.
A couple of years later, Alvin moved to Chicago, dancing in clubs or on the street, anywhere he could get tips or make an actual wage. When Robert and George got a little older, they joined him on weekends (for some reason, Arthur didn't tag along). Still attending Sumner High in St. Louis, the two teens often boarded a bus on Friday after school, riding three hundred miles to Chicago, where Alvin would pick them up. They performed their routines at various ballrooms and were good enough that it wasn't difficult lining up paying gigs for upcoming weekends. Come Sunday night, the boys would hop a Greyhound back to St. Lou, arriving in time for school Monday morning. It's amazing that their mom allowed this weekend routine...then again, they always brought back the money they had earned and gave her most of it. So what's a mother of eight to do?
Williams saw Cash and the Crawlers' act at one of their weekend haunts and they had made an impression. For the "Twine Time" session he hired Alvin to supply the vocal shouts that gave the song its identity. Released on Mar-V-Lus at the end of 1964, the record went top 20 on the pop charts and top ten R&B in early '65. Though his brothers had nothing to do with the record, it was generally assumed that the Crawlers were the backing band. Robert and George, in fact, were a part of the act after the single's release, appearing with Alvin onstage to supply the shrewdly synchronized ball-of-twine-style dance moves. It caught on nationally for the next few months: by the end of January, Jackie Ross was on the charts with "Jerk and Twine" (incorporating an even hotter dance, popularized just a month or so earler through The Larks' top ten hit "The Jerk") and Jr. Walker and the All Stars gave a bigtime mention ('it's twiiiine time!') on the group's springtime smash "Shotgun."
Follow-up single "The Barracuda," demonstrating another dance Andre Williams had latched onto, added female session singers to Alvin's sparse vocal contribution; the label gave credit to the backup group on this single, but the Nightlighters had to be content with the catchy-but-corny Registers Band, a play on Cash's name. The record made a respectable showing on the charts in April. Ignoring the confines of the Twine's appeal, third single "Un-Wind the Twine" (written, no doubt in minutes, by Harold Burrage, Otis Hayes and Chicago soul singer Jimmy Jones) came off as a weak attempt to squeeze every drop from the original hit. Alvin's six months of national popularity had come to an end. Or had it?
Summer 1966. A year had passed, the Crawlers/Step Brothers were back in Missouri for good, and the act was now Alvin Cash and the Registers. "The Philly Freeze" (another dance, this one with ties to a city outside the Mar-V-Lus universe) picked up where Alvin's previous jive talk left off: 'Here I am, baby, I'm back again...it ain't the Twine, baby...it's Philly Freeze time!' Jones and Hayes of the aforementioned unwinding were simply updating "The Freeze" (a hot dance and hit song by Tony and Joe in 1958), session vocalists again did the singing, and the result put Alvin in the top 50 (and almost pushed him back into the R&B top ten). Next, he took on an established soul dance: though Tom and Jerrio (a duo with roots in Chicago and St. Louis) had already gifted the world with their own mostly-instrumental whoop-and-shout track "Boo-ga-loo" in mid-'65 (name-dropping "Twine Time" and "Barracuda" in the process), Cash and the Registers returned the favor with "Alvin's Boo-ga-loo." A fan of Muhammad Ali, he paid tribute to boxing's world champion in '67 with yet another dance tune, "Doin' the Ali Shuffle," after which Alvin seemingly disappeared...again.
Nearly two years went by this time, then he popped up on a newer Chicago label, Toddlin' Town, with "Keep on Dancing," a top 20 R&B hit and his fifth single to appear on the pop charts. Now a solo act, he retained his emphasis on dance (this time calling out the names of the latest funky dancefloor obsessions, using an arrangement derived from Archie Bell and the Drells' earlier 1968 hit "Tighten Up"), still selling records nearly four years after "Twine Time" had established him and his younger brothers. Alvin Cash kept hustling his dance moves, landed small roles in a few '70s "blaxploitation" films and recorded an adjusted-for-disco "Ali Shuffle" in 1976.