Tales from the Atomic Age

The Twist:

Ballard's Brainchild,
Checker's Change of Fortune

Given the track record of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, it's understandable if the original version of "The Twist" wasn't immediately thought of as a dance record when it came out in the spring of 1959. After all, this was the group that had given us the suggestive, if not somewhat explicit, hits "Work With Me Annie," "Sexy Ways" and "Annie Had a Baby" ('can't work no more!') five years earlier. It's been said that Ballard came up with the dance after seeing the twisting motion made by someone stamping out a cigarette butt, but he could just as easily have been talking about a horizontal movement under the sheets. This scandalous concept evolved into the biggest dance craze of all time...no touching allowed! Any initial "dirty" interpretation would soon be superseded by an unprecedented series of releases suitable for all ages. And before long, everyone from one to 101 would be twistin'!

America's hula hoop obession of 1958 deserves an honorable mention. There's no indication Hank Ballard was paying attention to the tens of millions of late-'50s hoopers, but considering a twisting move was required to twirl the popular toy around one's body, it's suspiciously likely that the image subliminally found its way inside Hank's head. "The Twist" wasn't even intended as an A-side, so no big deal, right? "Teardrops on Your Letter" was a top ten R&B hit, and the "Twist" on the flip caught on well enough to get into the R&B top 20 separately, but that's as far as any twist-trend went in 1959.

Enter Ernest Evans. Young Ernie had been hanging around the offices of Philadelphia's Cameo-Parkway Records in the hopes of becoming a singing star. He was pretty good at doing imitations of current artists, so they gave him a chance with "The Class," where he played all the parts: the music teacher and his students Fats Domino, The Coasters, Elvis Presley, The Chipmunks and drummer Cozy Cole, all taking turns on "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Legend has it that Dick Clark's wife Barbara gave Ernie his famous stage name, Chubby Checker (her first impression of the 17-year-old was that he was like a "Little Fats Domino"). The novelty record was a top 40 hit and things could have easily ended right there for the impressionist/singer. But Clark, who'd seen first-hand the effects of Ballard's "Twist" on local teens, had an idea, one that would change Ernie's life and brand him permanently with the new name.

Parkway Records executives agreed there was potential in "The Twist" if it was marketed properly. In June 1960 Chubby recorded the song and he began appearing on dance shows (including Clark's Philly-based American Bandstand) demonstrating how the dance was done: simply make a movement like you're putting out a cigarette with your feet while drying your rear end with a towel after taking a shower. Hmmm...that puts a suggestive image in your mind, doesn't it? Hard to get away from Ballard's longstanding reputation for shenanigans! Actually the Midnighters' label, King Records, caught on to what those Philly boys were up to and rereleased the original, which returned to the charts a week before Checker's cover version first appeared. At any rate, once the kids of America saw this fresh-faced, not-so-chubby guy giving instructions on how it was done, they were all doing the dance called the Twist! By September, Hank's 45 made a respectable showing in the top 30, while Checker enjoyed his first number one hit on the charts. Later it would turn into something much more than "just" a number one record.

The popularity of the song, and the dance, was widespread in the latter half of 1960, but it was not yet what you would call a phenomenon. Early practitioners included Danny and the Juniors (their "Twistin' U.S.A." hit the top 40 in October) and Fabian (who found out he couldn't mix "Kissin' and Twistin'"). Santo and Johnny had the first Christmas Twist hit, "Twistin' Bells," during the '60 holiday season, also the first of many "Twist"-related instrumentals. In the early months of 1961, the whole thing seemed to have played itself out; Checker, on a path to becoming the dance record king, had already moved on to "The Hucklebuck" (which dates to the late 1940s) and his second number one hit, "Pony Time," another hotsteppin' song lifted from an R&B act, The Goodtimers. Other dances in his near future included "The Fly" and the super-hot "Limbo Rock."

But Checker couldn't leave "The Twist" behind so easily (nor would Ballard want to interrupt the steady stream of royalty checks that were coming his way for writing the song). Chubby revisited the dance with "Let's Twist Again," a top ten hit in summer '61. The young crowd had embraced the fad in 1960 while their parents typically observed the goings-on with disgust. But when Joey Dee and the Starliters started in with what they called the "Peppermint Twist" at New York's Peppermint Lounge nightclub, the message spread, and before long adults were giving in to the infectious urge to twist their bodies side-to-side. Dee's record (a two-part workout) built up steam toward the end of the year, prompting Parkway to promote Chubby's single to radio stations all over again. They had no difficulty in doing so; listener demand indicated that the domination of "The Twist" was just beginning.

It was a race to the top of the charts, a competition between the straight-twistin' and "peppermint" versions (the dance was the same; only the names were changed to protect the not-so-innocent). Chubby's record returned to number one the second week of January 1962, more than 15 months after he'd first hit the top, one of the rarest of music industry magic tricks. Joey Dee was not only competing with this particular smash, but a completely different "Peppermint Twist" song by Danny Peppermint and the Jumping Jacks. Dee made it two chart-topping "Twist" hits in a row, knocking the Checker single off the number one spot at the end of the month. Both acts stayed with the theme; Dee followed with "Hey, Let's Twist," while Checker gave in to his gyration diversion, releasing no less than seven "Twist" albums and hitting with seven singles celebrating the dance including "Slow Twistin'," which introduced Dee Dee Sharp, who would immediately start a new dance of her own.

Elvis even got into the act with a song that really had nothing to do with the dance craze. The picture sleeves and 45s of "Rock-A-Hula Baby" from the blockbuster movie Blue Hawaii labeled it as a "'Twist' Special." Other record companies used similar gimmicks to promote non-Twist records. 1962 was the peak year for the dance, with more than two dozen "Twist" hits making the national charts. Ernie Freeman contributed the inevitable instrumental version of the original song, while other instrumental acts simply tacked the word onto the end of a title to increase their chances of getting airplay. "Percolator (Twist)" by Billy Joe and the Checkmates and "Soul Twist" by King Curtis had the most success with this ploy. Gary (U.S.) Bonds, with "Dear Lady Twist" and "Twist, Twist Señora," was the only artist besides Checker to rack up more than one top ten hit based on the dance. Sam Cooke couldn't resist the urge either, "Twistin' the Night Away" into the top ten. If there was any doubt the older crowd had joined in the fun, Frank Sinatra made an official statement on their behalf with "Ev'rybody's Twistin'," adapting a trendy new set of lyrics to Fats Waller's 1935 chart-topper "Truckin'." It was a true statement: to one degree or another, everybody really was twisting!

New dances were competing for the spotlight left and right around this time. The Hully Gully and the Watusi were hot, and then it was "Mashed Potato Time" in the spring of '62, a smash for Checker's slow-twist partner Dee Dee Sharp, who replaced the cigarette stamping with an imaginary mess of gooey potatoes on the dance floor. The Twist continued to stave off all comers; The Isley Brothers had a lot to do with keeping it alive. "Twist and Shout" had unsuccessfully entered the race in the fall of 1961 as a Phil Spector-produced record by The Top Notes. Its writers, Phil Medley and Bert Russell, hadn't liked Spector's interpretation of the song and later saw their vision realized with the superior Isley version, a top 20 hit the following summer. In early 1963, The Beatles put their own spin on the tune, releasing it as a track on their first album, Please Please Me. Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, likely unaware of the Isley Brothers hit, promptly put out a note-for-note copy of the Beatle take and took it to the U.K. top ten in July. "Twist and Shout" later became part of the Fab Four's barrage of hits in the U.S., sitting at number two the entire month of April 1964, the last "Twist" top ten.

Two people rise to the top of the "Twist" phenomenon: Hank Ballard gained respect for writing the song, but only after years of being overlooked. Chubby Checker might have ended up a one-trick novelty act, but thanks to "The Twist," he's a household name. He even got the last laugh, supplying vocals for The Fat Boys' 1988 novelty rap remake titled "The Twist (Yo, Twist!)," giving new life to the song, and the dance, nearly three decades later.

- Michael Jack Kirby



The Twist The Twist Twistin' Bells Let's Twist Again Peppermint Twist Rock-A-Hula Baby Dear Lady Twist Twistin' Postman Soul Twist Ev'rybody's Twistin' Twist and Shout Twist and Shout