Boomers Twisted the Night Away

In the summer of 1960, a dance craze swept across the country as Chubby Checker sang The Twist on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The song and the dance went on to become synonymous with early boomer music and dance, and embedded itself so firmly into the popular culture of the day that parents would dance the Twist right alongside their teenage children.

Yet the story of how the song and dance came to the attention of American boomer teenagers is filled with twists itself. Most historians agree a twist-like dance originated in Africa at least a hundred years earlier, and lyrics in black songs of the 1800s make mention of that. The modern-day Twist came about when the R&B band, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, popularized the song and dance on their road tours in 1958-59. Members of the group recall that Ballard collaborated with the Midnighters’ guitarist, Cal Green, on the tune in 1955, after the group observed the twisting dance moves of some teens at one of their shows. Ballard always claimed he was the sole writer. The band recorded The Twist as a B-side to the single, Teardrops on Your Letter, in November of 1958. The single was released the following year by King Records.

When Dick Clark heard about teenagers embracing a new dance, he attended a Ballard show and thought the song had hit potential, and therefore could be a prime choice for his TV show. However, Hank Ballard had a reputation for singing risque lyrics and was deemed too unwholesome for Clark’s viewing audience. Clark recommended that Cameo Parkway records — a company co-owned by his wife — get a young singer named Ernest Evans to record the song, which Clark would then feature on American Bandstand.

Cameo Parkway struck a deal with King Records for the rights to record the song, and hired Evans as the frontman on the recording of The Twist in June of 1959. Clark’s wife suggested Evans change his nondescript name to something more memorable. When Evans said his friends had called him “Chubby,” she offered “Chubby Checker” as a name inspired by Fats Domino’s moniker. Checker’s cover was released in the summer of 1960 on the Cameo label. Members of the Midnighters later recalled that Checker had copied Ballard’s vocal note for note, to the point that some thought that while listening to Checker’s version they were hearing Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Checker had appropriated the dance moves, too.

Once he sang the song on American Bandstand, the record and the dance spread like wildfire across the country. It was the first dance where couples danced apart from each other and was simple enough for people of any age to execute. Basically, the dance’s moves were described as that of the back-and-forth of a washing machine agitator, snuffing out a cigarette under one’s shoe or using a towel to dry one’s back. Rock ‘n roll detractors, including PTA boards, ministers and police officials, were still very vocal over what they perceived as “devil music,” and condemned the Twist as the work of Satan. Despite the protestation, the record’s popularity eclipsed the Hank Ballard & the Midnighters’ version and hit number one on the charts. It marked the first major wave of acceptance of rock ‘n roll by adults. In fact, it so caught on with the adult crowd that Arthur Murray offered Twist lessons in his nationwide dance studios.

In 1961, Checker followed up his hit with Let’s Twist Again. Record companies were all scrambling to get onboard the Twist craze. Over the next two years Danny & the Juniors (Twistin’ U.S.A.), Bill Haley & the Comets (Twist and Bikini Twist), Bo Diddley (Bo Diddley’s A Twister, an album that contained several Twist songs), Sam Cooke (Twistin’ the Night Away), Isley Brothers (Twist and Shout, later covered by The Beatles) and a host of others had Twist-inspired records. Celebrities were soon pictured dancing the Twist, especially at New York’s Peppermint Lounge. The club’s band, Joey Dee & the Starlighters, recorded and released their contribution to the genre — Peppermint Twist — in 1962. When Hollywood created a series of beach movies in the early ’60s, the Twist’s minimal movement was the perfect choice to include in the films since the teen stars would be dancing on sand. Chubby Checker appeared in some of the films himself. Checker’s 1960 hit was re-released in 1962 and became the only rock record in history to reach number one twice.

By 1963, the craze had waned. Some say that teens had their enthusiasm drained when faced with parents and even grandparents doing the Twist. Chubby Checker and many others used the success of the Twist to try to create the next big dance craze. Checker brought out the Pony, the Hucklebuck and the Fly. The Twist had inspired the Pony, Mashed Potato, the Swim, the Monkey, the Jerk, the Hully Gully, the Shake, the Bugaloo and more. At last. boomers had their own dances to go along with their own music.

Mister Boomer remembers seeing Chubby Checker on American Bandstand and hearing the plethora of Twist songs that followed on the radio. He also recalls that the Twist was quickly incorporated into the repertoire of dance bands at weddings his family attended. It became a way for people of three generations to be on the dance floor at the same time.

Personally, Mister B never thought much of the song or the dance. Of the genre, he preferred Peppermint Twist and The Beatles’ Twist and Shout. He knew nothing of Hank Ballard or many of the other recording artists who originated many of the songs he encountered in his boomer youth. As an adult, he sought out many of these recordings and often preferred the originals to the covers.

Though Hank Ballard claimed never to hold any animosity toward Checker, he got some measure of satisfaction when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. The Midnighters were inducted separately in 2012. Checker has yet to be inducted.

What was your first experience with the Twist, boomers?