How Chubby Checker and the Twist leaped into legend

CHUCK DARROW, darrowc@phillynews.com 215-313-3134

Updated: Friday, July 9, 2010, 2:19 AM

ALBERT ELLIS was universally regarded as one of the two or three most influential psychotherapists of the 20th century. But it seems he wasn't quite as sharp when it came to pop-culture prognostication.

Checker, sporting fashion hallmarks of the decade, twists away at JFK Plaza in 1978. File photo
was a teen when his version of "The Twist" became a sensation, propelled by "American Bandstand." Chubby Checker
Music royalty (from left) Dizzy Gillespie, Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell open the Walk of Fame in 1987. File photo
Photo Gallery: How Chubby Checker and the Twist leaped into legend

In his 1995 book The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World, author Jim Dawson quotes the august shrink as opining, at the height of the dance's early-1960s popularity, "As it stands, I think it's a fad and a fleeting one. In two years, it will be forgotten."

Yeah, right.

You need only get to City Hall's Dilworth Plaza at noon today to see how badly the esteemed Dr. Ellis blew it. That's where throngs of Philadelphians are expected to help local hero Chubby Checker and the People Paper celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of his version of the song that indeed "changed the world."

"The Twist" - the hip-swiveling, pelvis-thrusting dance and the iconic song the old Parkway record label recorded with an 18-year-old former chicken plucker from South Philly - remains a pop-culture touchstone.

From weddings in the Pacific Northwest to bar mitzvahs in Miami, the Twist is a staple, along with countless other dances that, to this day, are the stylistic offspring of the mother of all rock-'n'-roll choreography.

"It was the beginning of people dancing . . . by themselves with someone else, the first time people danced apart from the beat," recalled Checker, 68, during a recent phone chat occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the July 9, 1960, release of his take on "The Twist."

That, he continued, lit the fuse on a dance explosion that still blazes. Who could disagree?

How Checker wound up covering a tune composed and recorded a year earlier by veteran R&B performer Hank Ballard and his band, the Midnighters, is shrouded in conflicting stories further muddled by the passage of time.

But this much is known: The roots of the song burrow deeply through our country's history.

Dawson begins his tale with a look at the use of the word "twist" (almost exclusively as a code for sexual intercourse) in African-American music of the early 20th century. According to his book, Ballard's direct inspiration was a song called "The Twist," whose first line was, "C'mon, baby, let's do the Twist." It was penned by Brother Joseph "Jo Jo" Wallace, who was, of all things, a member of a popular gospel group, the Sensational Nightingales.

Ballard, then recording for the King label of Cincinnati, used Wallace's work as the jumping-off point. In 1957, he co-wrote an early version of "The Twist" with guitarist Cal Green, and the following year, Ballard and the Midnighters recorded it.

In November 1958, they rerecorded a version that King issued in January 1959 as the B-side to a doo-wop ballad, "Teardrops on Your Letter."

Radio disc jockeys, far more taken by the up-tempo, somewhat risqué flip side, started playing "The Twist" across the country.

By the first half of 1960, Ballard's "The Twist" had cracked Billboard magazine's top-40 chart, reaching No. 28.

Here's where the story gets murky.

In his book, Dawson lays out a scenario in which Baltimore teens began doing a Twist-like dance to Ballard's single on "The Buddy Deane Show," a Crab City version of Dick Clark's culture-changing (and Philly-based) "American Bandstand."

According to Dawson, Deane called Clark and told him about this crazy new dance in which the kids never touched each other. But in an e-mail sent via his Los Angeles-based publicist, Clark denied that was the way it happened.

"One day during the normal airing of 'American Bandstand,' I noticed several couples doing a unique, new style of dancing," wrote Clark. "When I asked what it was called, I was told it was 'the Twist.' I then called Bernie Lowe of [Center City-based] Cameo-Parkway Records and suggested he give me a song that would fill the bill for this dance.

"Rather than create a new song, he and [musician-producer] Dave Appell re-created a version of Ballard's record. As a matter of fact, when the record was released, the original push was for the song on the other side of the record [called 'The Toot']. Needless to say, I used 'The Twist' to facilitate the kids' dancing."

Clark was already familiar with Checker. The previous Christmas, the aspiring singer had recorded an aural greeting card for the "American Bandstand" host in which he impersonated popular rock artists of the day. (During the recording sessions, Clark's then-wife, Barbara, decided the chunky teen, already nicknamed "Chubby," reminded her of a junior version of early rock titan Fats Domino, and dubbed him "Chubby Checker.")

The piece proved so engaging to Clark and the Cameo-Parkway crowd that Checker was given a non-Yuletide version for a novelty number called "The Class," in which Checker (born Ernest Evans) again mimicked top contemporary acts.

It's generally believed that Checker was given "The Twist" because Clark felt Checker's youthful, light-toned visage would be more palatable to his national audience than the 6-years-older but far-more-grizzled (and darker-skinned) Ballard.

Ballard, Dawson wrote, "was sleek and dark, with processed hair and cool, wary eyes. He was almost [25], but older than his years. Chubby Checker, on the other hand, was a big [5-foot-11], gregarious, light-skinned, expressive, working-class kid not yet out of his teens, as cuddly and telegenic as a teddy bear . . . "

Despite their differing tales of the record's origins, Dawson credits Clark for being the catalyst in the subsequent pop-culture earthquake "The Twist" triggered.

"There were the moves, which were Chubby's, not Hank's," he wrote in an e-mail. "But in the end, without Dick Clark's loudspeaker, there would have been no 'Twistmania.' "

The actual recording of "The Twist" was mostly unremarkable, noted Appell, who led the Cameo-Parkway "house" band and produced the single.

"All I did was copy [Ballard's recording]," admitted the still-spry, 88-year-old music-industry vet. "We cut [the instrumental tracks] at our little studio at Broad and Locust [streets]. It didn't take that long, a couple of days."

There was one change in the arrangement that Appell cited as a big part of the song's success.

"I had a very good friend, Ellis Tollin, who was a jazz drummer. He said, 'I don't do this s---.' So he accented the two and four beats on the sock cymbal [rather than the one and three hits Ballard's drummer used]. It really helped."

Once the backing tracks were completed, Checker joined Appell for the vocal track work (with the label's in-house backup group, the Dreamlovers) at the old Reco Art studios at 12th and Arch streets.

A few years later, sound engineer Joe Tarsia bought the complex and transformed it into Sigma Sound Studios, homecourt of "Sound of Philadelphia" icons Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

The song entered the Billboard "Hot 100" chart on Aug. 1. But it was five days later that Checker and his dance forever "changed the world." That was when he performed the song on the Saturday- night version of "American Bandstand."

Doing the moves as he sang the lyrics, Checker schooled America on the Twist, and America took that dance lesson to heart in a way it never had before.

The Twist caught on so intensely because the moves were so uncomplicated, reasoned legendary Philly disc jockey Jerry Blavat, coincidentally marking his 50th year on the local airwaves in 2010.

"The Twist is the easiest dance in the world to do," said Blavat. "You don't have to be a great dancer. You didn't have to come up with certain movements to define the dance. There are no steps."

Checker, however, offered another reason for his song's resonance.

"It is so close to actual [sex]," he said. "You're watching a woman, fully dressed, exploit her sexuality right in your face. How can a human being not be attracted to that?"

Soon enough, "The Twist" was the nation's top-selling single. But even in-your-face sexuality couldn't keep the public's attention for long, as record-buyers resumed their search for the next big thing and "The Twist" faded into history. However, Twist-inspired songs, including Checker's "Pony Time," "The Fly" and his 1961 "Twist" sequel, "Let's Twist Again," kept American youngsters dancing apart.

And, in the latter part of '61, an unforeseen chain of events made "The Twist" burn even brighter than it had in 1960.

Right off New York's Times Square was a rather down-market, nondescript bar called the Peppermint Lounge. The house band, Joey Dee & the Starliters, had begun attracting a following of enthusiastic "Twisters." They, in turn, drew the always-looking-for-a-new-kick glitterati of the day.

No less a paparazzi magnet than first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, along with friends like author Truman Capote and fashion superstar Oleg Cassini, began "Twistin' the Night Away" there, and that drew the attention of New York gossip columnists.

The scribes spread the word of the in-crowd's nocturnal gyrations. That made the dance respectable to adults who had shunned it as lewd and undignified, which ignited another round of Twistmania that was exponentially larger than 1960's phenomenon.

This time, "The Twist" caught on globally - even behind the Iron Curtain, where Soviet culture police tried in vain to ban it.

And so it was that in winter 1962, Checker's version of "The Twist" became the first and only song to twice hit No. 1 on the Billboard "Hot 100" chart.

The following year brought the assassination of President Kennedy and, less than three months after that, the arrival of the Beatles, who brought with them a sea change in pop music's sound and sources.

Yet "The Twist" lives on.

As Dave Appell recently suggested, doing the Twist during festive occasions "is like [singing] 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at baseball games." There's no reason to believe our grandchildren's grandchildren won't be doing it at their life celebrations, too.

CHUCK DARROW, darrowc@phillynews.com 215-313-3134

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