Chubby Checker’s signature hit promoted the no touch dance for entirely different reasons six decades ago
“Come on, baby, let’s do The Twist.”
It was the summer of 1960. JFK was clinching the Democratic nomination for President, the first squad of Apollo astronauts was preparing to take the U.S.A. into space, and in May, the FDA had approved the distribution of the birth control pill.
Get ready for the New Frontier. Let’s do the Twist! Chubby Checker’s single on the Philadelphia-based Parkway label didn’t happen spontaneously; it was more or less commissioned by Dick Clark, the host of American Bandstand, who noted that the kids were doing the dance to the original version by Hank Ballard and the Midniters (a B-side of their 1959 45 “Teardrops on Your Letter”), and suggested to his pals over at Cameo-Parkway that a slightly more teen-friendly cover of the tune might find an enthusiastic reception on his television show. Enter Mr. Checker.
Checker (born Ernest Evans) had, as it happened, a flair for mimicry: his first single for Parkway, “The Class,” was a novelty record where he imitated some then-popular rock’n’rollers. The follow-ups—“Samson and Delilah,” “Dancing Dinosaur”—flopped, but then the likeable, cherubic teenager was given the assignment to pretty much replicate Hank Ballard’s vocal, and he did, every “eee-yah!” punctuation intact.
With the helpful push of Dick Clark, “The Twist” took off. By August, it was the #1 single in America. Checker cheerfully showed up on various TV shows and at DJ-hosted sock hops from coast to coast to “demonstrate” the Twist. It really wasn’t that complicated: just pretend you’re stamping out a cigarette butt with your feet, Checker advised, while drying yourself with a bath towel. If that sounded too difficult, you could stand in place, a couple of feet away from your partner, and just flap your arms from side to side to the beat.
Harmless fun, right? Those wacky teenagers with their silly dances. Who could possibly be offended? Let’s back up a little: Ballard’s song, as some people have pointed out, bears some resemblance to the Drifters’ (with lead singer Clyde McPhatter) “Whatcha Gonna Do,” and structurally that’s true. But there’s also a clue in the group’s “Let the Boogie Woogie Roll” (also with McPhatter out front): “When she did the twist, it rocked me to my soul.” (Note: the song is credited to Atlantic Records execs Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler.) This is not a dance, not yet (mid-’50s). This is sex. The terminology went back decades. In 1931, there was a record called “Twist It, Baby” by blues musician Bo Carter. In many Twist records that came after Checker’s hit, there was a subtext, and by the time of “Slow Twistin’” (1962, by Checker and Dee Dee Sharp), the game was up. “Baby, take it easy, don’t you know we got all night,” “Come on and tease me baby, come on and drive me crazy,” “You’re gonna last longer, just take your time.” “Slow Twistin’” is totally about screwing.
VIDEO: Chubby Checker and Dee Dee Sharp “Slow Twistin'”
But that was later, by which point the Twist was a national craze, traveling from the Peppermint Lounge to the White House, where it was rumored that the First Lady had Twisted at a party. This was considered news. (There was even a record, “Do The President Twist” by Lulu Reed and Freddy King, and thank goodness Nixon hadn’t won the ’60 election.) It was so odd, this resurgence: Parkway and Checker had moved on after “The Twist,” and they saw no necessity for an immediate Twist cash-in record. Checker recorded “Pony Time, “Dance the Mess Around,” and “The Hucklebuck.” There were so many dances out there. In mid-’61, though, Parkway had a brilliant idea: “Let’s Twist Again” was a Pop Song Sequel: “Let’s Twist again, like we did last summer,” Checker advised. “Do you remember when things were really hummin’?,” as though the events of a mere twelve months ago were already in the deep past and it was time to resurrect them. Things went really fast. Like “The Twist,” “Let’s Twist Again” was a summer hit. And the dam broke: “The Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starliters (the house band at the Peppermint Lounge), “Twistin’ the Night Away” by Sam Cooke, “Dear Lady Twist” by Gary U.S. Bonds, “Twistin’ Postman” by the Marvelettes, “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers. “The Twist” itself went back to #1, the only non-Christmas song to do so. There was a flood of Twist albums, some new (the Ventures, The Shirelles and King Curtis, Duane Eddy), some just repackaged oldies with “Twist” slapped on the cover (Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry).
AUDIO: Duane Eddy Twistin’ ‘N’ Twangin’
The problem was–and this is why there was a need for a movie called Don’t Knock the Twist (okay, “need” might be stretching it)–the obligatory backlash. The usual outrage machine was flipped on. This was scandalous, all this gyrating, the pure exhibitionism. With the dance “partners” disconnected, boys and (especially) girls were free to improvise, unencumbered by formal dance steps (this wasn’t as new a thing as Checker would have you believe: there wasn’t a lot of boy-girl contact in the Stroll or the Madison). “Watch me now!,” the Contours sang on “Do You Love Me”—“I can do the Twist!” “Watch me now!” was key. Check out the quickie (shot in November 1961, released in December) black-and-white twistploitation movie Hey, Let’s Twist! starring Joey Dee and Teddy Randazzo as brothers in a fable about how their family’s Italian restaurant became the Peppermint Lounge. The whole thing is routine and terribly acted, but the musical sequences have a quick-cutting documentary feel, and there are a lot of shots of female backsides in frenetic motion.
“Let Me Do My Twist,” plucky Jo Ann Campbell sang in Hey, Let’s Twist! The Ronettes twisted in tight fringed dresses at the Peppermint Lounge (they recorded their own version of “The Twist,” but Phil Spector decided to put it on a Crystals album). On “Party Lights,” Claudine Clark looked outside her window and begged her mama to liberate her to join her friends and do the Twist (and the Watusi and the Mashed Potatoes). Most of the Twist hits were by guys, but the girls heard and saw something else, the ability to break free. “I wanna go!!,” Claudine Clark cries as her song fades out. She knows where the action is, where there’s Twistin’ going on.
VIDEO: Dance scene from Mad Men “The Hobo Code”
There’s scene in Season 1, Episode 8 of Mad Men, “The Hobo Code,” where the gang from Sterling Cooper is hanging out after work at P.J. Clarke’s to celebrate Peggy’s promotion. A woman drops a coin in the jukebox, and on comes the sound of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” All the girls squeal and light up, Joan sways in a red dress, and no one is more delighted than Peggy. She just radiates joy. She goes over to a sulking Pete Campbell and says, “Dance with me,” and he says, “I don’t like to see you like this.” Too bad, Pete. Girls wanna have fun.
Maybe that’s what got a lot of old white men in a snit about The Twist. If women can dance like that, who knows what could happen? And don’t get them started on The Pill.
VIDEO: Chubby Checker performs “The Twist” on American Bandstand 1960