By the time I write my next column, the long national nightmare that this election cycle has been will be over, hopefully. Throughout history people have reacted to difficult times in a variety of ways. Music, for example, has often been used as a tonic for adversity, and from music springs dance, the very act of losing yourself in the moment.
The ’60s, a troubled decade if there ever was one, featured a number of notable dance crazes. Without a doubt the first, and biggest of all of these was the Twist. What began in dance clubs in Tampa, Florida, swept the nation, and the world. Hank Ballard saw those teenagers dancing, and he wrote a song about it. It was just a B-side to a 1960 Hank Ballard and the Midnighters record that featured “Teardrops on Your Letter” on the A-side. The record did pretty well, reaching #28 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Dick Clark entered the picture at about that time. The American Bandstand host earned his fame by sniffing out the latest trends in music. Clark heard about the kids doing the Twist. He thought Ballard’s B-side, if recorded by a more wholesome artist, could be big. Clark recommended to local Philadelphia label Cameo Parkway that they give Chubby Checker a shot at it.
He was born Ernest Evans in Spring Gulley, South Carolina. When he was a child his family moved to Philadelphia, where the husky boy got the nickname “Chubby.” He worked at a variety of jobs, and sang in church. He also practiced street corner harmony with his group, The Quantrells. He was a talented impersonator who could mimic the sound of the music stars of the era, including Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino. Eventually, local music business execs took an interest.
In 1959 Checker signed with Cameo Parkway. Clark’s wife was the one who gave him his new last name in an obvious nod to the New Orleans superstar. Checker’s first two singles for the label were “The Class” and “Dancing Dinosaur.” They did a little bit of business, but certainly didn’t set the charts on fire. It was then that Clark suggested “The Twist.”
Checker’s somewhat sanitized version of Ballard’s song wasted no time in heading to the top of the charts in fall of 1960. “The Twist” stayed on the charts for several months before falling off. Then, incredibly, in 1961 it began to rise up the charts again. By the time the second chart run was over in 1962, “The Twist” had become the first, and to date only, 45 single to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in two different years. By 1965 “The Twist” had sold 15 million copies.
In between the two chart runs, Checker took another dance song, “The Hucklebuck,” to #14. And another, “Pony Time” became his second #1. And if the Twist needed any more validation, it came when “Let’s Twist Again” reached #8 in 1961. The song was written by Kal Mann and Dave Appell, and the record won a Grammy for Best Rock and Roll Recording.
Then “The Fly” went to #7, and a duet with Dee Dee Sharp called “Slow Twisting’” made it all the way to #3. Checker’s last Top Ten hit came with “Limbo Rock” in 1962, but he was far from done. His success was helped in no small part by numerous appearances on American Bandstand.
As if the records weren’t enough, Checker appeared in two Twist films, “Twist Around the Clock” (1961), and “Don’t Knock the Twist” (1962). He continued racking up Top 40 hits all the way up until 1966, a total of 32 in all. The Twist inspired dance crazes like the Jerk, the Mashed Potato, the Monkey, and the Funky Chicken. But by 1966 interest in dance crazes began to fade as there nation turned its ears to other interests.
Checker tried to stay in the spotlight, dabbling with folk music for awhile, and then became a popular nightclub act. In the ’70s he was a regular part of oldies shows, and had a little bit of success as a disco artist, with minor hits like “Running,” and “Harder Than Diamonds.” He was part of another Top 40 hit in 1988 when he appeared on the Fat Boys cover of “The Twist,” and he topped the dance chart in 2008 with “Knock Down the Walls.”
Years later, Checker regretted the massive success of “The Twist.”
“In a way, ‘The Twist’ really ruined my life. I was on my way to becoming a big nightclub performer, and ‘The Twist’ just wiped it out. It got so out of proportion. No one ever believes I have talent.”