February 2008

Do you remember when things were really humming?

Chubby Checker changed the way we dance!

What you see here is an marriage between the vast yet vastly undocumented content of youtube with the back story that makes it all that much more interesting. You'll need more than an hour to play your way through this (with speakers cranked) so do it at home, not at work, you slackers. Preparing this was so much fun, I might have to quit one of my three jobs just to develop it further, on a new web site. - UE

Disclaimer: some of the info on this page is was accumulated on Wikipedia, other info from various album jackets, other web sites and deep craters of personal gray matter. If anything is historically inaccurate, or is rooted in speculation, sorry Beavis, this ain't the Brittanica!

Link: if you're in Tucson and have ever considered taking dance lessons (the touching kind!), check out the Fred Astaire Studio on Sabino Canyon Road. A great crew, a good time, and introductory lessons are cheap! Tell Darion that The Unknown Editor sent you!

Dancing before 1959

Back in the days when R&B was giving birth to rock and roll, the popular dances were Swing, Jitterbug, Lindy Hop and Foxtrot. What do these dances all have in common? You have to hold hands! When most people consider dancing today, there's usually not even any touching... so what happened to change that? Hank Ballard, Dick Clark and Chubby Checker are the guilty parties, but the biggest influence of all was Chubby Checker.

Before we get around to backing up this point, did you ever wonder how they transferred a hot piece of wax to a master record back in the day? Check out this groovy video from 1937 featuring Duke Ellington. Thanks to Kerry for pointing it out!

Hot wax!

Now let's move into the forties... if you view any video of kids dancing in this era you'll understand part of the reason why the population was more fit than kids of today. Check out this scene from the movie Hellzapoppin, made in 1941. Not only does each couple hold hands, this is full-contact sport. The girls' outfits make for a balance of athletics and, er, culture. Nice!


In 1955 the Turbans gave us all dancing instructions, starting with hold her tight... Here's Turban Trivia: this is the first recorded song to contain the phrase "doo-wop"!

When You Dance

Here are the Del Vikings on the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1950s. No dancing instructions are involved in the video, but Jitterbug Mary is a Rock and Roll song, and as the lyrics suggest, the dance it's meant for is the Jitterbug. David Lerchey is the white dude (and baritone) in the group, he joined in 1956, nine years after Jackie Robinson moved into white baseball. Certainly white and black popular musicians had been playing together many years before, music probably played a much bigger part in integrating society than baseball.

Jitterbug Mary

When Bill Haley released Rock Around the Clock in 1954, Decca labeled it as a fox trot. The Fox Trot had been around since 1914!

Sorry, this is just a picture! Click here to see Bill Haley in action in 1956!

Hank Ballard

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters (born John Henry Kendricks in Alabama, 1936) was a staple on black radio stations in the 1950s. For every black kid (or adult) listening there was at least one white kid listening, with their parents yelling 'turn off those "pernicious African wailings"' or some paraphrase of this message that we need not repeat here. The primary message that is included on the Midnighter's works quite often has to do with "doing it", which is, when you think about it, what all teenage kids want to hear in a song.

The Midnighter's hits Work with me Annie, Annie had a Baby, and Sexy Ways, are all songs about "doing it" that seem quite tame today, but these songs had made them into the Two Live Crew of that generation and banned them from many white radio play lists. Maybe they should have labeled the album 'Caution, contains lyrics such as "do it baby"'! Work with Me Annie starts with a tasty guitar riff, and contains a guitar solo, amazing for a song that predates Chuck Berry's first hit, Maybelline.

Midnighters' Sexy Ways

From Work with me Annie...

Annie please don't cheat, give me all of my meat...


Of course, every word had two meanings in 1950s songs, care to guess what "work" stood for? The follow-up song Annie had a Baby contained lyrics could be used in health class today to warn of the consequences of unprotected sex:

Annie had a baby, can't work no more,
No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
Annie had a baby, can't work no more,
Every time she start to working
She has to stop to walk the baby 'cross the floor
Now I know, I know Annie understood,

That's what happens when the game gets good."

Amen, Brother Henry! Beyond the risqué lyrics, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters had an awesome sound which was undeniably influential for the decades to come. If you're not a fan of Hank Ballard, you either aren't familiar with his work, or you simply have no taste. Hank found his thrill up on the hill in 2003, at the age of 66. Sniff.


Thrill Up on the Hill

Chubby Checker

Ernest Evans, born in 1941, was working in a butcher shop in Philadelphia in the late 1950's, entertaining customers with an uncanny knack for impersonating famous singers. Signed onto local record label Cameo Parkway, his 1959 debut The Class featured Evans imitating Fats Domino, Elvis, and even the Chipmunks (Ricky, Frankie and Fabian in this case). Sergeant Presley wasn't discharged until March 1960, but the song notes that "Elvis, you're still the king". Here's ersatz Elvis' lines:

You ain't nothing but a little lamb, a little lamb
so Mary ditch that square
cause when I get back I'm gonna be, your teddy bear!

Dick Clark (born 1929) served as pop culture's kingmaker dating back to the 1950s, hosting American Bandstand, nationally broadcast by ABC but filmed in Philadelphia. Clark had met Evans through a mutual friend and had commissioned him to sing a private recording that Clark used for an audio Christmas card, featuring Evans' singing impressions.

In 1959, Hank Ballard wrote and recorded a song called The Twist. It only made the B-side of a record called Teardrops on your Letter, which was written by the vice president of the record label, Henry Glover at King. The original release of The Twist was overshadowed by Hank Ballard's awesome Finger Poppin Time, which was presented on Dick Clark's American Bandstand in 1960.

Dick Clark had his own designs on The Twist, and convinced his friend Bernie Lowe at Cameo Parkway to record a cover version, sung by 18 year old Evans. Studio musicians and local doo-wop group The Dreamlovers round out the crew. Shortly after recording, Evans presented the song (and dance!) on Bandstand (and again and again at countless appearances), and The Twist slowly but surely climbed up to number 1 on the pop charts. Clark's wife Barbara conceived of the stage name "Checker" for Evans (who had been called "Chubby" for most of his life), a play on popular singer Fats Domino (who had taken his name from Fats Waller back in the forties...) But "chubby" is all relative. If 18 year-old Checker appeared on American Idol in 2008, he might go by the name "Slim C", and he could easily pose as one of the "after models" for Slimfast!

There's no doubt that Dick Clark figured that The Twist would be a tremendous hit with his white audience, by why did he go to the trouble of re-recording it and using an unknown like Chubby Checker to present it on Bandstand? Is there a dark side of this little musical episode? Or was it only because Henry had Flat Feet? (Flat Feet was the fourth installment of the Annie series of Midnighters songs, written to ridicule Hank Ballard's lack of smooth moves). Or had he previously felt some heat for putting Ballard on Bandstand with Finger Poppin Time, due to his Sexy Ways reputation? In contrast, Checker was just a kid and had none of the baggage that the 33 year-old R&B master would bring. Decide for yourself what Clark's motives might have been!

If you listen to Checker's recording of The Twist, it is downright frightening how close Cameo Parkway covered Ballard's original version, right down to the "eee-aws". The same musical key, the same sax solo, and the two recordings are the same length within one second. Nine out of ten people probably can't distinguish the subtle differences (but after a few plays you'll understand that Ballard's voice has qualities that even Checker couldn't master). Even Hank Ballard himself was fooled when he heard the song on the radio. As you'll hear in this video, he thought he made the big time at last, hearing his song on "white radio", only to realize later that he was listening to Chubby Checker! In any case, The Twist made them both rich men.

Hank Ballard, The Twist

How did a re-recording of a B-side song become a number one hit, 14 months after Checker recorded it? Primarily through Checker's engaging personality and smooth as silk dance moves, captured on countless lip-synching TV appearances. Be proud, fellow RFers, without coast to coast radio frequency transmission of sound and images, none of this would have happened. (Yes, there had to be a connection to Microwave engineering here somewhere, remember which web site you're viewing...) And television allowed Checker to do what he does best, to show you how to do the dance! In his own words, Checker breaks it all down for you:

"It's like putting out a cigarette with both feet, and wiping your bottom with a towel, to the beat of the music."

You're gonna thank us for posting this description next time you're at a wedding and the DJ plays Twist Again in a lame attempt to get Grandpa out on the dance floor. The secret of good twisting is one foot is in front of the other, it doesn't work if your feet are side by side! And it sure as hell doesn't work if you are wearing rubber-soled shoes!

Chubby Checker, The Twist

When comparing Checker to Ballard, you need to consider that Checker is performer, but Ballard is a singer/songwriter with a band, a true artist. Checker gets credit for popularizing The Twist and many other dances, but Cameo Parkway's owner Bernie Lowe, writers such as Dave Appell, Kal Mann and a whole mess of studio musicians produced these monster hits. Consider the Cameo Parkway story. You will lose count at 100 when you tally up all of the dance songs they produced. Cameo Parkway at its heyday was one of the largest indy labels in America, selling many, many millions of records. Checker sold a quarter of a billion records in 4.5 years. White Christmas sung by Bing Crosby and The Twist sung by Checker remain the only two songs in to ever hit Number 1 twice with a gap of one year or more in between (Twist was #1 in 1960 and 1961).


Checker's popularity soared with The Twist and his dance hit marked the beginning of the Dance Craze years, which roughly lasted from 1960 to 1963; much of popular culture starts and stops with the Beatles and this phenomenon was no exception. Checker and Cameo Parkway cashed in with album after album and merchandise deals as well. Checker appeared on shoes, lunchboxes, dolls and more, he was as recognizable worldwide as Colonel Sanders. Checker's TV appearances left behind a treasure trove of video, now starting to appear on Youtube, and life is good. We'll show you some here!

Pony Time was a great Checker cut (and hit Number 1 in 1961). Here's a great youtube video of him explaining it. Note that here that songwriter Dave Appell managed to squeeze in the lyrics "do it baby", which might have kept this off white radio a few years earlier. Watch Checker smirk when he mouths these racy lyrics!

It's Pony Time!

If we were to develop a figure of Merit for dance songs, Pony Time would probably win. Here's why:

  1. It's sung by Chubby Checker
  2. It starts out in the imperative case: "It's Pony time, get up!"
  3. It contains instructions
  4. It contains the expressions "eee-aw" and "do it baby" - both are in tribute to Hank Ballard
  5. It has a great sax solo (dance songs don't have guitar solos, dig?)

Let's Twist Again might also be considered Checker at his finest, it hit Number 8 in 1961.

Let's Twist Again

The fly:

The Fly

Do the Freddie:

The Freddie

Slow Twisting with Deedee Sharp. By now, the R&B message of doing it has unmistakably been put back. When Dee Dee talks "let's twist all night" she likely isn't talking about dancing.

Aw, come on, come on and squeeze me, baby
Come on and tease me, baby
Come on and drive me crazy
Ow, Twist it, take it easy, baby


Slow Twisting

For more evidence of R&B's return to its roots, check out Checker's "Dance the Mess Around" (1961):

You can Pony with Tony
Twist with Mr. Lee
But if you're gonna Mess Around
Mess Around with me

Checker's gift for imitation allowed him to sing verses of The Twist in a dozen languages (or approximations of languages, like Spanglish), and by 1964 we were truly Twisting Around The World: Here's the lyrics to Der Twist Beginnt, auf Deutschglish!

Come on der Twist beginnt, der macht uns ganz crazy
Yeah! Der Twist beginnt, endlich ist er jetzt hier.

Come on der Twist beginnt komm', sei nicht so lazy
Yeah! Der Twist beginnt, tanz' den Twist mit mir.

Ja, diesen Twist wird jeder gleich verstehen
denn nie mehr wird er aus den Beinen gehen.

Der Twist beginnt, der macht uns ganz crazy
Yeah! Der Twist beginnt, tanz' den Twist mit mir.

Come on der Twist beginnt, der macht uns ganz crazy
Yeah! Der Twist beginnt, endlich ist er jetzt hier.

Come on der Twist beginnt, komm' sei nicht so lazy
Yeah! Der Twist beginnt, tanz' den Twist mit mir.

Yeah! Der Twist beginnt, tanz' den Twist mit mir.

After the Dance Craze faded, Checker morphed into a folk singer of sorts (he could afford to do whatever he wanted!), but was always game for reprising The Twist. Checker and the Fat Boyz charted a new version in 1988, and Chubby's the lightest singer in this video.

Checker and the Fat Boyz

Other artists join the Dance Craze

The Dance Craze was full on from 1960 to 1963. The Twist begat songs like Twist and Shout" by the Isley Brothers which was covered by the Beatles and Twistin' the Night Away by Sam Cooke and Dear Lady Twist by Gary U.S. Bonds. Even Elvis couldn't afford to skip this dance! Uncountable other "new" dances sprang up, the Jerk, the Hully Gully, the Boogaloo, the Shake, the Frug, the Swim and the Madison.

Baby Work Out is a Dance Craze example by Jackie Wilson. Wilson was an ex-boxer, you'll see some boxing moves in this cool video! Not something you see every day, great singer who could literally kick ass.

Baby Work Out

The Orlons cut Wah Wahtusi in 1962. This group was also part of Cameo Parkway.

Wah Watusi

Dee Dee Sharp who sang the Slow Twisting duet with Checker scored a major dance hit by herself with Mashed Potato Time (for Cameo Parker, of course!) When you watch this video, it seems that the Mashed Potato can't be as easy as advertised, because Dee Dee doesn't actually dance it herself!

Mashed Potato

Monster Mash, Bobby 'Boris' Pickett & the Cryptkickers 1962:

Monster Mash

Little Eva was a housekeeper. Her recording of The Locomotion in 1963" is true Cinderella story (which we'll add later...)

The Locomotion

Ballard tried hard to cash in on the dance craze he arguably started, his dance songs included The Coffee Grind, The Hoochi Coo, The Continental Walk, The Float, The Switcharoo, and a handful of additional Twist songs, with just four hits on the top 100 but none above 23.

The end of the Dance Craze

How do you wreck an iconic part of teen pop culture? You make it squaresville, man! Joey Dee and the Starlighter's took a perfectly good gay bar and made it a "happening" with the song Peppermint Twist. Pretty soon "old people" like Andy Warhol are doing the twist, ruining it for the kids, who soon moved on and didn't want their dances to have names anymore.

Peppermint Twist


The Peppermint Lounge

What's going on, our parents are dancing the Twist?

Sorry, Andy, Squaresville is in the eye of the beholder!


Chubby Checker and the Dance Craze lasted just a few years but the change to no-touch dancing lasts to this day. Even the brief Disco Dance Days of the 1970s, the vast majority of people didn't want to spend the effort to learn complex dance moves like John Travolta. Check out this video of Disco Inferno by the Trammps, arguably the best disco sound of all time. The dancing is 100% Chubby Checker, 0% Travolta. Thanks to Javi for identifying the boat as the Staten Island Ferry!

Disco Inferno

Irony of The Twist

The irony of Ballard's The Twist comes in the third line:

Come, on baby, let's do the Twist,
Come, on baby, let's do the Twist,

Take me by the little hand, and go like this!
Hey, this was a supposed to be a no touch dance! But when he wrote the lyrics, the dance the Checker made famous didn't exist, so how could he know?


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