For five years, Chubby Checker had the whole world dancing.
By Phill Marder
Chubby Checker belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, no question about it. Just ask him. Checker is miffed about his lack of recognition and rightfully so. Most anyone on the street can answer the question “Who is Chubby Checker?” And most anyone can do the twist, or at least knows what it is. That’s fame, Hall or not.
The writer of that mammoth hit was Hank Ballard, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame 10 years ago. I have no problem with that. Ballard had several hits and Checker’s version of “The Twist” is almost a carbon copy of Ballard’s.
“If it wasn’t for Hank Ballard, I wouldn’t be here,” Checker said in a recent interview in Keep Rockin’ magazine. “But listen, you know, people always talk about Hank Ballard…It seems like people are angry at me because I recorded ‘The Twist’.”
Ballard did cut it first, but it certainly had a less than memorable birth. If not for Checker’s high-profiled appearance blitz it’s unlikely “The Twist” would have become the most popular dance of the Rock era. Checker’s version benefited from hotter production, which helped it jump out of AM car radios in 1960, but it was Checker’s live performances that made “The Twist” the only record to hit No. 1 on two separate occasions, first in 1960 then again in 1961. Checker showed the country how to twist, appearing on “American Bandstand” and other television shows. And he sure could dance. Following his lead, the world soon was twisting and a whole era of dance crazes followed.
Joel Whitburn’s impeccable book of “Top Singles,” which documents the history of every record to reach Billboard’s Hot 100 charts, notes of “The Twist” that its melody is identical to “What’cha Gonna Do,” a 1955 R&B hit by Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters. I couldn’t remember ever hearing the Drifters’ song, but, more importantly, I had never heard of “The Twist” being a rip-off of another melody. So I turned to the man I consider the ultimate authority on early vocal groups, Marv Goldberg.
Goldberg’s marvelous website, Uncamarvy.com, is a treasure trove for information on vocal groups, and I’ve never seen anyone research his topic as Marv does. So I went to his section on the Drifters, figuring if “What’cha Gonna Do” was the same melody as “The Twist,” Goldberg would be certain to note it. I found out the Drifters did three versions of the song, the first June 29, 1953, but nowhere did Goldberg mention even a similarity to “The Twist.”
So, I wrote him an email. And, in typical Goldberg fashion, he responded promptly and most interestingly, not only with a definitive answer to the question, but with some fascinating revelations as well. Marv’s email read:
“I never heard that the melody for “The Twist” and “What’cha Gonna Do” were the same (surprisingly, they’re not). “The Twist” was originally written by two members of the Sensational Nightingales, a gospel group. Since the song was what it was, the Nightingales couldn’t possibly record it. So they started shopping it around. They approached Pookie Hudson, lead of the Spaniels, but he didn’t think the song was the right style for the Spaniels. They also approached Little Joe Cook (as in Little Joe & the Thrillers), but he also turned it down. Then they tried Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and the rest is, to coin a phrase, history. But it doesn’t stop there. This came just at the time when Hank thought that his contract with King/Federal had expired. He took the group to Vee-Jay, where the Midnighters recorded the song. It’s very different from the version you’re familiar with. Then King/Federal stepped in and proved to Vee-Jay that the Midnighters’ contract was still in effect, so the song was never released. Chastened, the group returned to King and re-recorded the tune in its familiar guise.
The song took off and became a national R&B chart hit (although the flip was bigger). I’ve seen multiple stories about why the Midnighters’ version was killed and replaced by a note-for-note copy by Chubby Checker, but I’m not ready to believe a single one of them.
The Midnighters also invented the dance that went with “The Twist” (or at least they claimed to have; the only problem is that I’ve got a video clip of the Red Caps doing it on the Ed Sullivan Show at least 5 years before that). It’s a complicated, but fun story. The only thing that I can say with dead certainty is that the melody for “The Twist” and “What’cha Gonna Do” are not at all the same. And you can quote me on that.”
Which I just did. Thanks again, Marv.
As Goldberg noted, the song first appeared in 1959 as the B-side of Ballard’s “Teardrops On Your Letter,” which, while an R&B hit, barely scraped the bottom of the Hot 100. But 16 months later, Ballard’s version of “The Twist” entered the charts for the first time at No. 87, ironically the same slot its flip side had peaked at previously. While the 45 earned a bullet with a jump to 61 the following week, its progress was slowed considerably the next week when Checker’s version made a debut at No. 49.
It was quite a start for a virtual unknown, whose only previous chart appearance had come with a novelty record called “The Class” 13 months earlier. It also should be remembered that 45s, then the main vessel for Rock music, were charted on airplay and actual sales. Kids had to hear the record, then go to the stores and purchase it, a much slower process than today’s instant download. So very rarely did a new record break into the upper reaches of the charts in its initial week, a feat common today.
Soon there was no doubt which version was favored as Checker’s blasted to No. 11 in its second week, while Ballard’s almost disappeared, dropping to No. 95. The following week, though, strange things started to happen. Checker’s version lost its bullet, edging up only to No. 8, while Ballard’s version rocketed 34 notches. It took five more weeks for Checker to push “The Twist” to No. 1, finally dislodging Elvis’ “It’s Now Or Never,” which held the top spot during that entire five-week span.
“The Twist” was upended after just one week at No. 1 by Connie Francis’ “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own.” Ballard’s version, while overshadowed, eventually finished its chart run with a more-than respectable No. 28 peak and a four-month stay.
But while “The Twist” was beginning its descent into Rock history, Checker took over. His constant appearances, his good looks, his winning smile and his personable nature – not to mention his dancing prowess – made even adults want to twist. Meanwhile, Checker began dominating the charts by introducing new dances. Most connect Checker with “The Twist,” forgetting his other successes. But he followed “The Twist” with “The Hucklebuck,” which just missed the top 10, then rode “Pony Time” to No. 1 as 1961 began. “Let’s Twist Again” came next, hitting the top 10, and a new dance, “The Fly,” buzzed to No. 7.
As Checker kindled interest in dancing, he kept alive his initial dance and 17 months after “The Twist” had first reached No. 1, it became the only record in history to return to the top. This time it stayed two weeks, and it took another twist record, Joey Dee’s “Peppermint Twist,” to knock it off. And Chubby was far from finished, “Slow Twistin,’” a duet with Dee Dee Sharp going to No. 3 before Checker had everyone doing the “Limbo Rock,” as that disc reached No. 2 with the flip, “Popeye The Hitchiker,” which promoted the dance known as the hitchike, also reaching the top 10.
For those who consider Checker just a singles artist, he charted 10 albums in the top 30 between 1960 and 1963.
In a time when Rock was suffering, payola and other scandals crippling the still young music force, Chubby Checker helped keep the music alive, creating worldwide interest equaled only by Elvis and the Beatles.
“…Billboard Magazine voted ‘The Twist’ the #1 hit of the last 50 years, the biggest song ever,” Checker said in the Keep Rockin’ interview. “‘The Twist’ is the only song to be No. 1 twice since God put man on the planet. The first Rock & Roll song that ever got a Grammy was ‘Let’s Twist Again.’”
Hank Ballard is remembered as the writer of “The Twist” and his Hall of Fame induction is well merited, but to induct Ballard and not Chubby Checker is akin to the Baseball Hall of Fame inducting the inventor of the bat while excluding Babe Ruth.