People danced Chubby Checker into the record books for records 60 years ago. His early-rock classic “The Twist” rose to #1 on the singles chart this day in 1962.. a year and a half after it first made it to the top. It would be over 50 years before any other song would top Billboard in different years after dropping off the charts entirely (and that would be Mariah Carey with “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, in case you were wondering.) A whole lot of luck was involved, and for Checker, he’s not convinced it was all good.
The Twist was a dance that was catching on with the youth of the nation in the late-’50s. As one report put it, couples would do it and while “couples barely ever touch each other or move their feet. Everything else, however, moves!” Of course, as with all dance fads which seem to catch on, it was seen as too provocative and erotic by most of the elders (and it didn’t help it was done to that vile rock and roll sound of people like Elvis Presley or Little Richard) which only increased its popularity in the clubs.
A singer named Harold Ballard saw the dance and how enthusiastic a crowd of teens in Florida was doing it, so he wrote the song and recorded it with his band, The Midnighters, in 1959. It was only a minor hit though. Here’s where his luck was not great, but Checker’s was. Dick Clark was the host of the already-popular American Bandstand. Kids danced to popular music of the day on the show, and Clark wanted the Midnighters to perform it. For some reason, they were unavailable to appear, so he looked around and chose Checker to do it. Checker , aka Ernest Evans, was a teen himself and an up-and-coming singer who had already had one minor hit himself, “The Class.” Clark figured Checker sounded rather like Ballard. So he had Checker record the song, so there’d be a record around to justify his being on the TV show. He appeared on American Bandstand the first time in August, 1960. Less than a month later, the single was #1 in the States. It was the dance sensation of the nation in the early-’60s. Oddly, in Britain it only got to #44 initially, perhaps because they weren’t watching Dick Clark. Obviously though, some took notice and a certain band from Liverpool did their own rockier take on the dance four years later!
“The Twist” was a big hit, being in the year-end top 10 in 1960, but eventually dropped off the charts as songs eventually do. Yet, the dance craze just continued to grow (by 1962 socialites were taking joy in doing it scandalously) and lo and behold, the single jumped back onto the charts about a year later, knocking “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” out of the top spot in early-’62. It spent two weeks at #1, and ended among that year’s top 10 singles too. Cumulatively, it spent 33 weeks in the American top 40, more than any song until the method of tabulating the chart changed in the ’90s. By some counts it sold 15 million copies, and although that’s not been verified, Billboard list it as the top single of the 1960s.
Checker would go on to have a string of hits for a few years; 14 of them top 20 hits in fact, including “Let’s Twist Again”, which got to #8 (but curiously hit #2 in the UK, doing better than his first “The twist”). And there was “Teach Me To Twist”, as well as a song about another dance, “Limbo Rock” that made it to #2 later in ’62. He’d return to the airwaves in 1988, adding his voice to hip hop Fat Boys with…yep, “The Twist.” All in all, it undoubtedly made Mr. Checker a rich artist…but also a bit of a joke at worst, a one-trick pony at best. “In a way, ‘The Twist’ really ruined my life,” he once said. “I was on my way to becoming a big nightclub performer,” but after “The Twist” and no fewer than five albums using “Twist’ in the title, “no one ever believes I have talent.” Van McCoy might be able to relate.