Twistin’ the Years Away

Twistin' the Years Away

Thumbnail image from Forbes

By Randal C. Hill

Though he was never much more than a rock ‘n’ roll footnote, Hank Ballard (1927 – 2003) briefly cracked the 1954 Billboard pop charts as the leader of the Midnighters by offering up such raucous R & B ditties as “Work With Me, Annie” and “Annie Had a Baby.” For the next five years, though, Ballard disappeared from Top 40 airwaves before returning for a few late 1950s/early 1960s hit singles.

The first of these was a now-forgotten 1959 release called “Teardrops on Your Letter.” The B side was Ballard’s original version of “The Twist,” a dance song in which he based the melody on an obscure 1955 R&B Drifters tune called “What’cha Gonna Do?” Stories vary on whether Ballard created the simplistic stage movements or copied them from a group of Tampa teens he saw doing such a dance when he toured the South.

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the original writers and performers of “The Twist.” Image from BlackPast.

Savvy Dick Clark, who helmed TV’s mega-hit American Bandstand, sensed the hit potential of Ballard’s record but wanted to bring “The Twist” to a young, mainstream (read: white) audience.

Where does “The Twist”‘s popularity come from?

Ernie Evans had attended South Philadelphia High School, the former academic home of Bandstand idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian. After school, the outgoing African-American lad plucked chickens in a local open-air market while entertaining amused passersby with imitations of some of the day’s biggest record stars. Clark, a silent partner in Philadelphia’s Cameo/Parkway label, tapped Evans to mimic Ballard’s performance note-for-note. At the recording session, Clark’s wife, Barbara, noticed a physical similarity between Fats Domino and Ernie Evans; with this in mind, she coined Evans’ stage name: Chubby Checker.

Ernie Evans, AKA Chubby Checker, breathed new life into “The Twist”, charting at the top of Billboard in 1960. Image from Discogs

Checker’s chart-topping “The Twist” spent four months on the 1960 Billboard Hot 100 before fading away. Then something unique happened in the often-bizarre world of rock ‘n’ roll: In 1962, Checker’s original version rocketed to the peak of the Billboard list for an unprecedented second time, followed soon by “Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starliters, which also grabbed the Number One chart spot and helped to set in motion a massive Twist revival.

The Peppermint Lounge was a run-down dance dive located in Times Square. When New York society columnist Igor Cassini described in a few puff pieces about the hole-in-the-wall locale becoming a new “hot spot,” it quickly became the social epicenter for cooler-than-cool Big Apple Twisters. On any given night, it wasn’t unusual to spy, among the hoi polloi, such notable A-listers as Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Greta Garbo and Judy Garland. (But not, despite persistent rumors, First Lady Jackie Kennedy.)

The second Twist craze that swept America proved to be even bigger than the first, with over a dozen more dance-related 45s earning places on the Billboard charts between 1962 and 1964. The year 1961 alone saw three Twist films in theaters.

On October 11, 2012, 71-year-old Chubby Checker performed “The Twist” (for the zillionth time?) and led an estimated 4,000 merry Twisters in a DeLand, Florida, street party, an event that earned a mention in the Guinness World Record book.


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