Chubby Checker: The S.C. native who made ‘The Twist’ famous
It’s been 50 years since “The Twist” became the hip thing to do, forever changing how people interact on dance floors in school gymnasiums and nightclubs. Chubby Checker doesn’t have to be reminded about the song’s significance — or his contribution to popular music.
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In fact, he’ll readily say what he means without mincing words.
“The way we dance on the dance floor, that belongs to me,” he said. “When the Twist came along, you were able to go on the dance floor with someone and do your own thing.”
Here, Checker’s argument gets convincing.
Before dancing apart to the beat was established by the Twist, girls would let guys get a look at them by getting up from their chairs and walking to the bathroom, Checker said.
“And the boys did the same thing,” he continued. “Now, after the Twist, you can ask her to dance with you. By the time the song was over, you’re both having a heart attack for each other.
“Before we came along, that wasn’t there. The way we dance on the dance floor is as old as my career. That’s a heavy statement.” Click here to jump down to the rest of the story.
Video: 'The Twist' UNBOUND
Columbia's UNBOUND Dance Company took over the Five Points Fountain, flash mob style, to perform The Twist on Sept. 14. The company was helping The State celebrate the 50th anniversary of Chubby Checker's "The Twist" reaching No. 1 on the charts.
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Twisting through the early '60s
Here are some of the songs inspired by “The Twist,” first released by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters in 1959. Click the song name to watch a video. If the video is not embeddable, a link will appear letting you view directly in YouTube.
“The Twist,” Chubby Checker, 1960
“Let's Twist Again,” Chubby Checker, 1961
“Twistin' U.S.A.,” Danny & the Juniors, 1961
“Slow Twistin’,” Chubby Checker, 1962
“Twist It Up," Chubby Checker, 1963
“Peppermint Twist,” Joey Dee and the Starliters, 1962
“Hey, Let's Twist,” Joey Dee and the Starliters, 1962)
“Dear Lady Twist,” Gary “U.S.” Bonds, 1962
“Twist, Twist Senora,” Gary “U.S.” Bonds, 1962
“Twistin' Postman,” the Marvelettes, 1962
“Twistin’ the Night Away,” Sam Cooke, 1962
“Twist and Shout,” the Isley Brothers, 1962
“Twist and Shout,” the Beatles, 1964
“Twist Her,” Bill Black’s Combo, 1962
“Soul Twist,” King Curtis & His Noble Knights, 1962
“Bristol Twistin’ Annie,” by the Dovells, 1962
“Percolator (Twist),” by Billie Joe & the Checkmates, 1962
Chubby Checker: Making 'The Twist' famous (continued)
Released in 1960 by a 19-year-old baby-faced kid who was born in Spring Gully, “The Twist” went to No. 1 on the Billboard magazine charts. It reached the top again in 1962, making it the only song to be No. 1 twice. Billboard named “The Twist” the No. 1 song from 1958-2008. “The Twist,” undoubtedly, was the biggest song of the ’60s.
But Checker feels slighted and he wants more than an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He wants more than the respect of his peers. He wants what contemporaries Elvis Presley and the Beatles have: iconic status.
In 2:42, “The Twist” changed the course of pop music, and it replaced partner dances such as the Jitterbug and the Swing. Fifty years later, “The Twist” is bigger than the man who made it famous.
“I know Chubby has been struggling with this for a long time,” said Jim Dawson, who wrote “The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World,” published in 1995.
Checker wants people to think he is the closest thing to Mickey Mouse.
“I say that because Mickey Mouse belongs to everybody,” he continued. “The dance we brought here belongs to everybody.”
‘Just a teenager’
“The Twist” belonged to Hank Ballard and The Midnighters first.
In 1959 Ballard and The Midnighters, known for the mid-’50s hit “Work with Me, Annie,” released “The Twist,” which peaked at No. 16 on Billboard’s R&B chart. Dick Clark, host of “American Bandstand,” wanted “The Twist” performed on “The Dick Clark Show,” his Saturday-night program. Ballard did not make an appearance.
“He didn’t want to use the Hank Ballard record because he didn’t have control of it,” Dawson said of Clark. “He also felt Hank was too black. With Chubby, he had much lighter skin. He had the boy-next-door look. He was just a teenager.”
Clark was determined to get “The Twist” on TV so he had Checker record it. In August, Checker performed it for a nationwide audience on “The Dick Clark Show.” The song hit No. 1 in September.
It was common back then for performers to cover each other’s songs. Ballard, who died in 2003, was said to have been bitter about “The Twist.” He benefited from Checker’s success, according to singer South Carolina native Maurice Williams, who is credited as a songwriter on the hit “Stay,” a song that reached No.1 the same year as “The Twist.”
“He should’ve felt good because he got the royalties,” Williams, who will perform at the Newberry Opera House today, said. “That’s like when The Diamonds did ‘Little Darlin’,’ I felt wonderful. Their label was larger and bigger than ours and their distribution was worldwide, whereas ours was in the Southeast.”
The Twist was kicking around Southern juke joints before Ballard wrote the eventual hit. In 1953, the Drifters, a vocal group that featured South Carolina native Bill Pinkney, released “Let the Boogie Woogie Roll.” The lyrics included: “When she looked at me / Her eyes shined like gold / And when she did the twist / She bopped me to my soul.”
Checker, though, did what Ballard, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, couldn’t: he turned the “The Twist” into an international dance craze. Many believe it was the image of Checker, dancing on the balls of his feet and swiveling his body, that created the dance’s following. Checker also helped legitimize the combination of blues and country that relied heavily on rhythm — today known as rock ’n’ roll — as he won the genre’s first Grammy Award in 1961 for “Let’s Twist Again,” one of several so-called answer songs to “The Twist.”
The Twist crossed generations as young and old did the dance. Not since the Charleston in the ’20s had a dance caught on with kids and adults. The Twist also crossed ethnic and cultural boundaries.
“It was popular everywhere at one point, but it was more accepted by the white populous,” saxophonist Skipp Pearson, who played on the same club circuit as Checker in the ’60s, said. “Although black people did it, it just didn’t last in the ’hood like it did on the beach.”
Different Twists (Watch them)
Checker spent his early years on a tobacco and cotton farm in Georgetown County’s Spring Gully. Before moving to Philadelphia, Checker said his life was about work and school. The entertainment he enjoyed was at church.
“Once or twice a year, they’d hire a brass band to play. And that band would play,” Checker recalled. “You wouldn’t miss it.”
Checker, who taught himself how to play the piano, was always willing to show off his performance skills. In high school, he entertained classmates with impersonations of stars such as Presley and Fats Domino. He entertained customers at the places he worked until one of his employers, who was friends with a songwriter on the Cameo-Parkway Records staff, arranged for Checker to meet Clark.
“We’d see Chubby on TV and he’d show us the different moves,” said Billy Scott, a singer and the current chairman of the Beach Music Association International, an organization that seeks to widen beach music’s appeal. “I just had a ball with it, personally. I still do.”
Scott, who fronts Billy Scott and the Prophets, pointed to a difference between Ballard’s and Checker’s “Twist.”
“The brightness came out of it when Chubby did it,” Scott said. “It did something about getting people on the dance floor. That was one of the first fun dances you could do by yourself.”
People wouldn’t be teaching each other how to Dougie today if it weren’t for “The Twist.” Some R&B and hip-hop performers have tapped into a similar kind of consciousness that made “The Twist” a success by writing catchy songs and making up even catchier dances. Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” is one example.
Checker, who also popularized the Pony, the Fly, the Mess Around and revived the Hucklebuck, is responsible for the dance-song genre. Tell him something he doesn’t know.
“What the light bulb is in your house, the telephone in your office, that’s who we are on the dance floor,” Checker said. “There’s no getting around that, and a lot of people don’t like to hear me talking about it.”
Checker continues to benefit from “The Twist.” He sells steaks and beef jerky with packaging that reads “From the King of the Twist.” Both packages feature a silhouette of Checker on one leg in mid-Twist. There are Checkerbars made into a checkerboard shape with two different kinds of chocolate, and hot dogs that hang outside the bun. In 2004, Checker appeared at the Piggly Wiggly on Garners Ferry Road to pitch the latter.
Checker, who at 69 still looks like the teenager, remains an in-demand singer, performing at casinos, small theaters and on cruises. “The Twist” is ubiquitous in pop culture, but usually as an afterthought. The song has been used in period TV dramas such as “Mad Men” and “The Playboy Club.” The movie “Pulp Fiction” has the well-known scene of John Travolta and Uma Thurman winning a Twist contest.
“The Twist” isn’t taken seriously. It’s treated as a novelty. But Checker sees “The Twist” as the biggest song on the planet. Ever. It isn’t revered like just about everything the Beatles recorded, and there isn’t a satellite radio channel dedicated to Checker. Elvis has that, and one can hear Elvis’ music on terrestrial stations. Checker doesn’t hear any of his “Twist” recordings.
“The Twist” is iconic; it just doesn’t have iconographic status. The longevity of the song and dance, though, should be enough to get Checker into the hall of fame, Dawson believes.
“He casts a longer shadow than an awful lot of people in there,” he added. “A longer cultural shadow.”
That’s not enough for Checker.
“I’m never going to stop talking about it until I die and am in my grave,” he said. “It’s not right that I don’t hear my music on every station.
“I have the No. 1 song on the planet.”