Twist of Fate
Chubby Checker returns to the birthplace of his biggest hit
Whenever Chubby Checker comes to our area to perform “The Twist” and his other early-’60s dance-craze hits, he admires the view as he approaches downtown Cincinnati.
“It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” he says, talking by phone while driving into town. “I’ve pulled to the side of road so I can see my beautiful Cincinnati. Oh man, look at that. Nobody’s got that. It’s beautiful!”
But might it be more beautiful, perhaps, if there were a digital billboard at city limits — or perhaps a statue — denoting Cincinnati as “The Birthplace of The Twist”? After all, this is where, in 1958, King Records’ act Hank Ballard and the Midnighters first recorded the song, which Ballard (who died in 2003) wrote. Ballard had a string of R&B hits but never a Top 40 smash. (The song’s melody is based on The Drifters’ “What’cha Gonna Do,” which Ballard already had adapted once for a song called “Is Your Love For Real?”)
In one of those weird showbiz stories, King failed to promote Ballard’s “The Twist,” at first issuing it as a B-side on a 1959 single. But in 1960, when it finally started to make noise on a grassroots level, Philadelphia’s Cameo-Parkway record company rushed 18-year-old Checker into the studio for a cover version.
Dick Clark, whose national American Bandstand teen-dance TV show was Philly-based, had Checker perform it on his show and “The Twist” shook into the stratosphere. Just last year, Billboard magazine named it the top song of all time on its Hot 100 charts, partly because it’s the only song to ever reach No. 1 during two different chart runs — in 1960 and 1962.
That was because “The Twist” — and its accompanying dance, where couples suggestively swiveled their hips while grinding their feet — became a cultural phenomenon. It changed the way people danced forever and its success carried Checker with it. He had numerous other hits in the early 1960s, including “Let’s Twist Again,” “Pony Time,” “Limbo Rock,” “Slow Twistin’” (with Dee Dee Sharp) and more.
Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ “The Twist”:
Checker (born Ernest Evans) at first laughs at the idea of Cincinnati (and not Philly) being the world’s Twist capital.
“Well, you know, from what I know, (Ballard) wrote the song and recorded it and (the label) lost faith in it,” he says. “‘The Twist’ became a girl nobody wanted and Chubby saw her in all her swaddling clothes. She wasn’t dressed beautifully, but had a beautiful soul. Chubby came along, dressed her up, showed everybody how beautiful she was and everybody wanted her.”
Checker is loquacious in a colorfully rapid-fire way that recalls Muhammad Ali. At 72, he’s extremely positive about life and the high energy of his performances, but he does harbor a complaint about showbiz.
Checker believes racial prejudice keeps his classic song from being played on Oldies and Classic Rock radio stations as much as, say, The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” or Rod Stewart’s “Twistin’ the Night Away.”
I suggest to Checker that maybe the reason is generational or ageist — Rock music is thought to have blossomed as a Baby Boomer means of expression with The Beatles’ arrival in 1964. Maybe there’s a divide between pre- and post-1964 Rock & Roll?
Checker doesn’t buy that explanation.
“The strongest period for black singers was 1948-64, so that wiped them out,” he says. “I’m not as old as some of The Rolling Stones or Beatles. It’s just a bunch of crap. They know why they’re not playing the music and need to fix it and change it.” (Checker is a year younger than Ringo and the same age as Charlie Watts.)
“Play their songs,” Checker says of artists like the Stones, Beatles and Stewart. “But play mine, too. Don’t wipe me out. Don’t forget about me. Play my music.”
In Checker’s version of events — and Billboard archives bear him out (although there are other versions) — Clark considered playing Ballard’s version and having him on Bandstand to perform it, but another Ballard single, “Finger Poppin’ Time,” was climbing the charts just as buzz for the original “The Twist” started to grow. Clark felt Top 40 radio would be reluctant to play both songs.
“No one was going to play two songs by anybody, white or black,” Checker says. “(Ballard) had a song climbing the charts a little bit, and somebody thought (Ballard’s version of) ‘The Twist’ was going to come alive. It wasn’t going to happen.”
So Checker recorded a very similar version and performed it on Bandstand.
“From the very moment we came on stage to sing that song written by Hank Ballard, everything changed,” he says. “The dance floor changed.”
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: firstname.lastname@example.org