Hank Ballard was one of those artists. With the Midnighters, he scored a massive pre-Hot 100 hit with 1954’s “Work With Me Annie,” a raunchy R&B number that achieved that era’s version of virality: spawning answer records. After a few years of diminishingly racuous returns, the Midnighters staked their comeback hopes on 1959’s weepy ballad “Teardrops on Your Letter”. The song -- written by their producer, King Records’ Henry Glover -- was a minor hit, but not as popular as the flipside. Officially, “The Twist” is Ballard’s composition. Still, some people -- including a couple Midnighters -- have credited a member of the Sensational Nightingales (opinions differ on which one), who went anonymous for fear or risking his reputation in gospel music.
Ballard’s “Twist” peaked inside the top 30, picking up an influential fan along the way: Dick Clark wanted the song performed on his influential hit-parade program, American Bandstand. Stories differ as to whether the Midnighters couldn’t perform due to a lingering reputation or just a scheduling conflict. Instead, Clark pinch-hit a young acquaintance of his: Ernest “Chubby” Evans, an 18-year-old South Carolinian by way of Philly. Chubby was a born entertainer and -- more importantly for Clark -- a decent mimic. His first single, “The Class,” had him imitating Fats Domino, Elvis, and The Coasters. So it wasn’t any big thing for Chubby to cut a “Twist” that copied Ballard’s honking tenor.
To call Chubby’s version a knockoff, though, would be unfair. Rock and roll, like pop music as a whole, thrives on borrowing and homage: great ideas scaling the ladder of fame. And Chubby Checker, whose first single was a parody and whose very name was a facsimile, knocked the song out of the park. He dug into it with a teen’s enthusiasm, turing Ballard’s “eee-yah” into a positively eldritch cry. His joy underscores just how fascinating the text is. Why is the singer’s momma not around, but his little sister is? Why is he asking someone to take him by his “little hand?" Is he singing from the perspective of a teenage girl? The track (reportedly cut before Checker was even recruited to sing) is similarly focused, with the Midnighters’ bouncy piano sanded down and Ellis Tollin splashing his cymbals throughout.
“The Twist” eventually topped the Hot 100 in September, thanks to Clark’s constant promotion and -- as Checker has noted ever since -- the accompanying dance move. He’s described the twist as someone toweling himself off while grinding a cigarette butt with his toes, and that’s about perfect. It was a simple dance that didn’t require touching, or even a partner: perfect for kids looking to cut loose. The dance was so popular, in fact, that after “The Twist” left the charts, twisting stayed on the floor. With a slowness impossible to imagine today, the dance (and song) eventually caught on with adults. In the fall of 1961, believing that lightning could strike twice, Checker’s label took out a full-page ad in Billboard: “The Twist, America’s Newest Adult Dance Rage, Is Here,” it shouted, and sure enough, in January 1962, Checker’s tune sat atop the Hot 100 for two more weeks. (In neither of its chart runs, amazingly, did it ever top the R&B chart.)
In that pre-Beatles age, “The Twist” affirmed the viability of teen culture and the power of television. It didn’t invent the dance phenomenon, but it did remind an industry, still weaning itself from crooning, of the force of motion. Countless twist songs appeared on the Hot 100 in the next few years. Checker’s second stay at No. 1, in fact, was ended by Joey Dee and the Starlighters’ “Peppermint Twist,” a reference to New York’s Peppermint Lounge, where the Twist craze was broadcast to a nation of grown-ups. Delightfully, “Peppermint Twist” was co-written by the Midnighters’ old producer, Henry Glover.
As for Checker, he was both made and ruined by “The Twist”. He hung around the charts with a series of dance songs (“Let’s Twist Again,” “Slow Twist,” “Pony Time,” “The Hucklebuck,” “Limbo Rock”), and his fame was such that he married Catharina Lodders, a Dutch model and 1962’s Miss World. But as rock and roll turned into rock, he found it hard to adapt. He released an infamous psychedelic album in the early ‘70s, re-recorded his old hits, guested on the Fat Boys’ 1988 hip-hop “Twist” cover, and argued for his place in the pop pantheon with anyone who would listen.
In 2001, he made news for another full-page Billboard ad, written to the Nobel Committee. “Dancing Apart to the Beat is the dance that we do when we dance apart to the beat of anybody’s music,” he wrote, “and before ‘Chubby Checker’ it could not be found!” The year before, “The Twist” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, but no matter: Checker called for the erection of a statue in the Rock and Roll Hall’s courtyard. (This year, the song joined the inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Singles class.)
In recent years, Checker seems to have made his peace with his legacy. Still the only performer to have a song hit No. 1 in two different chart runs, he maintains an impressive live schedule, and is always ready to demonstrate the dance that set a country on fire. The perfect confluence of writers, promoters, and performer, “The Twist” is a testament to the notion that a hit song can come from anywhere, and that a song’s hold on the collective imagination can’t always be predicted. And Checker seems confident that this hold won’t be released any time soon: a picture on his website calls “The Twist” “Billboard’s First #1 Song of All Time until 2065”.