In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There’s a scene in the first season of Mad Men where most of the staff underlings from Sterling Cooper are out at a restaurant when somebody plays “The Twist” on a jukebox. Every woman who works in the office whoops with glee, and pretty soon the entire office is dancing together. (Two things in that scene that I didn’t realize were possible: seductive twisting and hearbreakingly forlorn twisting.) If you’ve lived your entire life hearing “The Twist” at grade-school dances or weddings or on oldies radio, it’s weird to imagine that song triggering that kind of hysteria when it was still fresh. But I believe it.
“The Twist” is a foundational dance-craze record, a key part of a noble tradition that includes “The Loco-Motion,” “The Hustle,” “The Macarena,” and “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” all of which will eventually end up in this column. And as a dance-craze record, “The Twist” had different goals to accomplish than most pop songs. It didn’t have to tell a story or speak to the vagaries of young love or pile harmonies on top of each other in arresting ways. It just had to pound hard and communicate excitement. It had to get people out on the floor. It had to have a good beat, and you had to be able to dance to it. “The Twist” did exactly what it was supposed to do.
Even more than most of the songs that end up in this column, “The Twist” has a convoluted history. Originally written by Hank Ballard and recorded by his band Hank Ballard And The Midnighters, “The Twist” was a big regional dance record even though it was only a B-side. A Baltimore dance-show host named Buddy Deane (the inspiration for Corny Collins, from John Waters’ Hairspray) recommended the song to Dick Clark; Clark liked it, but he didn’t think Ballard was approachable enough to feature on American Bandstand. So he went out and found someone else to sing it.
Ernest Evans was born in South Carolina and grew up in the projects of Philadelphia, where Bandstand was filmed. As a teenager, he sang while he worked at a poultry market, doing impressions of famous singers. He auditioned for Clark, and Clark’s wife gave him his stage name. (It’s a parody of Fats Domino’s name.) Clark knocked out his own version of the song quickly, and it hit #1 a week after he performed it live for the first time. It took fairly byzantine string of events, then, to bring a simple song like that to the world.
Checker’s version of the song is a whole lot like Ballard’s, right down to the opening drum crack. The whole song is just about dancing; there’s barely even any innuendo in there. Checker’s got a big, barrel-chested, charismatic howl of a voice, and he pushes the insistent groove forward. He makes twisting sound like the most fun thing in the world. He sells it.
Initially, “The Twist” was only #1 for a week. But twisting stuck around, becoming more and more popular in the years that followed. A couple of years after the song first hit #1, celebrities were doing it, and entire clubs like New York’s Peppermint Lounge were devoted entirely to twisting. And “The Twist” returned to #1 for two more weeks, the first time anything like that had ever happened.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the version of “The Twist” that Checker and the Fat Boys released in 1988:
And here’s Checker and the Fat Boys performing it together at a 70th-birthday tribute to Nelson Mandela: