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.
Chubby Checker – “Pony Time”
HIT #1: February 27, 1961
STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks
Imagine a 2018 version of Chubby Checker. This would be someone who relentlessly scored hit after hit, almost all of which were dance-craze records, and whose very name was a parody of the name of a more established musician. You would hate this person. The closest thing I can imagine is the 10-years-ago Soulja Boy, except that his name wasn’t a parody and he had non-dance-craze hits like “Kiss Me Thru The Phone.” People sure hated him. And yet Chubby Checker, through some combination of rose-tinted boomer nostalgia and the sheer daffy exuberance of those older dance-craze hits, is remembered as a B-list legend of those early rock ‘n’ roll days. And fair enough! He was pretty good!
On the hook of “Pony Time,” his second #1, Checker assures the dancers that “you gonna look real fine.” He is lying. Based on all televisual evidence, nobody looked cool when doing the Pony — Checker himself very much included. It is a stupid dance. Like the “Gangnam Style” dance, it’s based on the idea of pretending that you’re riding a horse, except it’s somehow much more awkward than that. Nobody does it anymore. Checker makes it sound like fun anyhow.
Like “The Twist” before it, “Pony Time” is a cover. And like “The Twist,” it’s a faithful one. The DC-based R&B group Don Covay And The Goodtimers had written and recorded the original a year earlier. The original is a pretty manic record, with its dizzily hammering beat and its boogityboogigyboogity backing vocals. Checker made the record hit even harder, booming out the song’s title before the music even kicked in. His barrel-chested bleat is what drives the song. The Checker of “Pony Time” sounds less like a singer, more like a deranged game-show host or an extremely jolly drill sergeant. Most of the lyrics are either dance instructions or testimonials about how cool it is to do the Pony. There’s a squawking sax solo. Checker had hit on a winning formula with “The Twist,” and “Pony Time” is merely an enthusiastic revisiting of that formula. But it works, and if the Pony was a better dance, maybe it’d still get oldies-radio play, the way “The Twist” does.
BONUS BEATS: Pony Time is the name of a very good DIY garage-rock duo from Seattle, and it seems pretty safe to assume that they’re named after the song. Here’s “Stop Talking,” their deeply catchy Lisa Prank collab: