twisting with john and lew at the tell it like it was a-go-go

FOR THE PAST FEW MONTHS, I have been involved in a rather large project with two other writers, John Ross and Lew Shiner. I assembled a list of every record to make it to #1 on the Cash Box Top 100 chart from the beginning of 1960 through the end of 1969. Each title is linked to a recording of that song on YouTube. For each entry, we went about commenting on the record, the artist, the times, and, eventually, one another’s comments.

It was fun, but it was also a lot of work: at this time, the ten articles have passed 80,000 words and feature more than 200 images and 500 hyperlinks. That’s a lot of work for us—granted, we had fun doing it—and it’s also a lot of reading for someone to take on.

Of course, we’re pretty certain that once you start reading, you’ll have fun, too!

And to get you reading, here is a sample of our efforts, almost 800 words on a record that many “serious” rock fans dismiss without a second thought.

The question “But do you like it?” follows each entry. There, we use a 3-star system to express our opinions. Actually, a star-shape wasn’t available to us, so we used a diamond (♦). We are not grading the record ala All Music Guide, we are simply stating how much we like a given record. There are excellent records that none of us particularly care for, and there are “crappy” records we love.

All of this makes a helluva lot more sense if you take a few minutes and read the “Introduction to The Toppermost of the Poppermost.”





Medium 45 1960 ChubbyChecker TheTwist 1960 600

September 10–October 1

Chubby Checker
The Twist
Parkway P-811

(4 weeks)

Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” was more than the first of the really BIG dance craze records of the ’60s — it was a cultural phenomenon that went global. Its effects should not be underestimated in that dancers were freed from the need to hold on to a partner and follow a pattern of steps while dancing. Once you learned how to twist, with a little tweaking you had your own dance!

And suddenly a whole generation was “expressing themselves” through dance.

Even wallflowers like me!

(I know — nobody who knows me now believes I was ever remotely shy, but it’s true. Hell, I fell for a girl in 1967 and didn’t work up the courage to ask her out until 1997. But that’s another story.)

“The Twist” may be the most popular dance song of all time: After spending four weeks at #1 in 1960, it dropped off the charts as all hit records do. A slew of twist-like dance records and fads came and went (the Mashed Potato, the Pony, the Watusi, etc.) and then, eighteen months later, “The Twist” returned to the top and spent four more weeks at #1 (see January 6, 1962, entry).

John: And all because Dick Clark reputedly couldn’t get hold of Hank Ballard — who was spending his 9,000th consecutive week on the road — for a gig on American Bandstand. Clark needed somebody to do it.

The dance was taking off.

Had to have a record a singer could lip-synch to on the show.

Found Chubby.

To be fair, Hank was a great bandleader, but Chubby could out-sing him any day of the week,

Neal: As John noted above, the record and the dance have an interesting history. In early 1959, King Records released Hank Ballard & the Midnighters’ new single, the ballad “Teardrops on Your Letter” backed with the dance number “The Twist.” The A-side was a Top 10 hit on the R&B chart while the B-side made the Top 20. Neither side made much of an impression on the pop charts.

A year later, the “The Twist” started getting a lot of attention so King re-released the single in July 1960, this time promoting the B-side. Exactly what happened next varies from source to source (and sometimes varies a lot) but the gist of the story remains reasonably constant. Ballard got the idea for the song by either:

by watching Midnighters moving on stage, or

by watching kids dancing an unnamed step on the floor while they played. Ballard and the Midnighters started doing the song with the dance at their shows as they toured America.

Apparently, the dance caught on in parts of the East Coast (it may have taken hold in Baltimore before Philadelphia) and came to the attention of Dick Clark. He loved the song and the dance but either:

he couldn’t get Ballard onto his show due to the singer’s busy schedule, or

he was wary of Ballard’s history of suggestive songs like “Sexy Ways” and “Work with Me Annie.”

Clark had a good relationship with Philadelphia’s Cameo-Parkway Records who had a young singer named Ernest Evans who recorded as Chubby Checker. He could do reasonable impersonations of such popular stars of the time as Fats Domino, Elvis, and the Coasters.

Evans and a group of local studio musicians duplicated the Ballard record, using the same key and the same tempo. Parkway rush-released the record and Evans sounded so much like Ballard that when Hank heard it on the radio he thought it was his own record!

Both the Ballard record and the Checker record debuted at #82 on the Cash Box Top 100 on July 23, 1960, the same week that Ballard’s latest single “Finger Poppin’ Time” entered the Top 40. The next week, both records moved up to #42.

At this point, most historians credit Checker’s August 6 appearance on American Bandstand as catapulting the song and the dance to the forefront of teen’s attention. But by the time Chubby appeared on Clark’s show, his version of “The Twist” had already shot from #42 to #22 on the Cash Box August 6 chart (which had been compiled the week before the publication date) while Ballard’s version had dropped off the survey!

Supposedly, Ballard was not bitter toward Checker or Clark: as the song’s writer, he received massive royalty checks from the use of the Checker version on countless compilation albums.

For an even more detailed look at the Twist and everything that followed, check out “The Twist: Ballard’s Brainchild, Checker’s Change of Fortune” on the Way Back Attack website.

• Billboard Hot 100 #1: Yes (4 weeks)
• Million-seller: Yes
• RIAA Gold Record: No
• Accumulated sales: Unknown
• 500 Songs That Shaped Rock: Yes
• Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: No

But do you like it?
John: ♦ ♦ ♦
♦ ♦
♦ ♦ ♦


JohnKennedy NYC Nov1960 1000

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was taken on November 5, 1960. It is Senator John F. Kennedy standing on a car to address the people in front of the Concourse Plaza Hotel in the Bronx in New York City on the weekend before Election Day. Despite heavy rains, large crowds turned up for him everywhere, to which JFK observed, “I don’t know any place in the United States where Democrats would turn out on a rainy Saturday afternoon like this. I understand the sun is shining on Mr. Nixon in California. Well, it won’t be shining after Tuesday.”

Finally, for those of you leery of Medium—it’s a new platform, and they will ask you to sign up for a free membership—I have an alternative: below are links to four other articles similar to this one but using a different #1 record as an example. There is one on each of my other blogs, so you can visit them with impunity:

Back in the Arms of John and Lew at the Tell It Like It Was A-Go-Go

Caught in a Trap with John and Lew at the Tell It Like It Was A-Go-Go

Getting Windy with John and Lew at the Tell It Like It Was A-Go-Go

Runaway with John and Lew to the Tell It Like It Was A-Go-Go