“I noticed several couples doing a unique, new style of dancing. When I asked what it was called, I was told it was 'the Twist'.” -- Dick Clark
“Where were you in ’62?” That was the question that trumpeted the 1973 movie, American Graffiti. The generation that grew up on rock and roll flocked to the theater to relive their days of cruising the strip and listening to the deejays on am radio. The movie chronicles one final night of teenage exploits by a group of friends poised to step into adulthood. The baby boomers viewing the movie would have a variety of answers to the question, "Where were you in '62?" Amazingly, those of a little older generation would have one common answer. It was in 1962 that adults joined with the teens and shouted out with Chubby Checker, “Come on baby, let’s do the twist!”

Dick Clark went into a Philadelphia recording studio with his wife Barbara to record a novelty Christmas card in December of 1958. Seventeen year old Ernest Evans, who had a reputation for being adept at impersonating top recording stars, had been engaged to do the recording. After hearing Evans do a Fats Domino song, Barbara asked him his name and he told her his friends called him “Chubby.” She responded that he should be called “Chubby Checker.” The name stuck. At about the same time, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, an R & B group were developing some unique dance steps to liven up their stage show. The dance steps generated a lot of excitement among their audience as they tried to mimic the steps. Ballard decided to write a song to go with the steps and came up with “The Twist.” In November of 1958 the group recorded the song for King Records -- it became the “B” side to “Teardrops on Your Letter” which made it to #10 on the R & B chart. Then deejays started turning the record over and “The Twist” started getting air time. Somehow Clark became aware of the song and the dance (reports differ). He saw the potential and booked Ballard & The Midnighters for American Bandstand. But somehow the arrangement fell through (some believe Clark didn’t think Ballard’s image was right for Bandstand). Clark looked for somebody else to record the song and Chubby Checker came to mind. Parkway records cut the record as a clone to the Hank Ballard arrangement. As a matter of fact, when Ballard first heard the beginning of Checker’s version, he thought it was his. The record, “The Twist” by Chubby Checker, was released in August of 1960 and was performed by Checker on The Dick Clark Saturday Night Show. On September 19th it became the number one song on Billboard. The twist continued to be a popular dance for the next year and Checker had follow up hits with “Pony Time” (#1 in 1961) and “Let’s Twist Again” (#8 in 1961).

Of course, for the teens of 1962, “The Twist” was actually old hat. Most fads in popular culture come and go fairly quickly so the smart money would have said that by 1962, the twist would be dead. But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. A house band at the Peppermint Lounge, just off Broadway in New York, was playing “twist music” and attracting a good audience, mostly late teens from Jersey. In the fall of 1962 the club was discovered by socialites looking for a place to party after a night on Broadway. Society columnists Earl Wilson and Cholly Knickerbocker reported the gyrations of the high society types in their columns and soon it was the place to be. Tom Wolfe in the New York Herald-Tribune: “Greta Garbo, Elsa Maxwell, Countess Bernadotte, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams and the Duke of Bedford -- everybody was there, and the hindmost were laying fives, tens and twenty-dollar bills on cops, doormen and a couple sets of maitre d’s to get within sight of the bandstand and a dance floor the size of somebody’s kitchen.” As celebrities from the likes of Jackie Kennedy to John Wayne to Shirley MacLaine visited the club, soon record labels were eager to sign and record the house band, Joey Dee and the Starlighters. Joey Dee wrote “Peppermint Twist” and it would become a hit for Roulette records. The twist was becoming what Danny & the Juniors had referred to as “the dance sensation that’s sweeping the nation” in their earlier record, “At the Hop.” And suddenly there was renewed interest in “The Twist.” Cameo/Parkway rereleased the record with the note on the record sleeve, “The record that started everybody twistin’.” Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” achieved the unique status as being the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 for a second time, after totally disappearing from the chart. It remained there for two weeks at the beginning of 1962. It was replaced on January 27th by “The Peppermint Twist.”

While the success of “The Twist” is noteworthy for its twice rising to the #1 spot, the significance of the song, and the dance, goes beyond its chart popularity. For one thing, it totally changed the way couples approached dancing. The twist (and its successors such as the pony, the mashed potatoes, the fly, etc.) were done with the partners dancing apart. Prior to that time, even most rock and roll songs were danced to with the partners at least doing a limited amount of touching -- the cha cha, the chalypso, the bop. With the advent of the twist, couples danced apart, and more than likely began improvising, rather than following a prescribed set of steps. So, the twist changed the way we danced.

But maybe the biggest influence of the twist was the way it truly brought rock and roll into the mainstream of American culture. Clearly, Elvis Presley introduced rock and roll when he made his first recordings for RCA in 1956. But rock and roll had remained a teenage domain. In 1962, teens found (perhaps to their chagrin) that adults were dancing to “their” music. It’s quite a leap from denouncing rock and roll music as “devil music” in 1956 to racing onto the dance floor to join the teenage gyrations in 1962. Some didn’t see it as progress: New York Times columnist Arthur Gelb -- “Cafe society has not gone slumming with such energy since its forays into Harlem in the twenties.” Whether or not it was viewed as progress, the impact of “The Twist” cannot be denied. Dick Clark considered it one of the most influential songs of rock and roll, precisely because it expanded the appeal of the music.

Where were you in ‘62? You might have been cruising the strip, listening to the new surf sound of “Surfin’ Safari” by the Beach Boys, just like it was portrayed in American Graffiti. John Milner (Paul LeMat) said in the movie that “Rock and roll’s been going down hill ever since Buddy Holly died.” But Tommy Roe’s “Sheila” would have made you think of Holly. You might have been hosting a cocktail party and teaching your guests to dance the twist to “Slow Twisitin’” by Chubby Checker (Dee Dee Sharpe didn’t even get credit for the duet). You might have been nerdy enough to sign a yearbook just like Bobby Vinton suggested in “Roses Are Red.” You might have been showing new moves on the dance floor to The Contour’s “Do You Love Me” (later featured in the movie, “Dirty Dancing”). You might have been casually listening to your local deejay when “Sherry” by The Four Seasons first got airplay and left you wondering if it was a new black group from Motown. You might have been parked at your local inspiration point with Mr. Aker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” setting the mood. You might have been sitting in a coffee shop listening to The Kingston’s Trio’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”. You might have been lounging in your living room with Andy Williams’ “Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes” LP on the stereo. Williams’ version of the song never charted, so you probably wouldn’t have been aware that you were listening to a “classic.”

No matter where you were in 1962, there was still some good music to provide your sound track. If John Milner and Don McLean were right, by 1962, the music was not only dead, but buried deep. But a closer look will show you that just wasn’t true. If you doubt it, consider that 1962 was the year the Isley Brothers recorded “Twist and Shout” -- rock and roll was still very much alive.

Andy Williams' "Moon River & Other Great Movie Themes" made it to #3 on the LP chart and was on the chart for 176 weeks. The "Moon River" track would become Williams' "signature song." When at Cadence Records in 1961, Williams had been discouraged from recording the song because it was thought it wouldn't appeal to teenagers. After performing the song at the 1962 Academy Awards, Columbia Records was swamped with orders for the LP.
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This is a video of Chubby Checker introducing "The Twist" to teens on American Bandstand in 1960. Intermixed are clips of more "adult" dancers who discovered this new way of dancing. This prompted a big demand for new "twist" songs -- the recording industry responded:
Above: Conway Twitty, Chubby Checker, and Dick Clark do the Twist.
"The Twist" was first recorded by Hank Ballard & The Midnighters in 1959. Reports vary as to whether Dick Clark "discovered" the dance while watching kids on American Bandstand, or whether the dance was reported to Clark from those who had been at a Hank Ballard performance. When Dick Clark saw the potential in the dance, he chose Chubby Checker to do a cover version rather than using Ballard's record. Some have speculated that Ballard, being older, darker skinned, and known for a raunchy stage act, was not as marketable as Chubby Checker. The original made it to #28 while Chubby Checker's version was a #1 record .... twice.
The popularity of the twist inspired numerous "twist" songs in 1962, but it wasn't the only dance in town. The trend of dancing apart led to a boom in "other" dance music. Below is a list of songs related to dances other than the twist that were popular in 1962:
DANCE SONGS:
Hully Gully Baby by The Dovells
The Majestic by Dion
Popeye (The Hitchhiker) by hubby Checker
Dancin’ Party by Chubby Checker
The Loco-Motion by Little Eva
The Wah-Watusi by The Orlons
Monster Mash by Bobby Boris Picket
The Cha-Cha-Cha by Bobby Rydell
Let's Dance by Chris Montez
Mashed Potato Time by Dee Dee Sharpe
Rock-a-Hula Baby by Elvis Presley
Limbo Rock by Chubby Checker
Socialites discovered the Twist at the Peppermint Lounge in New York and the dance was soon an international craze.
To find rock and roll in 1962 you don't have to look too far. The Isley Brothers released "Twist & Shout" in May of 1962. It was on the charts for 11 weeks, topping out at #17. But it would live on to become a rock and roll standard, especially after it was covered by The Beatles in 1964 (it became a #2 hit).
TWIST SONGS:
The Twist by Chubby Checker
Soul Twist by King Curtis
Twistin’ Matilda by Jimmy Soul
Twist Twist Senora by Gary U. S. Bonds
Percolator (Twist) by Billy Joe & The Checkmates
Twisting the Night Away by Sam Cooke
Twist and Shout by The Isley Brothers
Slow Twistin' by Chubby Checker
Peppermint Twist by Joey Dee & the Starliters