NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, coming to y’all once again from the Southern Studio. Did you catch that? “Y’all”?
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I’ve got some trivia for ye that’s probably going to be a hard one, but I guess you never know. What do these artists have in common? They are:
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
And Soft Cell.
There’s something that they have in common, and I’ll give you the caveat that this answer is kind of US-centric, so if you’re not in the US you’re probably going to have a tougher time with this one. But those five bands all have something in common. What could it be? What could…it be?
I’ll have that answer at the end of the show.
This time around we’re looking at the only recording that’s reached the Number One slot on the Billboard Hot 100 twice in different years. But by now you probably know that the story doesn’t start there. In fact, we have to go way back to before the Civil War.
Songs that involve doing a twist of some kind date back to the 1840s, believe it or not.
[GRAPE VINE TWIST]
This is called the “Grape Vine Twist”, and it was a series of dance steps from the blackface minstrel era. Listen to the cadence of this for a moment, and I’ll see you on the other side…
Over the years it evolved into a square dance series, which means the tempo sped up a little bit.
So if you go to a square dance and the band plays “Grape Vine Twist”—and yes, it’s still possible to encounter it—you’re likely to find yourself dancing to something akin to this rather than the original slower tempo.
[WININ BOY BLUES]
As we move into the Ragtime era of the 1920s and 30s, the word “twist” started to take on a little bit more of a double entendre status, as it does in this recording from Jelly Roll Morton, in 1938’s “Winin’ Boy Blues”…
…we get the line, “Mama, mama, look at sis, she’s out on the levee doing the double twist”, which refers to both dancing and sex.
And all of this is background to the song we know so well. And weirdly, like so many songs we know well, the origins are a little bit murky. The original recording that picked up some popularity comes from the band Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Now, Midnighters’ guitarist Cal Green has said in interviews that they got the basic idea from Brother Joe Wallace from a gospel group called the Sensational Nightingales, who was unable to record the song himself because of his position as a church leader. However, in an interview with rock historian Tom Meros, lead singer Lawson Smith says that while the song did come from the Sensational Nightingales, it was actually written by someone named Nathaniel Bills.
[WHATCHA GONNA DO]
Now, try to follow this sequence. In 1955, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters had recorded this song, called “Whatcha Gonna Do”…
…”Whatcha Gonna Do” peaked at Number Two for two non-consecutive weeks on the Billboard chart, so it’s fair to say that the song was well-known. In fact, it was known enough that in 1957 Ballard used the chord patterns for this song, called “Is Your Love For Real”…
…now, so far as I’ve been able to determine, this song didn’t chart for the Midnighters, so I guess they didn’t have a lot of qualms about repeating the song patterns again. And I don’t want you thinking that I’m condemning what they did—after all, it’s pretty common to write stuff that has a strong echo with what’s come before; what’s more, there are certain rock and roll chord progressions and devices that seem to be just kind of out there in the universe for anyone to use. It’s that kind of mentality that led to Brian Wilson borrowing so heavily from Chuck Berry when he wrote “Surfin’ USA.” At any rate, they had the lyrics from…some member of the Sensational Nightingales, and they had their own music, which they’d…ahem, borrowed from the Drifters, and Frankensteined together a new song called “The Twist.”
In 1958 they put together a rather loose recording for Vee-Jay records, with lyrics that are slightly different from the ones we know.
Vee-Jay declined to release the record, and the only reason you’re hearing it now is because it finally appeared in the History of Vee-Jay box set in 1993. Meanwhile, Hank Ballard and his band went back to King Records, made some changes including making the guitar less prominent, and re-recorded the song.
The song was released in 1959 as the B side to a song called “Teardrops on Your Letter,” but Baltimore disc jockey and TV personality Buddy Deane flipped the record over and decided that that was the better track and started playing it, and recommended the song to Dick Clark. Now, here’s where the stories diverge a little bit. By all accounts, Dick Clark liked the song, but there’s one account that says Ballard wasn’t available when Clark tried to book him on American Bandstand, and there’s another account that says that he was reluctant to book Ballard because so many of his songs had potentially raunchy material. What is known is that Clark arranged for the song to be re-recorded at the Cameo-Parkway label in Philadelphia, using studio musicians and a guy who sounded a lot like Hank Ballard named Ernest Evans. And that’s what they did: they recorded it in the same key, the same tempo, and Evans even managed to mimic a lot of Ballard’s little idiosyncrasies in his recording. There are some minor changes in the instrumentation, namely the addition of a saxophone played by Buddy Savitt, but that’s about it. Now, before Clark released the record, he decided that he needed to come up with a stage name for Ernest Evans. The answer came from his wife, who suggested a take-off of Fats Domino’s name.
And so it was that the name Chubby Checker was born. Backup singing was provided by a vocal group called the Dreamlovers, and they debuted the song in Wildwood, New Jersey in July of 1960. Clark subsequently promoted the record on both Bandstand and the Dick Clark Saturday Night Show, including a live performance on the Saturday night programon August 6, and the song was off to the top of the US charts, making it to the Number One slot the week of September 19, 1960. To be sure, it dropped about as quickly as it climbed, but these things happen now and again.
But here’s the thing: first, you had the dance itself, which Chubby Checker has described as a combination of trying to put a cigarette out with your feet while simultaneously trying to dry your backside with a towel. That made the dance easy to do for everybody, so it bridged the generation gap all by itself like that. The other thing is that The Twist—the dance, that is—popularized non-contact dancing. That’s not to say that it didn’t exist; the Stroll and the Madison are non-contact dances, but they definitely didn’t catch on the way the Twist did. So while the song dropped off the charts quickly, it also started a craze of twist records. Checker followed up the next summer with “Let’s Twist Again,” and in the meantime there was Joey Dee and the Starliters’ “Peppermint Twist”, there was “Twistin’ The Night Away” by Sam Cooke, and of course the Isleys gave us “Twist and Shout.” And these are just a few of the Twist titles that were out there. The Twist got so popular that it broke into the ranks of higher society, and sightings of celebrities doing The Twist became popular in the gossip columns. So it prompted Cameo Parkway to release the record AGAIN in the winter of 1961, and AGAIN it went to the top of the charts, making it the only non-Christmas song to top the Billboard chart on two separate chart runs with the same recording. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Chubby Checker performed a medley of “The Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again” on the Ed Sullivan Show. 1962 would also be the first time the song charted in the UK
Chubby Checker has re-recorded the song a few times, including a 1982 version he called “T-82”. So far as I know, that one wasn’t released as a single. The only single from that album which was titled The Change Has Come, was a great little progressive track called “Harder Than Diamond.” But at the time his audience was only interested in having him do the hits, and both the album and the single disappeared pretty quickly.
In 1988 Chubby Checker teamed up with rap artists The Fat Boys to do a rap version of the song, which made it to Number 16 in the United States, Number 2 in the UK and Number One in Germany and Switzerland. And of course there’s a video associated with it, that I’ll link at the website because it’s just such great 1980s fun…
OK, one more little bit of pop culture for you. The television show Quantum Leap features a character named Sam who travels through time, inhabiting people’s bodies until he can correct some flaw in history. The show often played with Sam bumping into real-life characters and having some long-lasting effect on them. For instance, in one episode Sam saves the life of a choking man, who turns out to be Dr. Heimlich. In a second-season episode, Sam is a disc jockey in Peoria, Illinois when he bumps into Chubby Checker and inadvertently teaches him The Twist…
Unfortunately this particular episode is set in 1959 and Chubby Checker hadn’t recorded the song yet, but those little History Kisses the show does are always kind of fun.
Finally, I guess it’s fair to ask whether Hank Ballard had a problem with his song being hijacked. But the truth is, Ballard was bitter toward neither Checker nor Clark, especially given the fact that King Records had no faith in the song, as evidenced by their putting it on a B side. But, since he was the songwriter, Ballard earned huge royalties when Checker’s version became a hit twice. Clark also helped out Ballard by promoting his song “Finger Poppin’ Time,” which rose to #7 around the same time “The Twist” was happening. And it’s also fun to note that when Chubby Checker’s version hit Number One the first time around, Ballard’s version was peaking at #28.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what these artists have in common? They are:
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
And Soft Cell.
The answer is that in the US, they’re considered one-hit wonders, what’s more, that one hit was a cover of another artist’s work. “Love Hurts” was a big hit for Nazareth, but years earlier, it was Roy Orbison who led the charge. UB40 had a huge hit in “Red Red Wine,” which was a hit for Neil Diamond; Manfred Mann’s Earth Band absolutely burned up the charts with “Blinded by the Light,” a song which managed to eclipse Bruce Springsteen’s version; The Fugees scored with “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” which we talked about waay back in Episode 38 as a huge hit for Roberta Flack; and finally “Tainted Love” was Soft Cell’s remarkably faithful cover of an old Gloria Jones B side from the early 1960s. Now, as I said up front, the list is kind of US-centric, since most of these artists had other Top Ten hits in the UK, but it’s not like you weren’t warned. USA! USA! US—
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when you encounter a Candle In The Wind.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.