Of all the fads, foibles and crazes that swept the Sixties (and there were LOTS), few caught on as universally as The Twist.
It started when Detroit R&B singer Hank Ballard devised a song to accompany the twisting movements that his backing band, The Midnighters, had introduced while appearing at Atlanta’s Peacock Club.
Hank elaborated on the dance routine, called it “The Twist” and recorded it in November 1959. Issued as the flip of his Teardrops On Your Letter, Ballard’s version was not a hit, but when former comedy impressionist Chubby Checker performed his cover version on Dick Clark’s influential American Bandstand TV show, The Twist took off and went to #1 in September 1960.
Unlike almost any dance before it, The Twist required that partners did not touch each other.
In Chubby’s own words, it went like this; “Imagine you’ve just stepped out of the shower and you’re drying your back with a big towel. At the same time, you’re stubbing out a cigarette with your foot”.
The craze moved out of the teen arena when actress Zsa Zsa Gabor was seen dancing to Chubby’s hit at New York’s celebrated Peppermint Lounge. On 11 July 1961, an article in Billboard magazine revealed that The Twist was now popular among adults at dance club contests in Philadelphia.
Twist records quickly became a musical sub-genre of their own. There was The Peppermint Twist, The Latin Twist, Soul Twist, Ya Ya Twist, Twist and Shout, Twist Twist Senorita, Twistin’ The Night Away, Dear Lady Twist and countless others.
The ‘sensation of America’ came to Britain in 1961 when Chubby Checker’s record Let’s Twist Again stayed in the singles charts for 30 weeks.
The Twist became the most popular dance craze of the decade and also spawned clothing (Thom McAn’s ‘Chubby Checker Twister Shoe’ proved rather popular) and all manner of Twist merchandise.
Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt Kicker Five’s The Monster Mash released in October 1962, managed to spoof both the Twist and another hit dance, the Mashed Potato.
The Twist initiated a slew of new dance crazes; The Frug, The Jerk, The Swim, The Monkey, The Pony, The Shake, The Watusi and The Hully Gully. Even The Addams Family butler had a dance – The Lurch – named after him. None of these, though, would capture the imagination in quite the same way as The Twist. But not everybody was convinced.
Bishop Burke of the Catholic diocese in Buffalo, New York, banned The Twist in 1962, ensuring it could not be heard or danced to in any Catholic school, parish hall or youth club. A community dance centre in Tampa, Florida, followed suit shortly after.
Journalist Beverley Nichols put his finger on what disturbed the establishment about The Twist when he wrote: “The curious, perverted heart of it is that you dance it alone”.
In November 1964, Cathie Harvey established a world record for non-stop twisting at the Theatre Royal in Tyldesley, Lancashire by twisting for 102 hours.
As the decade closed, however, it became clear that The Twist had changed forever the way young people danced. Nobody waltzed at Woodstock. Nobody sambaed to the Stones. Virtually all subsequent free-form rock & roll writhing is descended from The Twist.