Crazy Dance Crazes
The decade of the 1960s began with the introduction of an overlapping series of silly new dance steps -- and the songs that introduced or promoted them -- for the teen set. Among them were the Stomp, the Limbo, the Freeze, the Continental, the Mashed Potato, and the most popular and persistent of all -- the Twist.
In 1960 a portly Philadelphia teen, Ernest Evans (b. 1941), was recruited by Cameo/Parkway Records, groomed a bit, and renamed Chubby Checker. He was paired with a new cover version of "The Twist," an obscure B-side to a 1958 R&B single that Chicago's Hank Ballard and the Midnighters had written after being inspired by seeing some African American kids doing a curious new step -- one that would be noted as among the first of the dance-apart type where partners didn't touch each other. Soon after Ballard's original version peaked on the Billboard R&B charts at No. 16 in 1959, Parkway steered a copy of Checker's disc to their old crony, Dick Clark, who immediately began lavishing regular spins of the 45 on his influential American Bandstand TV show. The result was a No. 1 national hit and the launching of a major fad.
New York City's new Peppermint Lounge became the epicenter of the Twist craze and after a vanguard of glamorous celebrity jet-setters -- including Jackie Kennedy, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Judy Garland, Greta Garbo, and Prince Serge Oblensky -- each famously made the news by doing the moves at the Manhattan-based discotheque, the fad went mainstream, and the room's house band, Joey Dee and the Starliters, also scored a No. 1 hit, "Peppermint Twist -- Part I," in 1961.
The actual physical actions that comprised the Twist dance-steps became the topic of much mirth and derision by many adults for years. In the liner notes to a now-forgotten generic Twist record album, one wag poked fun at the twisters’ grotesque gyrations, stating that “by crooking their elbows, bending forward as if suddenly seized with acute appendicitis and moving their hips and shoulders in opposite directions ... the rest is Twistory.” Meanwhile, New York-based scribe Lillian Roxon described the moves this way:
“you put one foot out and pretend you’re stubbing out a cigarette butt on the floor with your big toe. At the same time, you move your hands and body as though you’re drying every inch of your back with an invisible towel. That’s the twist.”And Checker -- still a rookie when it came to publicity and in an apparent attempt to paraphrase Roxon -- was quoted as enthusing about the Twist that: “It’s like putting out a cigarette with both feet and coming out of a shower and wiping your bottom with a towel to the beat of the music. And it’s that simple.”
In mid-1961 Checker hit again with an invitational retread, "Let's Twist Again." Later, in November 1961, a second nationwide outbreak of his original "The Twist" resulted in another No. 1 one hit for the tune -- and the following month saw his "Twistin' U.S.A." enter the charts as well. Meanwhile Dee and the Starliters appeared in one of numerous Twist-related films, Hey, Let's Twist.
World's Fair Twist
The Twist phenomenon grew to the point that on January 5, 1962, The Seattle Times published a piece in response to a letter they'd received from a local fan named "Twister." The gist of Twister's public appeal was that the fair's planners consider establishing a venue on their grounds where the dance could be done: "What Century 21 needs is a Peppermint Lounge. That is the only thing lacking." The newspaper also added the misinformation that that lounge "is the New York night spot where the muscle-straining dance originated." They also got a responsive quote from the fair's amusements director, George Whitney, which revealed his lack of understanding that the Twist was rock 'n' roll: "We hope to have a jazz place on Show Street at the fair -- and I don't know why the twist wouldn't fit right in."
Meanwhile -- as Seattle finalized its preparations for the World's Fair -- the Twist-mania continued. In February 1962 Joey Dee struck again with "Hey, Let's Twist," which was followed in March by Checker's twin hits "Slow Twistin'" (a No. 3 duet with Dee Dee Sharp), and "La Paloma Twist." That same month saw Sharp enjoying a No. 2 national hit (and three-week No. 1 hit on KJR) with "Mashed Potato Time." This was followed by the Dovells and their hybrid tune, "Bristol Twistin' Annie." (The Dovells had already scored hits like 1961's "Bristol Stomp," and 1962's "Do The Continental," which they performed in the Don't Knock The Twist movie that also featured Checker, Sharp, and the Carroll Brothers.) The year also saw Checker's drummer, Bobby Gregg, score a No. 29 hit with a Twistable tune, "The Jam Part 1."
Space Needle Twist
For a spell there, it seemed that few in the entertainment biz could resist the commercial temptations of the fad. And that is how the Twist trend merged in that summer of ‘62 with the World’s Fair phenomenon.
Among the memorable artifacts documenting that are a slew of records, including Jackie Souders and the Official World’s Fair Band's “Monorail Twist,” the Frantics' “Meet Me In Seattle Twist” and “The Gayway Twist,” Tracy Thomas's “Twist Around Puget Sound,” and the Starfires' “Space Needle Twist.” The Northwest's premier R&B band, the Dave Lewis Combo, weighed in with the best of all -- a Twist tribute to their musical hero, Ray Charles: "R.C. Untwistin'." Meanwhile, Spokane’s Runabouts recorded their "Charleston Twist," Yakima's Jerry Merritt and the Crowns did their "Kansas City Twist," and Walla Walla's Gems released their "Bread and Butter Twist." It was, however, Tacoma's mega-successful rock band, the Ventures, who truly went overboard by releasing two full-length Twist albums: Twist With The Ventures and Ventures Twist Party.
The frenzied dance-craze-of-the-week milieu that existed at the time is perhaps best reflected by a few other discs from that era. Combining two distinct but concurrent dances into one musical mess, Tacoma rockers The Wailers issued “Limbo Twist” (based on Checker's No. 2 hit from 1962, "Limbo Rock"). Oh, and let's not forget Sammy Marshall and the Welchmen’s “World’s Fair Wiggle Walk.” But outdoing everyone else at combining 1962 World's Fair-era buzzwords into song titles was Colorado’s Orlie and the Saints, who recorded their “Seattle Twist And Freeze” single.
A Twist of Fate
Twenty-five years after the fact, Pat O'Day reflected that the Twist Party impacted his life in a direct way:
"That show really opened my eyes. We sold out those shows each day for two days. And that opened my eyes right here to what we could do with concerts. So, as soon as the Fair was over and the Opera House was available, I put my first show in the Opera House. There were three shows in one day -- it was in early 1963 -- I brought in an assortment of record acts and headlined Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons" (O'Day interview).
O'Day -- who would later form Concerts West (a global production company that would, for a time, surpass Lee Gordon and other veteran firms and establish itself as perhaps the world's biggest) -- continued, recalling those beginnings at the Seattle Center.
"It was a big, giant, success. So that led to quite a series of shows in the Opera House and then eventually -- after the Washington State Pavilion was gutted and turned into the Coliseum – we worked there. The first show in the Coliseum was the Beatles [in 1964], and on we went with a long series there" (O'Day interview).
O'Day and Concerts West certainly did that -- by bringing the Rolling Stones, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, and countless other top groups to Seattle.