Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dancin' The Night Away ... On The Ed Sullivan Show!

Thought you and your Forgotten Hits readers would enjoy something I wrote for the Hartford Courant, which was published on Sunday, October 23.  

Fifty years ago last week, pop singer Chubby Checker stepped in front of the cameras on The Ed Sullivan Show and sang his Number One record of the previous year, “The Twist.”
It was a seminal moment in the history of American popular culture.  For the first time, the vast Ed Sullivan audience, including tens of millions of American adults, got to hear – and see – what their children had been talking about for months: the twist, the dance craze that was sweeping young America, in which the partners didn’t even touch each other.
Other 20th century dance fads, the Charleston and the jitterbug among them, had involved a bit of separate gyration as well as hand-holding.  But the twist took it a step further: There was no touching at all.  Each partner, to the driving beat of the music, individually moved the hands as if using a towel to dry one’s bottom, while simultaneously moving the feet as if to stub out a cigarette.  No lessons were required.  It was a sensation.
By the time of the Sullivan show, “The Twist” was already familiar to teenagers.  First cut in 1959 as the B-side of “Teardrops on Your Letter,” a low-selling Hank Ballard record, it was reborn in 1960 when redone by Chubby Checker.  Thanks in part to Checker’s multiple appearances on TV’s American Bandstand, the song – essentially a simple 12-bar blues – climbed to the top spot on the Billboard magazine pop records chart.  That set adolescents to dancing, but the phenomenon was pretty much ignored by most adults, who didn’t care about American Bandstand  or its collection of twisting teens.
New York’s glitterati, however, did take note.  When gossip columnists reported that members of the jet set were seen twisting at a small (capacity 178), hitherto little-known bar on Manhattan’s West 45th Street called the Peppermint Lounge, extra security personnel were needed to handle the crowds.  Everyone, so it seemed, wanted to twist there: Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Frank Sinatra, Liberace, Judy Garlard and many more were all out twisting on the minuscule dance floor.  The club’s house band, Joey Dee and the Starliters, recorded “The Peppermint Twist” in honor of their place of employment, and soon it, too, topped the Billboard chart.
Ed Sullivan, himself a New Yorker, knew a hot trend when he saw one, and booked Chubby Checker for his Oct. 22, 1961 show.  That led to a re-release of his version of “The Twist,” which proceeded to climb to No. 1 again – so far, the only time a record hit the top Billboard spot twice in different chart runs. 
Then there was no stopping the craze.  In 1962, at least two dozen pop records with “Twist” in the title made the charts, including “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers, “Dear Lady Twist” by Gary “U. S.” Bonds, “Twistin’ the Night Away” by Sam Cooke, and “Twistin’ All Night Long” by Danny and the Juniors.  Cuban bandleader Perez Prado recorded a pepped-up version of his 1958 worldwide hit “Patricia,” renamed it “Patricia Twist,” and had another hit.  Chubby Checker himself kept returning to the airwaves with the likes of “Let’s Twist Again,” “La Paloma Twist,” and “Slow Twistin’.”   
Even songs that had little to do with the twist mentioned the fad. “Sherry,” the Four Seasons’ massive 1962 hit, urged “”Why don’t you come out to my twist party?”  The novelty tune “Monster Mash” included a reference to “the Transylvania twist.”  When Bobby Darin redid the 1926 song “Baby Face” in 1962, he shouted “Aw, let’s twist a while!” at the instrumental break.
First lady Jacqueline Kennedy threw a twist party in Washington, complete with a recreation of the Peppermint Lounge.  Dignified British actress Dame Margaret Rutherford, playing Miss Marple in the Agatha Christie movie “Murder at the Gallop,” twisted at a high society party in the film.   In England, the Beatles – still more than a year away from being known in America – routinely closed stage shows with their remake of the Isleys’ “Twist and Shout.”   Life magazine reported that in one week in New York, 49 cases of back trouble were attributed to “too much twisting.”
Hollywood, of course, jumped on the bandwagon.  “Hey, Let’s Twist,” “Twist Around the Clock,” and “Don’t Knock the Twist” were just a few of the twist-themed potboilers hastily filmed to cash in on the fad while it lasted.  And at high schools and colleges throughout the land, there was only one fast dance to do. 
As was sure to happen, the twist generated dozens of other no-touch dances: the mashed potato, the pony, the monkey, the hully gully, the swim, the watusi, and many more.  Each had its moment in the sun, but none came close to matching the popularity of the twist.  
But by 1963, the twist itself was all but dead; at dances, teens had moved on to the jerk, the hitchhike, the fly, and others, making the twist seem hopelessly old-fashioned.  Chubby Checker tried one last time, with “Twist It Up” in the summer of 1963, but he sounded half-hearted.   It was only the unstoppable juggernaut of the British Invasion that propelled the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” up the American charts in 1964.
In the fall of 1961, however, it was a different story.  “Everybody twist!” shouted Danny and the Juniors in 1960’s “Twistin’ USA.”  And for a while, it seemed that everybody did. 
PS -- I'm well aware that with something like a pop phenomenon, it's often difficult to find a genuine "anniversary" date.  One could trace the roots of the twist back several decades, or one could choose the release date of Hank Ballard's original, or the day Chubby Checker's version first hit #1 nationally.  All are legitimate "anniversary" dates.   I chose the Sullivan show as the moment when the fad truly exploded. 
-- Henry McNulty
Without question, Chubby Checker's appearance on the program relit the fuse for "The Twist" ... and, as you said, vaulted it back to the top of the pop charts ... still the ONLY record to do so during the rock and roll era.

But The Twist wasn't the ONLY dance craze explored on The Ed Sullivan Show ... I mean, who could ever forget The Sulli-Gully?!?!?

And, just in case you forgot a few of the steps ... 

Another great dance step that totally cracked us up was "The Freddie" as performed by Freddie and the Dreamers!  (It didn't amount to much more than jumping jacks, which we all had to do in gym class every day back then anyway!!!)  But somehow Freddie Garrity made it all seem new and exciting again!

Click here: iTunes - Music Videos - I'm Telling You Now (Ed Sullivan Show Live 1965) by Freddie & The Dreamers

(You'll also find Freddie and the Dreamers performing "Do The Freddie" on the 12-DVD Set "Ed Sullivan's Rock And Roll Classics".)