[4 March 2011]
Chubby Checker was no rock ‘n’ roll pioneer or R&B innovator but he knew how to have fun singing about dancing apart to the beat. With a little help from locally based hitmaker Dick Clark and his nationwide television show American Bandstand, the 17-year-old former chicken plucker from Philadelphia recorded a virtual carbon copy of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ ‘58 B-side “The Twist” and gyrated himself to the top of the US charts in the summer of 1960 - - losing a good 30 pounds in 14 months getting down at personal appearances.
Checker was and is a consummate showman. Subsequently crowned the “King of the Twist” by label and press alike, Checker went on to record a string of variations on a common theme throughout the early ‘60s—such as “Slow Twistin’”, “Twist It Up”, “Twistin’ U.S.A, “Mister Twister”, “Twistin’ Around the World”, “Love Is Like a Twist”, “Peppermint Twist”, them “Twistin’ Bones”, and “Let’s Twist Again” (you get the picture) for Cameo-Parkway. And when he needed a break from twistin’, you can bet there were plenty of other dances to sing about, including a standout swinging interpretation of Don Covay’s “Pony Time”.
Both It’s Pony Time and Let’s Twist Again were released during the height of the novelty song dance craze in ‘61, and are two of Checker’s most musically ambitious albums. For instance, It’s Pony Time bucks the trend with not one of its 12 dance numbers mentioning the Twist in their titles—the lyrics are another matter entirely—while Let’s Twist Again offers the singer a chance to wrap his vocal chords around exceptional covers of bluesman Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind”, a street corner harmony update of Pearl Bailey’s salacious ‘52 Coral recording “Takes Two to Tango”, and to give the show tune “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady a Marcels-style doo-wop makeover.
Yet, like all Checker’s albums, even these two very fine records will wear down the most resilient ‘60s teen-pop fan through repeat listens. For some, just putting these two albums together in one package may very well prove too much of a challenge. Listening to one polished song after another just magnifies their structural similarities, where reusing the same chords, beats, and words was commonplace, reminding us that Motown was not the only hit factory supplying the charts with a steady stream of product for the kids.
Having said that, a great number of these fun songs have stood the test of time and are worth forming a “big boss line” for, such as “The Watusi”, “Dance the Mess Around”, Checker’s cover of Gary “US” Bond’s “Quarter to Three”, and the “Continental Walk”. To paraphrase the big man himself—it’s cherry-pickin’ time! Maybe thanks to individual downloads and shuffle mode, twistin’ fever threatens to infect a new generation.