“COME ON BABY, LET'S DO THE TWIST . . . TAKE ME BY MY LITTLE HAND, AND GO LIKE THIS"
Ronny Elliott had an unusual Mom. Not many Southern white ladies of the 1950s were deep into rhythm and blues, yet Maxine, a switchboard operator for Peninsula Telephone in Tampa, was crazy for Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris — "race music,'' it was called.
That's how teenage Ronny came to be in the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory on Howard Avenue in 1961. It was a soul summit, with Sam Cooke the headliner and heartthrob. Elliott remembers the girls "screaming at the point of fainting'' to You Send Me. But Elliott was knocked out by Hank Ballard. A slender man of medium height, Ballard was belting, sweating, the drops pouring off his high forehead under the hot lights. He and the Midnighters did their recent hit, Finger Poppin' Time, then kicked into another up-tempo tune Ballard had written. He called it The Twist.
"I see grown men having more fun than I knew you could have,'' remembers Elliott, 63. "I see them dancing like nothing I've ever seen and doing this wonderful singing, too . . . and it killed me. That may be the best rock 'n' roll performance I've ever seen.'' This from a 40-year music veteran who has shared bills with Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, Chuck Berry and Van Morrison.
By the time of the Armory show, The Twist had already become a monster hit — for another man. Ballard's version, released in 1959, got to No. 28 on Billboard's Hot 100. While it was still on the charts, Chubby Checker, an 18-year-old from Philadelphia, released his version of The Twist on hometown label Cameo Parkway. Gaining momentum from airplay on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, this second Twist, a word-for-word, note-for-note cover, went . . . galactic.
Fifty years ago this month, that simple two-and-a-half-minute song hit No. 1, bumping Elvis' It's Now Or Never. It would become only the second song to ever hit No. 1, then return to the charts and hit No. 1 again. Slews of twist songs — Twistin' the Night Away by Sam Cooke; Twist and Shout by the Isley Brothers and then the Beatles — became hits as well. In 2008, Billboard declared Checker's Twist the most popular song of the past 50 years.
The dance is what did it, though, what made The Twist a social phenomenon and an American classic. Twist-o-mania began with urban black kids, and suddenly even first lady Jacqueline Kennedy was twisting in the White House (though the press secretary denied it). In the early 1960s, everybody was doing a hip-turning shimmy-shake that Checker said went like this: "Just pretend you're wiping your bottom with a towel as you get out of the shower and putting out a cigarette with both feet.''
But we're not here to celebrate Checker and Clark, whose idea it was to cover Ballard's tune. There's far better reason to commemorate The Twist's 50th here in Tampa Bay, and Ronny Elliott lays it out in the title of one of his songs:
The Twist Came From Tampa.
It's an urban legend, and, to those who know it and buy it, a fervent claim to fame.
Can it be true?
Elliott half-sings, half-talks the tale this way, in his "hillbilly blues'' style:
Hank Ballard came through Tampa on a chitlin' circuit show,
pushed his way up through the crowd to the very first row.
A little girl in a red dress recognized the vocalist, he asked her,
"What's that they're doing?" She said, "That's the twist."
In the late 1950s the Midnighters might have been playing the Cotton Club, the Apollo Ballroom, the Little Savoy or any of the other venues along Central Avenue, then the Harlem of Tampa. The liner notes to the compilation album 1960: Still Rockin' tell the same story: Ballard wrote the song "after seeing kids do the pelvis-swiveling maneuver in Tampa, Florida.'' Some say Ballard saw those twisters — it's usually girls — out on the street, stepping out of his hotel. Maybe it was the Jackson House on Zack Street where Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and so many other black musicians and Negro League baseball players stayed, when white hotels were off-limits.
No way, Chubby Checker says. He's adamant that the screwy little swivel and accompanying arm jive did not originate with Ballard, or in Tampa, for that matter. "The twist was a dance the black kids made up to the lyrics of Hank Ballard's song, not the other way around,'' he says in an e-mail. "I saw Hank Ballard and his band perform that song when I was a kid. The Midnighters were dancing around him, in a circle. No one was twisting.''
The moves Checker made famous on Bandstand, he says, were those he'd seen on the streets of his Philly neighborhood, plus a few little fillips of his own.
In everyone's account, Ballard cut the song for Cincinnati's King Records in November 1958. And no one denies that when Checker re-recorded The Twist, producer Dave Appell set out to replicate Ballard's single: same key (E major), same number of choruses, same everything. Ray Felder, the Cincinnati tenor man on the original Ballard recording who's now 81, says, "To me, on that saxophone solo, the guy is trying to copy mine.''
To detractors, including Ronny Elliott, the cover's phenomenal success lies somewhere between a ripoff and a shame, a cruel soul-jacking of Hank Ballard's impassioned work. Ballard did earn — or was supposed to earn — composer's royalties every time Checker's The Twist was played. Later in life he thanked Checker in interviews, calling the cover "a beautiful clone.''
Checker is sensitive about that. "Look, Elvis sang Big Mama Thornton's song, Hound Dog,'' he says. "Jerry Lee Lewis sang Big Maybelle's Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On. It's not a big deal.'' Later he adds: "If Hank Ballard wasn't born, I wouldn't be here. But I was the one who took it to glory.''
"YOU SHOULD SEE MY LITTLE SIS . . .
SHE KNOWS HOW TO ROCK; SHE KNOWS HOW TO TWIST"
Glory and acrimony aside, our question remains: Where was the twist conceived?
We like it our way. "I've been in the music business a long time and I've lived in Tampa since 1968,'' says the Soulman, a.k.a. Bob Scheir, a veteran producer who hosts Blues with a Groove on Tampa's WMNF. "And Little Milton, Bobby Bland, and I can't tell you how many other artists have all told me that the kids on Central Avenue started the twist, that's where Hank Ballard saw it. That's what I know.''
Surely we can settle this by going to the source. On an undated audio clip unearthed by WFLA DJ Jack Harris, Ballard, who died in 2003, says: "We were playing a gig . . . in downtown Tampa. I can't think of the name of that hotel we was in. And they were twisting their bodies, and the lyrics just came to me . . .''
Alright, then. Isn't that the ultimate confirmation of the Tampa tale?
Sort of. "Hank said a lot of things,'' laughs Jim Dawson, author of the authoritative 1995 book, The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World. And in all their conversations Ballard never mentioned Tampa. Nor does he in the documentary Twist by Canadian Ron Mann. Instead, Ballard says watching the Midnighters' dancing moves one night gave him the notion. "I don't know where they got it from.''
"WELL THEY'VE GOT A NEW DANCE AND IT GOES LIKE THIS
YEAH, THE NAME OF THE DANCE IS PEPPERMINT TWIST”
After Checker's initial run to No. 1, he and Cameo Parkway had another hit the next year with Let's Twist Again. Then, after a Chubby appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the original hit No. 1 for the second time, in January 1962. The twist wouldn't die; it came back stronger, spawning genetic variations. How? By finding new hosts.
Marilyn Monroe was a carrier. So was Judy Garland, and she had Truman Capote with her, and Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo and Tennessee Williams. In 1961, celebrities, camera-happy politicians and the camera-wielding press descended on a dingy biker dive on West 45th Street in Manhattan, the Peppermint Lounge. Twenty-three-year-old Joey Dee (Joseph DiNicola) led the house band there, the Starliters. "Hank Ballard's Twist was the mainstay of our show,'' he says from his home in Clearwater.
Soon his funkier, more syncopated Peppermint Twist shot to No. 1, knocking off Checker's in early 1962. More twist hits followed — 23 in three years — and at least four low-ambition twist movies were rushed out. Life magazine announced: "A Pulsating, Gyrating, Hip-Swinging Mania Sweeps The U.S. and Europe.''
The first surge was kid-driven, but the second was their parents' doing, as they decided, en masse, to mix a few martinis and get down with it. "All of a sudden,'' says Dick Clark, through his publicist, "an older generation was able to admit they really liked rock 'n' roll.'' Among them were 24 Tampa Bay couples that sailed to Longboat Key and back on two cabin cruisers, and claimed they twisted for 11 hours each way.
It was so easy: Just swivel those hips — joints that some pop-culture savants believe were preloosened by Elvis and the Hula Hoop craze — and do your arms likewise. To the beat, if possible. "Some people twisted better than others,'' says Elliott, "but there was no one who couldn't twist at all.''
The movements were perfectly poised between the carnal and the cute. On some level, what Sis was doin' was the nasty. If you can look at the twist without thinking of people having sex, says music historian and author Dave Marsh, "you ought to get a medal.'' And yet, take another look. She's all by herself out there, not grinding or even touching her partner at all. That gave 1960s twisters the perfect out: sexy ways with built-in deniability.
"MY DADDY'S SLEEPING, AND MOMMA AIN'T AROUND . . .
WE GONNA TWIST IT, TWIST IT, TWIST IT, 'TIL WE TEAR THE HOUSE DOWN”
Ronny Elliott was twisting in the gym at South Tampa's Woodrow Wilson Junior High. Over at Booker T. Washington on Estelle Street, Fred Hearns was doing the same. The future city director of community affairs, now 61, had seen the kids twisting on American Bandstand, but to him and his friends, "that was our little dance.''
Was it, though? Can Tampa Bay still hope to claim any ownership? If Hank Ballard wouldn't nail that down, who will?
Cal Green, the late Midnighters' guitarist, offered yet another genesis tale. One night on the road, Green told author Dawson, a member of the gospel group the Sensational Nightingales approached him and Ballard with something scribbled on a piece of paper. He said, "We can't record this, we're a spiritual group, you can have the song." On that paper were the beginnings of The Twist, Green said — and at times, Ballard swore to this story, too.
It's unlikely enough to be true: A sacred singer creates one of the biggest touchstones of American pop. "I surely did, and that's the God-knows truth,'' says Brother Joseph "JoJo'' Wallace, 84, from his home in Durham, N.C. He still tours with the Nightingales. "In our younger days, the late Bill Woodruff and I would sing secular music, blues, sometimes. One time we were at these ladies' parlor in Camden, N.J., just balling, and I came out with, 'My baby can twist . . . Who taught you how to twist like that?' And those girls were shaking their tails so hard the candles shook.''
Wallace says another Nightingale passed the song on "to a cousin in the Royals.'' That was Ballard's Detroit vocal group, which became the Midnighters. Here's the kicker: According to both Cal Green and Brother Wallace, the location of that fateful 1957 twist hand-off was a hotel in Tampa.
So: We win. It seems Hank Ballard was either inspired by Tampa's twisting teens, or he got the initial Twist lyrics in that town — or both. Ballard and Green reworked the Twist they'd been given, turning it into a 12-bar, three-chord blues. The rest is twistory.
“LET'S TWIST AGAIN, LIKE WE DID LAST SUMMER
LET'S TWIST AGAIN, LIKE WE DID LAST YEAR”
Not everyone took to the crazy new song and dance. Chiropractors blamed it for hip and knee injuries. Stunningly, Tampa turned on the twist — its own flesh and blood. In '62 the recreation department banned the dance at all city community centers. "We discourage all weird or off-beat dancing,'' explained recreation director David Barksdale.
St. Petersburg was cooler. "We won't ever ban fad dances from our recreation centers,'' said director Jack Puryear. "If I could do the twist, I would.''
Marvin Flemmings could. He was 11 or so, and every summer day about 3 or 4 p.m, the kids and counselors at the Jordan Park Elementary School rec center would push all the tables and chairs to the cafeteria walls, pull out their 45s and dance. (If that "45'' reference confuses you, consult a parent.)
The neighborhood girls were there, too, but at that age there wasn't much mixing. Instead, Marv and his little buddies — Glen and Stef and Steve — in their T-shirts, cutoffs and tennis shoes would "get in a circle and show off all our different moves.''
Those were good times, says Flemmings, 62, a retired middle school teacher and military man who's also a WMNF DJ. Segregated times. "Yeah, but we had a real community there, everyone knew each other. We grew up together.'' His twist memories are warm and strong, bound to those other bonds.
It was silly, it was sexy. Mostly, it was innocent fun. The twist was Western decadence at its finest: a great big goof that became a massive, marketed commodity. And yes, we can declare and reaffirm, the twist came from Tampa.
When it comes to Hank Ballard, perhaps it was a shame. But it was also a joy; twisting is essentially a happy act. "It's hard to twist and not have a smile on your face,'' says Fred Hearns. He thinks there should be a statue of Hank Ballard downtown, where the clubs of Central Avenue once stood — or rather, rocked.
Why not? Come on, baby . . .
John Capouya is a professor of journalism and writing at the University of Tampa. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.