(Written by Berry Gordy and Barney Ales)
Ah yes. This, for those of you just joining us from Mars, is a record inspired by the Twist, a national dance craze inspired in turn by Chubby Checker’s 1960 #1 hit, The Twist.
(I’d make a joke about you not needing me to provide the usual YouTube link here, so ubiquitous is Checker’s hit, except that actually it’s VERY HARD to find an online copy of the original record – Checker himself re-recorded the song in the 1970s, drenched in hissy echoey hi-hat and soulless dry mixing, and that seems to be the version that’s spread itself all over YouTube like nasty 70s pondweed. So here is apparently the only copy of the 1960s version that anyone’s uploaded).
(Checker’s record was itself a toned-down, edges-sanded-off cover of an earlier B-side by Hank Ballard, apparently too raw to find favour with preppy whites, or something.)
The Twist was a big hit, sparking a dance fad across the world, but it didn’t fade over the winter of 1960. Instead, Twist-mania took hold in earnest in the spring of 1961. Checker’s year-old record ended up as the soundtrack of a second successive summer, while dancers at record hops and clubs eschewed newer hits, demanding the opportunity to show off their best well-honed Twist moves.
Gordy had initially attempted to latch on to the trend by trying to start up his own astroturf dance craze with the Contours’ second single, The Stretch; the attempt failed.
By the winter of 1961, with Checker’s single now rocketing back up the charts (it ended up back at number one) and his follow-up Let’s Twist Again –
(once again, hard to find on YouTube, which is awash with cruddy re-records – the only clip of the original I can find has film dialogue over the start of it, sorry) –
…also in the Top Ten and all over the airwaves, the dance had moved from craze to phenomenon. Spotting a good business opportunity, another act, Joey Dee and the Starliters, knocked out the “homage” The Peppermint Twist –
(and by this point, Hank Ballard aside, the desperately shoddy level of Twist coverage on YouTube is really starting to annoy me, this only extant copy of the original version of the Peppermint Twist again having film dialogue on it. Hey! YouTube Twist uploaders! Are you all total idiots? Can you seriously not tell the bleeding difference between an original record made in the Sixties, and a $1.99 bargain-bin CD re-recording? (You know the sort of thing I mean, those cheapo compilations called something like Favorite Golden Jukebox Super Oldies of America’s Favorite Dance Time With All Your Best Oldies Radio Hits of USA 1961, proudly proclaiming “all tracks performed by the original artists where possible” on the front cover, and “(but 20 years later)” hidden in tiny print on the back, meaning you get it home, tear off the shrinkwrap, stick it excitedly on the stereo and then feel your heart sink as you’re met with a burst of cheesy 80s synth horns and some vocals done by a guy who’s clearly in his early-to-mid fifties, needing the money to tide him over between headlining stints at Doo-Wop Night at the Santa Cruz Civic Center, first Tuesday of every month)? Seriously, you can’t tell? You pack of oafs. But I digress) –
…which also ended up topping the charts. A seemingly never-ending succession of small labels clamoured for a piece of the action, and so it came to pass that the market was suddenly saturated with me-too Twist records, all named (Insert Random Noun Here) Twist, all having little in common with each other except that their syncopated rhythms aped the basic pattern of Checker’s hits, making it easy for dancers to keep on Twisting.
Ironically, the glut of Twist knock-offs was too great for most of them to garner any individual attention, especially against further follow-ups from both Checker and from the Starliters (though some of the bandwagoneers did manage to break through and score decent hits – Gary “US” Bonds, Sam Cooke, the Isley Brothers). The majority sank without trace, all fighting for the same audiences, same radio airspace, same slots at record hops, choking each other like weeds blotting out the sunlight on the forest floor.
Motown was by no means immune to the temptation to jump on the Twist bandwagon. This was the first of three Twist singles released by the company within the space of a couple of weeks at the tail-end of 1961; Berry Gordy may have miscalculated the market with the Contours single, but he was never a man to turn his nose up at the chance of easy money.
“The Twistin’ Kings” were a group created by Motown solely to exploit the craze. The “group” was really the great Motown studio band, the Funk Brothers, fronted by unidentified vocalists; this is therefore the second Funk Brothers single to be issued on Motown, and the second under an assumed name (the first, Snake Walk, had been credited to “The Swingin’ Tigers” back in 1959).
The record itself is every bit as free and fun and joyful as Snake Walk, instantly likeable in its loose, raucous groove – there’s not much going on in terms of a song, more just a basic skeleton structure on which to hang an instrumental workout, but the resulting “do what you like” atmosphere leads to something almost akin to a jam session. Benny Benjamin on drums and Beans Bowles on sax are the stars of the show, along with some cracking piano riffs and a Hammond-like Ondioline part at the end.
The mystery lead vocals are well-taken, but simple in the extreme, both in terms of technique (basic) and lyrics (moronic). The Christmas references are incredibly tenuous and exceedingly loose – “everybody’s doin’ the Christmas Twist”, we’re informed some 30 or 40 times, before some perfunctory mentions of snow, yuletide and an unexpected vocal refrain of “Oooooooh… Jingle Bells”, obviously not set to the tune of “Jingle Bells”. It’s all good, nonsensical fun, though if you’re not thinking of Simpsons Christmas Boogie then you need to catch up on your television.
The thing is, though, it doesn’t really bear repeated listening. Despite it being lots of fun, and showing off some really imaginative and enjoyable playing, it’s repetitive in the extreme, and the cause is those vocals. Unlike the wholly instrumental Snake Walk, which still sounds great, the repeated vocals here (and the mundane lyrics they’re repeating) badly date the record, consigning it to the “novelty” pile, and ultimately all it does is diminish the replay value of an otherwise rocking little instrumental.
The liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 1 feature an amazing photocopy of Berry Gordy’s handwritten instructions to rush-release both this single and an accompanying album, Twistin’ The World Around with the Twistin’ Kings. The LP seems to have been bashed out at lightning speed, appearing in stores within the month and featuring tracks such as “Old Folks Twist”, “Twist A La B.G.”, “Flying Circle Twist”, “Mexican Twist” (have you spotted the theme yet?) and “Congo Twist” (the latter being spun off as a second single a fortnight after this one), as well as a none-too-subtle “COME ON, LET’S DO THE TWIST” legend printed right across the back cover in 28-point type for good measure.
Gordy’s note is a striking artefact, emphatically determined that not a second be lost getting these records in the shops in time for the holidays. He needn’t have bothered; both the single and the album were total commercial flops, and the Twistin’ Kings were quietly swept under the carpet come 1962.
(Though that might, in retrospect, have been a good thing – if the Funk Brothers had racked up a couple of hits at this early stage, they might have ended up touring endlessly as the Twistin’ Kings to diminishing crowds through the Sixties, and who knows what kind of catastrophic effect that would have had on the Motown Sound?)
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“I’ll Call You”
|The Twistin’ Kings
“White House Twist”