Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Chubby Checker, Dick Clark, and the Power of the Tube!

On this day 58 years ago – August 6, 1960 – the 18 year-old singer and dancer Chubby Checker performed The Twist on American TV for the first time on the rock ‘n’ roll variety show American Bandstand.

Dick Clark American Bandstand
Dick Clark in 1961, looking young

For reasons we will discuss, American Bandstand was, both artistically and socially, one of the most important programs ever broadcast on television. It aired for an incredible 37 seasons, from October 7, 1952 (when Harry Truman was President of the United States) until October 7, 1989 (three years before the election of Bill Clinton).

(In case you were wondering, the longest-running television show of any kind, anywhere, is NBC’s Meet the Press, which made its debut on November 6, 1947; it has run continuously for 70 years and 9 months!)

In its 37-year run, some 3000 episodes of American Bandstand were produced.  From 1952 until 1964, the showwasfilmed in Philadelphia at the studios of WFIL, the local ABC affiliate. (That would have been channel 6; having grown up in South Jersey watching Philadelphia TV, it was one of the three network channels we received, along with WCAU – channel 10, which was then the CBS affiliate – and KYW, channel 3, which was then the NBC affiliate.  Three channels.  Deciding what to watch in those days was rather easier than today!)  

The list of performers who appeared on American Bandstand over the years – rock, pop, soul, and country musicians – absolutely beggars our belief; you can look that list up on Wikipedia.  We are left breathless as well by the list of musicians who made their national television debuts on the show, a list that includes Prince, Sonny and Cher, Ike and Tina Turner, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Talking Heads, the Jackson Five, the Beach Boys, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Aerosmith, Simon and Garfunkel, Madonna, Iggy Pop (who was known to his parents Luella and James as James Newell Osterberg Jr.), and yes, Chubby Checker.  American Bandstand became the prototype for a generation of musical TV shows, from Soul Train (which ran for 1117 episodes from 1971 to 2006) and Hee Haw (which ran for 655 episodes between 1969 and 1993), to such shorter running shows as Shindig (1964-1966) and Hullaballo (1965 to 1966).  

It has been argued that American Bandstand set the stage for Fox’s American Idol, (which first aired on June 11, 2002) and the cable channel MTV, which was launched on Saturday, August 1, 1981 at 12:01 am Eastern Time.  (The first music video broadcast on MTV – available only to homes in New Jersey – was Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles The video and the song – both popular in their day – are, respectively, magnificently dated and perfectly awful, and their presence in the homes of New Jersey on August 1, 1981 explains – to me, at least – many subsequent and unsavory events in that oft-beleaguered state.  As a public service, a link to the The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star has been provided.

For 33 years of it’s 37-year run, the host of American Bandstand was the seemingly ageless (though unfortunately not deathless) Richard Wagstaff Clark (1929-2012).  “Dick” Clark was born and raised in Mount Vernon, New York.  He attended Syracuse University, and in 1952, at the age of 24, he moved to Philadelphia and took a job as a disc jockey at WFIL radio.  On July 9, 1956, after Bandstand’s host Bob Horn was arrested for drunk driving and consequently fired, the not-quite 27 year-old Clark became the show’s new host.

From both a musical and social point of view, Clark’s ascension was a spectacularly important event, taken as widely as we please.  Soon after he took over, Clark ended Bandstand’s segregated, all-white policy and began featuring black performers, starting with Chuck Berry.  It took him time, but Clark also managed to integrate his studio audiences as well, no small feat in those earliest days of the Civil Rights movement and desegregation.  

According to wonderful Diana Ross: 

“Dick was always there for me and Motown, even before there was a Motown. He was an entrepreneur and a visionary and a major force in changing pop culture and ultimately influencing integration.”

By the end of 1958, the now nationally syndicated American Bandstand had a viewership of over 20 million and the 29 year-old Clark had become one of the most important and influential people in the United States.  According to Hank Ballard, who wrote The Twist, Dick Clark: 

“was big. He was the biggest thing in America at that time. He was bigger than the president!”

Ballard, who was a Black American, was not just referring to Clark’s impact on race.  You see, one of the reasons American Bandstand became such a tremendous success was Clark’s clean-cut, non-threatening persona and his easy rapport with his teen audiences.  At a time when rock ‘n’ roll was considered by “the older generation” – parents, religious leaders, politicians, and older musicians – to be sonic pornography, Clark managed to present rock ‘n’ roll in a manner that made it acceptable to those same “grown ups.”

Dick Clark might have been young, but he was well aware of the challenges he faced, later saying that:

“I was roundly criticized for being in and around rock and roll music at its inception. It was the devil’s music, it would make your teeth fall out and your hair turn blue, whatever the hell. You get through that.”

Clark did indeed “get through” it. Like that of other great impresarios like Serge Diaghilev, Sol Hurok, and Bill Graham, Dick Clark’s greatest talent was spotting and then showcasing other talent.  And one of the many artists Clark showcased was a young singer and dancer named Ernest Evans, who went by the stage name of “Chubby Checker”.  While Checker was born in Spring Gully, South Carolina, he grew up in the projects in South Philly.  Dick Clark became aware of him in early 1959, when Checker recorded a novelty single called “The Class” (in which he imitated – among others – Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and the Chipmunks singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). 

Soon after – sometime in late 1959 or early 1960 – a Baltimore-based disc jockey named Buddy Dean suggested Dick Clark listen to a song written and recorded by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters called The Twist.  Clark liked it, and tried to book Ballard onto his show, but for reasons inexplicable, Ballard wasn’t available.  (Not available for American Bandstand? What: are you kidding?) So Clark asked the young Philadelphia local Chubby Checker to perform The Twist on his show, along with a dance described: “as someone toweling himself off while grinding a cigarette butt with his toes.”

Kaboom.  Checker’s version of the song and his dance went viral.  His recording remains – to this day – the all-time number one ranked song on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.  And Checker’s dance step – the TWIST – virtually revolutionized social (or should we say “asocial”) dancing.  Observes Billboard’s Brad Shoup:

“It was a simple dance that didn’t require touching, or even a partner: perfect for kids looking to cut loose. The dance was so popular, in fact, that after The Twist left the charts, twisting stayed on the floor.”

Chubby Checker in 2017
Chubby Checker in 2017, looking great

As has Chubby Checker, who – at the present age of 76 – looks like a million bucks and continues to perform.

Happy anniversary Maestro Checker!

For lots more information on the birth and social significance of rock ’n’ roll, I would humbly direct your attention to my Great Courses survey, “Great Music of the 20th Century”, which can be sampled and downloaded here. I would also invite you to join me at Patreon