This was written by Hank Ballard, who originally recorded it in 1959 with his group The Midnighters. Ballard was an influential R&B musician who blended rock, country and gospel in the '50s and '60s. He died in 2003.
Ballard got the idea for the song by watching The Midnighters on stage. To Hank the group often moved onstage like they were "trying to put a cigarette out." In a sense, they were twisting. Thus, the title of the song.
Hank Ballard & The Midnighters tried to get a Twist craze going with their original version of the song, doing the dance at their shows as they toured America (their dance was a little different, with band members lifting a leg to twist). It caught on in Philadelphia and in Baltimore, but was far from a national craze until Chubby Checker covered the song.
Ballard's original version was the B-side to "Teardrops On Your Letter," a song that was covered by many Country musicians. "The Twist" went over very well live and Ballard thought it was a hit, but his record company (King Records) thought "Teardrops On My Letter" would do better (it made #87). In Baltimore a deejay named Buddy Deane had a TV dance party show (The Buddy Deane Show) and played the song. The kids' reaction was excellent and Buddy recommended the song to Dick Clark, who had his own show in Philadelphia, American Bandstand. Clark loved the song but was wary of Ballard, who was known for raunchy songs like "Sexy Ways" and "Work With Me Annie." Clark, who was a media mogul with interests in record labels and artists, went looking for his own artist to break the song. He held auditions, and found a young man named Earnest Evans, a chicken plucker who liked to sing on the job. He was a great impersonator and kept everyone at the chicken plant laughing as he'd do his impersonations of the popular stars of that time like Fats Domino, Elvis, The Coasters and the Chipmunks.
Because of payola laws, Clark was technically prohibited from having financial dealings with record companies, but he had a good relationship with the Philly label Cameo-Parkway, which took care of recording and releasing the new version. Studio musicians at Cameo-Parkway, along with Evans on vocals, duplicated the Ballard version of "The Twist," which they did almost exactly: Same key, same tempo, and Evans sounded just like Hank Ballard. Clark was going to release the record but wanted Ernest to think up a stage name. Clark's wife suggested that he use a take off on Fats Domino: Fats=Chubby Domino=Checker. Ernest Evans became Chubby Checker, and after performing the song on American Bandstand, it was his version that raced up the charts. The cover was so convincing that when Hank Ballard first heard the song on the radio he thought it was him - "They cloned it" were Hank's words. Ballard was not bitter toward Checker or Clark when his version was left behind, especially since Ballard's record company had no faith in the song. Since he was the songwriter, Ballard earned massive royalties when Checker's version became a huge hit.
This started a dance craze that got so popular because it was so easy to do. Even the severely rhythm-challenged could do The Twist (Chubby Checker explained it as "like putting out a cigarette with both feet and coming out of a shower and wiping your bottom with a towel to the beat). This helped bridge a generation gap, since both kids and adults could do it.
The Twist was also a dance where the participants didn't touch each other, which became a new trend, especially with Disco dancing.
Chubby Checker hit #1 in the US with this song on September 19, 1960. That same week, the original version by Hank Ballard & The Midnighters reached its peak chart position of #28.
Hank Ballard based the melody for "The Twist" on a song he recorded the year before called "Is Your Love For Real?" which in turn borrowed from The Drifters' 1955 song "What 'Cha Gonna Do?"
This hit #1 in the US when it was released in the summer of 1960, and again after it was re-released in the winter of 1961. It is the only song to hit US #1 twice with identical versions.
The second release hit #1 in America on January 13, 1962. Around this time, the dance had become a phenomenon, with many adults - including many celebrities and scenesters - getting in on the action. Famous folks photographed doing The Twist included Zsa Zsa Gabor and Rudolf Nureyev.
Before recording this song, Checker was known for his imitations of other artists. His 1959 song "The Class" featured imitations of Fats Domino, Elvis, and The Coasters. The name "Chubby Checker" is a parody of "Fats Domino."
Checker capitalized on this by releasing "Let's Twist Again" in 1961 and "Slow Twistin'" in 1962. He went on to release a bunch of other songs with dance themes, including "The Mess Around," "The Hucklebuck" and "The Fly." By the end of 1965, Checker had an amazing 22 Top 40 hits in the US. He stayed off the charts until 1988, when he teamed up with comic rap group The Fat Boys to release yet another variation of signature hit, "The Twist (Yo Twist!)." This version was a big hit in England, going to UK #2. It hit #16 in America.
The second time this was released, it got a big boost when Checker performed it on The Ed Sullivan Show in a medley with "Let's Twist Again."
When this was released for the second time in 1961, three of Checker's albums entered the US top 10 at the same time. It was the first time this had been done in the rock era.
Checker was in the movies Don't Knock The Twist and Twist Around The Clock. He was not shy about leveraging the marketing opportunities of The Twist.
After this was released, many other groups incorporated The Twist in their songs. Here's a breakdown with US chart position. As you'll see, but 1962, America was pretty much obsessed with The Twist, with even Frank Sinatra getting on board:
"Twistin' U.S.A" by Danny & The Juniors (#27)
"Twistin' Bells" by Santo & Johnny (#49, a Christmas song)
"(Let's Do) The Hully Gully Twist" by Bill Doggett (#66, instrumental)
"Kissin' And Twistin'" by Fabian (#91)
"Let's Twist Again" by Chubby Checker (#8)
"The Peppermint Twist" by Danny Peppermint (#54)
"Twistin' U.S.A." by Chubby Checker (#68)
A re-released "The Twist" hits #1 on January 13, and stays there for 2 weeks. It is replaced by "Peppermint Twist - Part I" by Joey Dee & The Starliters, which holds the top spot for 3 weeks.
"Slow Twistin'" by Chubby Checker w/ Dee Dee Sharp (#3)
"Dear Lady Twist" by Gary (U.S.) Bonds (#9)
"Twist, Twist Senora" by Gary (U.S.) Bonds (#9)
"Twistin' The Night Away" by Sam Cooke (#9)
"Percolator (Twist)" by Billy Joe & The Checkmates (#10, instrumental)
"Soul Twist" by King Curtis & The Noble Knights (#17, instrumental)
"Twist And Shout" by The Isley Brothers (#17)
"Hey, Let's Twist" by Joey Dee & The Starliters (#20)
"Twistin' Matilda (And The Channel)" by Jimmy Soul (#22)
"Twist-Her" by Bill Black's Combo (#26, instrumental)
"Bristol Twistin' Annie" by The Dovells (#27)
"Twistin' Postman" by Marvelettes (#34)
"The Alvin Twist" by The Chipmunks (#40)
"Twistin' With Linda" by The Isley Brothers (#54)
"Meet Me At The Twistin' Place" by Johnnie Morisette (#63)
"Patricia - Twist" by Perez Prado (#65, instrumental)
"Twistin' All Night Long" by Danny & The Juniors w/ Freddy Cannon (#68)
"La Paloma Twist" by Chubby Checker (#72)
"Ev'rybody's Twistin'" by Frank Sinatra (#75)
"Oliver Twist" by Rod McKuen (#76)
"Do You Know How To Twist" by Hank Ballard (#87)
"The Basie Twist" by Count Basie (#94, instrumental)
"Guitar Boogie Shuffle Twist" by The Virtues (#96, instrumental)
"Tequila Twist" by The Champs (#99, instrumental)
There were a few more Twists in 1963, and in 1964 The Beatles returned "Twist And Shout" to the charts (#2), but that was all the twisting of the '60s.
The Twist craze didn't catch on in England until 1962, after this was released for the second time. That's when it charted in the UK.
The Twist was a worldwide phenomenon. Checker recorded versions in Italian, German and French.