1953–1969: The Novelty Dance Song Era

Rick Margin
6 min readNov 19, 2023

For people under the tender age of 50, this article may provide great laugh-out-loud entertainment and for those over 50, fun memories.

Beginning in the early 1950’s and continuing through the late 1960’s the music business experienced a steady diet of songs written to introduce listeners to a new dance step. In most cases the lyrics were instructional, and the singer demonstrated the dance as they performed. They were referred to as novelty dance songs. Their titles incorporated a variety of themes including animals, athletics and some just plain nonsense, all in the spirit of fun, fun, fun.

Their origins are traced back to the Baby Boomer’s parents who grew up in the first generation of home-based music entertainment including the radio, the turntable and school dances. Dancing was a very popular and acceptable form of both self-expression and socializing.

Beginning in the early 1950’s, the home ownership of the television exploded from 1% in 1948 to 75% by 1955.

For the first time in in dance history, songs could be used with live video to provide dance step instructions to the masses. And, following on the programming model that radio successfully used in the 1930’s and 1940’s, television program executives introduced variety shows which always featured dancing to all kinds of music. Variety shows remained a TV programming staple from the 1950’s through the 1970’s and sadly faded away. Additionally, youth targeted music programs begin to surface in the late 1950’s.

Here’s a comprehensive list of songs by their year of release along with a YouTube video to enhance your entertainment experience. For those under 50, prepare yourself for some belly laughs!

1953

1. “The Bunny Hop” — Ray Anthony was a well-known 1940’s bandleader and had a short lived TV variety show in the early 1950’s. He introduced America to the first 2 songs in this genre. This video features Lawrence Welk demonstrating the new dance and is a hoot!

2. “The Hokey Pokey” — This song and dance originated from British folk music and dance and was a music hall favorite. Here’s the Ray Anthony Orchestra.

1958

3. “The Swim” — Sung by Bobby Freeman and updated in a 1964 version titled “C’mon and Swim”. It was co-written by Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone and reached No5 on the Billboard Top 100.

4. “Willie And The Hand Jive” Sung by Johnny Otis and described as a “funky blues rendition in Bo Diddley styling”. Eric Clapton covered the song in 1974.

5. “The Stroll” — Sung by The Diamonds and reached No4 on the Billboard Top 100. It was prominently featured in 1973’s movie American Graffiti.

6. “(Baby) Hully Gully” Performed by The Olympics and reached No72 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was covered by many other musicians including Buddy Guy, Chubby Checker and the Beach Boys.

1960

7. “The Twist” Sung by Chubby Checker and has been described as one of the biggest hits of the 1960’s having reached No1 globally and returned to the top several more times in the US. This song, above all of the songs on the list, crossed over to adults.

Fun Fact: Chubby Checker was his stage name that was suggested by Dick Clark’s wife who thought it was a clever iteration of another large black performers name, Fats Domino. Clark’s American Bandstand TV show was produced in South Philadelphia where Chubby worked.

1961

8. “Pony Time” Sung by Chubby Checker reaching No1 on the Billboard Top 100.

1962

9. “Twistin’ the Night Away” Written and sung by Sam Cooke and reached No9 on the Hot Billboard 100 and achieved similar success globally. It was recorded with The Wrecking Crew, a legendary group of Los Angeles studio musicians. It was featured in 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House movie.

10. “Mash Potato Time” Sung by Dee Dee Sharp and reached No2 on the Billboard Top 100. The song “Monster Mash” was released a few months later as a parody. It was featured in recent commercials for Campbell’s Soup and AirBNB.

11. “The Loco-motion” Sung by Little Eva and reached No1 on the Billboard Top 100 and performed similarly globally. It was co-written by Carol King in hopes of Dee Dee Sharp recording it, but she passed on it. It was later released by American rock group Grand Funk Railroad and again reached No1 on the Billboard Top 100. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKpVQm41f8Y

12. “The Wah Watusi” Performed by The Orions and reached No2 on the Billboard Top 100.

13. “Hitch Hike” Co-written and sung by Marvin Gaye and reached No30 on the Billboard Top 100.

1963

14. “Blame It On The Bossa Nova” Sung by Eydie Gorme and reached No7 on the Billboard Top 100. It had similar success globally. It followed 2 months after her husband’s (Steve Lawrence) No1 release of “Go Away Little Girl”.

15. “The Dog” Written and sung by Rufus Thomas. This is a very creative video.

16. “The Monkey Time” Sung by Major Lance and reached No8 on the Billboard Top 100.

17. “Mickey’s Monkey” Performed by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and reached No8 on the Billboard Top 100. One of Smokey’s hits that he didn’t write.

18. “Walking The Dog” Written and sung by Rufus Thomas and reached No10 on the Billboard Top 100. It was recorded just months later by the Rolling Stones and has been covered by many other musicians.

1964

19. “Come On Do The Jerk” Co-written and performed by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and charted at No50 on the Billboard Top 100.

20. “Do The Freddie” Written and performed by Freddie and The Dreamers and reached No18 on the Billboard Top 100. They were a British Invasion band. This video is embarrassing!

1965

21.The Jerk” Performed by The Larks and it reached No1 on the Billboard Top 100. There are numerous other songs capitalizing on the dance’s popularity including “Cool Jerk” and “Can You Jerk Like Me”.

22. “The Skate” Performed by The Larks.

23. “The Clapping Song” Shirley Ellis released this song shortly after her big hit “The Name Game”. It was derivative of the1930’s song “Little Rubber Dolly”, which also featured the clapping game. Embarrassingly, it reached No8 on Billboards Hot Top 100 chart.

24. “Agent Double-O Soul” Co-written and sung by Edwin Starr and reaching No8 on the US R&B chart. This song was a reference to the James Bond films which were still new. He’s most known for his lead vocal on the Temptation’s No1 1970 hit “War”. Here’s Billy Preston covering it on the Ed Sullivan Show.

1967

25. “Baby, Do The Philly Dog” Performed by The Olympics described as a Northern Soul Anthem. It reached No20 on the US R&B chart. They obviously aren’t in their prime.

1969

26. “Do The Funky Chicken” Written and sung by Rufus Thomas and reached No28 on the Billboard Top 100. This is vintage 1970 video of Welsh singer Tom Jones covering the song in 1970 on his TV variety show.

Fun Facts: They were described as novelty songs, but they clearly resonated with mainstream listeners. Check out their combined performance mostly with the Billboard Top 100 chart: 76% Top 100…54% Top 10 and 33% reached No1. The impact of the British Invasion on this genre is obvious — 75% of these songs were pre-invasion. And, 80% were performed by Black musicians, which represents a huge anomaly from the racial make-up of musicians targeting youth during these years.

If I have missed a song that belongs on this list, please let me know.

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Rick Margin

A curious guy interested in both understanding & writing about meaningful issues. Email @ ric62551@gmail.com. Join in at https://medium.com/@ric625