Before We Was Fab: Billy Joe & the Checkmates, “Percolator (Twist)”

Before We Was Fab: Billy Joe & the Checkmates, “Percolator (Twist)”

Before We Was Fab

Before I get too far into this series, I want to make it clear that this is not only a home for songs that were big hits or were culturally important. Novelty songs, when done right, are worth hearing too. Such is the case with “Percolator (Twist),” from a fairly obscure outfit known as Billy Joe & the Checkmates. It just happens to have the good fortune of being a hit too.

The Billboard magazine review of the song (December 11, 1961) read as such:

Instrumental has a fresh melody line and uncommon instrumentation. Merits exposure.

Yeah, I’d say that’s fair, if a bit vague. But the history behind this song is more interesting. And it starts with coffee.

For those who, like me, are firmly ensconced in the world of fancy coffee machines (my Keurig is indispensable to me), the days of the percolator are but a distant memory. But in the early ’60s, they were everywhere. And no brand was more associated with the percolator than Maxwell House, whose ad campaign from the era went like this:

Billy Joe & The Checkmates - Percolator (Twist)Using Maxwell House’s jingle as inspiration, Billy Joe & the Checkmates released “Percolator (Twist)” (b/w “Round & Round & Round & Round”) on the Doré label in late 1961. The track, with its heavily dampened xylophone providing the coffee percolator sound effect, debuted at #100 for the week ending January 13, 1962.

The song climbed steadily up the chart until peaking at #10 on March 17. It dropped fairly quickly after that and was gone by mid-April, after 13 weeks on the Hot 100. It also peaked at #8 in Australia.

In case you’re wondering who this Billy Joe person was, that’s a little complicated. Billy Joe Hunter, strictly speaking, did not exist. “Billy Joe” was simply a stage name for Doré co-founder Lou Bedell, who himself was alternately known as Lew Bedell or Lou Bideu. It was Bideu who was received a co-writing credit for “Percolator (Twist)” along with Ernie Freeman.

Despite posing as a the titual bandleader for publicity purposes, Bedell/Bideu didn’t actually play on the recording — the group you hear is Freeman (xylophone), Rene Hall (guitar), Red Callender (bass), and Earl Palmer (drums). The group (most likely with different musicians) released several more pop singles through the mid 1960s — even branching into soul/funk in the early ’70s — but as far as I can tell none of them charted.

So yes, this is a one-hit wonder. But a fun one worth listening to today.

“Percolator (Twist)” is included as part of a really fun compilation album issued by the crack team at Ace Records, The Doré Story: Postcards from Los Angeles 1958-64. I highly recommend it.