In 1961, the top 40 was dominated by Elvis, Chubby Checker, and the Shirelles. The Beatles were still playing small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg, and here in Tennessee “Rocky Top” wouldn’t be written for another six years. But a dance fad, and the song it inspired, gave UT a moment on the musical map.
Harry Middlebrooks was a senior at Georgia Tech, playing dances and fraternity parties in Georgia and Alabama with his band, the Collegians, when he noticed people doing a new dance. “I asked somebody, ‘What’s that?’” Middlebrooks remembers, “and they said it started in Tennessee.” It was the U-T.
Middlebrooks was eager to launch a music career and had been encouraged by record producer Bill Lowery. Late that summer, he wrote the song “The U-T” and recorded it and a few other songs at NRC Recording Studio in Atlanta. He was backed by a group of musicians that included a couple of his former bandmates as well as Chet Atkins’s nephew Jimmy Atkins on guitar, using the hastily improvised name Harry M. and the Marvels.
Felton Jarvis, who engineered the recording, had introduced Middlebrooks to Lowery and was so enthused about “The U-T” that he called Lowery right away.
“The next day—the next day!—I was driving back down to my hometown, Thomaston, down below Atlanta, and had on WQXI radio. And there was my song on the radio!” says Middlebrooks, whose joy in the moment easily spans the 60 years that have passed. “They played a tape—it wasn’t even on a record yet.”
Compounding his surprise, Middlebrooks was hearing a different version of “The U-T.” Jarvis and Lowery, thinking the song could use more excitement, had brought Lowery’s teenage daughters into the studio the night before to add the excited screams that make the record sound like a live performance.
“It hit immediately, and it was number one on that Atlanta station for five weeks,” says Middlebrooks. The record’s popularity quickly spread. An appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand—a sure route to a hit in those days—was in the works, but negotiations stalled over Clark’s demand for half the publishing rights. The group was booked instead on another teen dance broadcast, The Buddy Deane Show.
They played radio shows and concert dates across the country, including a big KBOX radio show in Dallas, where audiences assumed the song was about the University of Texas. “I didn’t tell them any different,” Middlebrooks laughs.
The group never played in Knoxville, though. “I don’t know why,” he says. “We should have, but they never booked me there.”
In Chicago, he recalls, the label sent professional dancers to teach the U-T. Middlebrooks didn’t know it himself until after the record came out. “My younger sister had to teach it to me,” he says. He remembers the steps as being fairly simple: “You just kind of popped your knees back and forth, left and right—it was pretty easy.” A November 1961 story in the Knoxville News Sentinel describes the dance as having “short, jerky steps . . . and arms moved front and back at shoulder level.”
The same story reported that the U-T was already being eclipsed by a new fad, the Hoss. But its influence lived on musically, in the form of several more songs with confusingly similar names. There was “The U.T.” by the Sparkles and “Do the U.T.” by the Campus Queens, both released in 1962, and four years later, “The U.T.” by Lee Washington.
The spoken-word “UT Party” had been released by famed Memphis deejay George Klein on Sun Records in March 1961 but got little play. It features a confusing reference to “the boys in blue,” likely originating in Klein’s well-known love of the Memphis Tigers.
Middlebrooks went on to a wide-ranging career as an entertainer: he cowrote the 1967 top 10 hit “Spooky,” released a dozen of his own albums and recorded with artists including Glen Campbell and Johnny Mathis, toured with Elvis Presley, headlined a variety show on ABC, and appeared in a long list of shows and films. He even voiced two of the original characters in Disney’s Country Bears Jamboree—“I was Shaker and Zeke,” he says. Now mostly retired, he lives in Los Angeles.
Dance crazes kept going, too, through the disco era to the Macarena and the Cupid Shuffle and now the latest TikTok dances—done by teenagers who likely have no idea their great-grandparents once tore up the dance floor doing the U-T.
Do you remember these songs or did you do the U-T on the dance floor? Tell us all about it! Comment below or email your memories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update, November 1, 2021: So many readers responded to this story that we compiled their emails and comments in a follow-up post, “Your Memories of Dancing the U-T.”
Feature illustration by Susanne Morton with image from Knoxville News Sentinel