Hank Ballard 1927-2003

RHYTHM & BLUES singer Hank Ballard (76) died of throat cancer on March 2 at his home in Los Angeles. His chief claim to fame is that he wrote ‘The Twist,’ a dance number that went on to become a Number One pop hit for Chubby Checker in September 1960 and again in the first weeks of 1962.

The dance itself (possibly invented by Checker or some Philadelphia choreographer) became immensely popular in clubs and discothèques around the world and is said to be the first dance where the partners do not have to touch each other—breaking ground for the likes of the Jerk, the Shimmy, the Boogaloo, the Watusi, the Hully Gully, the Dog, the Duck, the Monkey, the Horse, the Mashed Potatoes… well, you get the picture. To the vast majority of people who have heard of him, Hank’s legacy stops there. However, he was a great rhythm & blues singer whose records were solid examples of super-fine, pre-soul, African American music.

Ballard was born John Henry Kendricks on November 18, 1927 in Detroit. When he was 7 he was sent to Bessemer, Alabama to be raised by strict Baptist relatives after his father died. On one hand he was exposed to gospel music, which he took to. On the other, the restrictions he was under were too much for him and he ran away when he was 15. Back in Detroit, Ballard worked on the Ford assembly line and soon joined The Royals, a local doo-wop group that was brought to the Federal label by Johnny Otis after winning a talent contest (losing the contest were Little Willie John and Jackie Wilson, who then joined The Dominos). The Royals’ ‘Every Beat of My Heart’—written by Otis—made a little noise in 1952. The next year, ‘Get It’ was a Top Ten R&B hit. Ballard wrote that one.

In 1954, when the well-established 5 Royales signed to Federal’s mother label King, Ballard’s group changed its name to The Midnighters. Ballard’s ‘Work With Me, Annie’ was a Number One hit for seven weeks that year and remained on the charts for six months. In fact, The Midnighters became more popular than The 5 Royales ever were. Also, the song begat an ‘Annie’ craze with several answer songs – ‘Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)’ by
Etta James being the most popular, which was answered by The Midnighters with ‘Henry’s Got Flat Feet’ – and The Midnighters followed it up with ‘Annie Had a Baby’ and ‘Annie’s Aunt Fanny.’

After ‘It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)’ peaked at Number Ten in 1955, The Midnighters’ disappeared from the charts in spite of the excellence of more than a dozen singles released until their next hit. ‘Tore Up Over You,’ ‘Ow-Wow-Ow-Wee,’ and ‘Sweet Mama Do Right’ were among the great records that somehow got over looked at the time. In 1958, the group cut a demo that included ‘The Twist,’ and it was on the strength of the demo that got the group re-signed to King Records and releases were subsequently issued under the name Hank Ballard & the Midnighters. ‘The Twist’ was originally issued as the B-side to the ballad ‘Teardrops on Your Letter,’ which went to Number 4 R&B in 1959. The enterprising Dick Clark heard ‘The Twist’ and decided to cut it with local Philadelphia talent Chubby Checker. To get the whole story on this, read Jim Dawson’s superb book The Twist : The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World.

During 1960 and ’61, while ‘The Twist’ was doing good business for Checker, Ballard charted with several of his own songs, including his version of ‘The Twist,’ which was re-released to cash in. ‘Finger Poppin’ Time,’ Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go,’ ‘The Switch-a-Roo,’ ‘The Float’ and ‘Nothing But Good’ were Top Ten R&B hits. However, after this, there was another dry spell. In 1963, the records were released under his name alone, but it didn’t break his streak of bad luck—’Shakey Mae,’ ‘Sloop and Slide,’ ‘She’s the One’ and ‘I Don’t Know How to Do but One Thing’ all should have been hits. Other notable songs are ‘Sugaree,’ a great, rockin’ version of the Marty Robbins rockabilly tune; ‘Broadway,’ which features his band on a quick, tough vamp as Hank and the boys shout the title of the song over and over at appropriate, exciting moments; a 1963 re-working of ‘It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)’ produced by James Brown (who was greatly influenced by The Midnighters) is prototypical soul music; and ‘The Continental Walk,’ which originally came with a picture sleeve that explains how to do the dance.

In 1968, Ballard re-connected with James Brown for a series of records and an album. Key among these recordings is the boss funk of ‘How You Gonna Get Respect (When You Haven’t Cut Your Process Yet),’ which has backing by The Dapps, a white group that was working with JB at the time. Other recordings during this period feature the musicianship of a couple of local brothers who hung around the King Records studios in Cincinnati: William ‘Bootsy’ and Phelps ‘Catfish’ Collins, who would later work in The J.B.’s and Parliament. Ballard continued to work with JB through the early seventies, including a track on The Godfather of Soul’s Get on the Good Foot album called ‘Recitation by Hank Ballard,’ wherein Ballard takes nearly six minutes to praise James Brown on his own album.

Through most of the ’70s, and, indeed, the rest of his life, Ballard was relegated to the oldies circuit. The Grim Reporter first witnessed Hank Ballard live at a Rock’n’Roll Revival show around 1971. The Johnny Otis Orchestra backed him and the show was sublime. Another notable show was during the mid-’80s. He was backed by The Lee Allen Orchestra (AKA The Blasters) at The Club Lingerie in Hollywood. More than twenty years after his prime, the man could still shake it loose.

While in New York City in the early ’90s, his wife was hit by a car in the afternoon and he played a show that night at the Lone Star. Hank continued to perform and record through the nineties. In 1993, he released Naked in the Rain and, in 1998, From Love to Tears.

© Phast Phreddie Patterson, March 2003

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