Hank Ballard: A Simple Twist of Fate

Chubby Checker may have become synonymous with ‘The Twist’, but that didn’t bother the song’s composer. “It was a blessing for me,” said Hank Ballard of Checker’s multi-million seller. David Burke looks back at the career of an artist who was at the vanguard of rock’n’roll. 

“I GAVE THE world the biggest dance craze ever,” boasts Hank Ballard in Ron Mann’s 1992 documentary, Twist. However disputable the claim – and that’s a dispute best mediated by dance connoisseurs – there’s no doubt that Ballard’s song, ‘The Twist’, remains one of rock’n’roll’s defining moments.

Unfortunately for Ballard, that moment was defined not by his version, but by Chubby Checker’s, which went to number one Stateside on two separate occasions in 1960 and 1961, and also topped Billboard magazine’s all-time Hot 100 singles chart. Furthermore, it has been added to America’s National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress for long-term preservation.

Ballard wrote ‘The Twist’ in 1958, adapting the melody of a previous composition, ‘Is Your Love for Real’ (itself inspired by the Drifters’ ‘What’cha Gonna Do’), to a new set of lyrics. But when he went to record the single at King Records with his band, the Midnighters, producer Henry Glover plumped for ‘Teardrops On Your Letter’ (which he had penned) as the A-side, relegating ‘The Twist’ to the B-side.

The track became popular on a Baltimore television dance show hosted by Buddy Dean. He recommended it to Dick Clark, who attempted to book Ballard on American Bandstand. Ballard was unable to appear, and so Clark auditioned for a replacement, finally choosing Checker because of his and Ballard’s similar vocal styles. The rest is history – history that could have left Ballard an embittered man. Yet he told a 1980 interviewer, “That was the best thing that ever happened to me when Chubby Checker did it.”

Ballard went on to explain, “What happened to me, my company had lost the record. They didn’t have any faith in it. I was the only one that had faith in the record. I knew that this record should have been a hit. Dick Clark heard it and he felt the same way I felt about it.

“A lot of people think I got ripped off, but that was a real blessing for me, cos it heightened my career. My career skyrocketed along with Chubby Checker’s. He was getting all the money, but it got me a few pennies!”

Whatever money Ballard earned off Checker’s sensational success with ‘The Twist’, was money well deserved for an artist who had been paying his dues since the embryonic days of rock’n’roll in the early ’50s.

Born John Henry Kendricks on November 18, 1927 in Detroit, Ballard was sent to Bessemer, Alabama, at the age of seven to be raised by strict Baptist relatives after the death of his father. An exposure to gospel music in these formative years was exciting, but the rigid regime imposed by the denomination wasn’t, and so, at 14, Ballard fled back to Detroit, where he worked at the Ford motor plant by day, and performed with the Royals at night.

“The Royals was already an organised group, but they were looking for a replacement, to replace the baritone singer that was inducted into the army,” recalled Ballard. “And they used to hear me sing up and down the assembly line, so they asked me if I wanted to audition for the replacement and I gave it a try.”

Early touchstones for Ballard included country star Gene Autry and Jimmy Rushing, the singer with Count Basie’s big band. “I listened to country and western music because there was no black radio then. Gene Autry was my first inspiration. I would try to emulate his beautiful voice.”

Of Rushing, Ballard said, “When I was a kid, I used to sneak out the window at my home in Bessemer, and get up to Birmingham – 12 miles away – whenever Count Basie would come to town. I was attracted to that nasal sound that Jimmy had. There’s something about it that people just love. That raspy, nasal sound always sells records. I used to walk around with a clothespin on my nose, trying to develop Rushing’s sound. Of course, I wound up with my own sound.”

In 1951, the Royals won an amateur talent contest at the Paradise Theatre in Detroit, capturing the attention of band leader Johnny Otis. He signed them to a one-year contact with Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based King Records. There, they had to change their name because it was too close to the “5” Royales, and so they became the Midnighters.

“I started writing for the group,” said Ballard. “And somehow or another, the lead was switched around. The guy who was singing lead originally liked the ballad type. I thought there should be some adjustments made to get away from the sweet Orioles sound. All the groups at the time would sound like Sonny Till and The Orioles, and I wanted to go funky. So what happened, I came up with this song called ‘Work With Me, Annie’, and it was an overnight smash.”

A 12-bar blues, ‘Work With Me, Annie’ was released on Federal Records at the beginning of 1954, and was immediately the subject of controversy when the Federal Communications Commission objected to the overtly sexual lyrics, including the lines, ‘Annie, please don’t cheat/Give me all my meat’.

But the FCC’s attempts to have the record banned only stoked interest, and it shot to number one on the R&B chart, staying there for seven weeks and selling more than a million copies.

‘Annie Had a Baby’ and ‘Annie’s Aunt Fannie’, both issued the same year, peaked at number one and ten respectively, spawning a litany of so-called answer songs, among them Etta James’ ‘The Wallflower’ (popularly known as ‘Roll With Me, Henry’) and Georgia Gibbs’ ‘Dance With Me, Henry’.

Apart from ‘It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)’, the Midnighters endured a fallow period in the three years that followed, with the likes of ‘Tore Up Over You’, ‘Ow-Wow-Ow-Wee’ and ‘Sweet Mama Do Right’, all failing to trouble the charts. They were eventually dropped by King.

Then, in 1958, the band cut a demo that included ‘The Twist’, got re-signed to King Records and were reinvented as Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.

While many on the roster had a difficult relationship with Syd Nathan – who, according to legend, ruled like a dictator – Ballard wasn’t one of them. “A lot of people hated Syd, but I liked him. I didn’t make a lot of money in royalties, but he did care about me. He looked after my interests.

“But Syd couldn’t hear hits. When James Brown came to the label, [producer] Ralph Bass and I had to go to bat for him on ‘Please, Please, Please’. Syd said, ‘What kinda record is that? He kept saying please, please, please, and I thought the record was stuck!’

“That’s how I lost ‘The Twist’. He just couldn’t hear it. They put out ‘Teardrops On Your Letter’ and they thought that was the hit. I kept saying, ‘Turn it over for ‘The Twist’ – that’s the monster!'”

And indeed it was a monster, but not for Ballard. He was a mere spectator as Chubby Checker took the song into the stratosphere, inspiring a dance craze and subsequently ushering in a slew of other new dances such as the Pony, the Fly, the Watusi, the Monkey and the Jerk, each bidding to capitalise on the same combination of sound and movement.

Ballard and the Midnighters did re-issue ‘The Twist’ – this time as an A-side – in 1960, reaching number 28 on the Billboard chart and six on the R&B rundown. They fared better with ‘Finger Poppin’ Time’, ‘Lets Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go’, ‘The Hoochie Coochie Coo’ and ‘The Switch-a-Roo’.

And Ballard himself was always philosophical about the one that got away. “It was all about business,” he said. “King owned the publishing and made money no matter who recorded ‘The Twist’. Dick Clark was playing ‘Finger Poppin’ Time’ every day to keep from playing my version of ‘The Twist’. That was just the way it was supposed to be. I’m not bitter.”

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ trademark driving rhythms, honking saxophones and fiery guitars pulled in the audiences wherever they played – by the early 1960s, their diary had some 300 bookings a year. And even Elvis Presley was a fan, despatching a state trooper to their hotel when they were staying in Memphis, to bring them to Graceland for a meeting.

The Midnighters’ guitarist, Billy Davis, remembered, “The trooper said, ‘Which one of you is Hank Ballard?’ We all pointed to Hank at once and said, ‘He is!’ The man said, ‘Elvis Presley would like to meet you’.” A reticent Ballard only went to Elvis’ mansion when the rest of the Midnighters set off without him.

The Midnighters disbanded in 1968, Ballard blaming the break-up on the Nation of Islam. “My whole group became Muslims and I had to take them to court in 1967, because they didn’t want to play no more white dates, or sign autographs for white people – ‘All white people are devils’, and all that shit.

“We were in Nassau doing a gig and I said something derogatory about [Nation of Islam leader] Elijah Muhammad and they all jumped me. I knew that they were so fanatic that they would eventually kill me, so I took them to court to preserve the whole trade name of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.”

Ballard joined James Brown’s revue at the tail end of the ’60s, Brown having cited the Midnighters as a major influence on his own Famous Flames, and went on to have a handful of regional soul hits with ‘From the Love Side’, ‘Let’s Go Streakin” and ‘Hey There, Sexy Lady’, in the next decade.

He then enjoyed something of a renaissance in the mid-’80s, with the re-release of classic material from the 1950s, and a cover of ‘Look at Little Sister’ by bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan. Ballard reunited with the Midnighters to play the oldies circuit at home and abroad. A 1986 performance in London’s Hammersmith was broadcast on the BBC and issued on CD.

Ballard accepted his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, with mixed emotions. Months earlier, his wife and manager, Theresa MacNeil, was killed by a hit and run driver in New York City.

Singer-songwriter Boz Scaggs inducted Ballard, quoting the latter’s life philosophy – “It’s all about having a good time, and feeling good, and looking fine, and having some laughs, and getting others to do the same” – while also describing the inductee as “a very vital, very positive, very dynamic man”.

Ballard broke down in tears during a tribute to MacNeil, later telling the media, “I heard one of the inductees say it [the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame] didn’t mean a damn thing to him. But this means everything to me.”

By the turn of the century, his health was failing. He struggled with throat cancer for several years before finally succumbing to the disease at his Los Angeles property on March 2, 2003, at the age of 75.

“There’s no medicine out there as great as music,” Ballard declared in 1996. “There’s something about music that’s just therapeutic. If you’re looking for youth, you’re looking for longevity, just take a dose of rock’n’roll. It keeps you going, just like caffeine in your coffee. Rock’n’roll is good for the soul, for the well-being, for the psyche, for your everything. I love it. I can’t even picture being without rock’n’roll.”

A sentiment no doubt shared by all readers of Vintage Rock.

Sidebar: Chubby Checker

TEEN PRODIGY Chubby Checker asked his mother to pray for a hit single after his debut, ‘The Class’, peaked at a disappointing number 38 on the Billboard chart in 1959. Her prayers were answered with Hank Ballard’s ‘The Twist’.

“She said that she had a dream that I would record a song that would belong to someone else, and it would cover the entire world,” the artist formerly known as Ernest Evans, recalled.

That someone else was Hank Ballard, whom Checker, still in high school at the time, had seen perform the song with the Midnighters at the Uptown Theatre in his native Philadelphia, and heard the original version many times on the radio. But little did he know his version would go on to achieve the kind of immortality that eluded Ballard – with a considerable helping hand from American Bandstand host Dick Clark.

“To me it was just a hit record that I needed very badly, because the first song I made didn’t reflect the coolness I thought I possessed,” said Checker.

“When ‘The Twist’ came along, I thought, ‘Oh, now I’m cool’. And I didn’t know at the time, but that song changed Dick Clark’s life as well. What we brought to the industry is the style that is still being done in the dancefloor to everybody’s music. I look at the girl and the girl looks at me, and we are fully dressed, exploiting our sexuality. That’s what we brought to the dancefloor and it’s still there.”

Checker recorded his vocal in 45 minutes – then he dashed home to study.

“When I got to the studio, the tracks were already finished. All that the music needed as my voice. I sang the song four times. Dave Apple, who produced the recording, said, ‘Chubby, that line, ‘Daddy sleeping and Mama ain’t around’, is a little flat. I said, ‘Dave, I’m going home to do my homework. I think my grades are in trouble and graduation is around the corner. They’ll never know’.”

Asked to explain the enduring appeal of ‘The Twist’ and the dance it inspired, Checker suggested that “people are addicted to simplicity. Keep it fun. Keep it stupid. Make sure it’s a little sexy. ‘The Twist’ has all of these elements.”

He did, however, claim years later that the song had ruined his life.

“I was on my way to becoming a big nightclub performer, and ‘The Twist’ just wiped it out. It got to out of proportion. No-one ever believes I have talent,” Checker lamented to Jim Dawson, author of The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World.

Sidebar: James Brown

THEY SAY YOU should never meet your heroes – but, for Hank Ballard, it was more a case of you should never meet your hero-worshippers.

When he was touring with the Midnighters in the ’50s, a regular member of the audience member on Georgia dates was none other than James Brown. Yes, that James Brown.

“James used to follow us around. I used to be his idol, He was all Hank Ballard at one time,” said Ballard.

Fast forward to the next decade, and Ballard was part of James Brown’s revue. Brown even produced the funky ‘How You Gonna Get Respect (When You Haven’t Cut Your Process Yet)?’, number 15 on the American R&B chart in 1968 for Ballard.

The two continued to work together in the ’70s, with Ballard anchoring ‘Recitation by Hank Ballard’, a six-minute homage to the Godfather of Soul on the latter’s ‘Get On the Good Foot’ album.

Reflecting on the experience at a remove, Ballard claimed, “I stuck with him when nobody wanted him. I couldn’t go hear JB now. he’s too evil a personality. He wants it all. Nobody will ever make it with James Brown because he pretends to care about other people, but he wants everything for himself. He’s too authoritative. And I’m not going to be subservient to anybody. He’s bad blood for me.”

© David BurkeVintage Rock, November 2019

Leave a Comment