Hank Ballard: A Talk With Mr. Twister

If you not movin’ your hips, it just ain’t happenin’.
– Hank Ballard on dancing

AT ONE POINT in Ron Mann’s exuberant, informative, and entertaining documentary Twist (which opens Friday at the Sunset 5), an unusually sober-toned Hank Ballard states with quiet, but assured authority, “I gave the world the biggest dance craze ever.”

Rhythm ‘n blues fans have long known this indisputable fact but, to the world at large, Chubby Checker remains the King of the Twist. That Checker – a former slaughterhouse worker who had the sanction of Dick Clark – could record a flawless clone of Ballard’s 1958 B side (to ‘Teardrops on Your Letter’), is one thing. That it would be marketed with American Bandstand influence in 1960, ensuring that his version of ‘The Twist’ would have long lasting mainstream exposure is something else entirely.

Checker’s ‘The Twist’ shot to No. 1 on the 1960 pop charts. Its pervasive popularity made the Twist the lingua franca of social dancing in America, Europe, and elsewhere. A year later, Checker hit big once more with ‘Let’s Twist Again’, further strengthening the dance’s staying power. Not since the Charleston in the 1920s, or the Lindy in the 1940s, had a dance become so universal in American culture. Unlike the Charleston, though, the marketing spin-offs of the Twist reached truly absurd lengths (documented in Twist). The dance’s simple movements – parallel feet move one way, hips and torso move the other – made it a dance that virtually anyone could do.

Two things about the Twist broke precedent and set the agenda for how business was to be conducted for quite some time. The free hip movement – verboten up to that time in white social dancing – was a huge liberating factor. With thirty years’ hindsight, the Twist seems the most innocent of terpsichore, but its possibility of hip gyrations were enough to shock and enrage authority figures, among them former president Dwight Eisenhower.

The Twist was also the first dance where partners didn’t touch. The mode of two autonomous dancers, each in their own separate orbits, began with it. Vernacular dancing was never the same again. The floodgates broke and a slew of dances followed in the Twist’s wake – the Pony, the Fly, the Slop, the Watusi, the Cross Fire, the Monkey, the Swim, the Slauson, the Jerk – each trying to capitalize on the same combination of recording and dance success.

If, in some quarters, Hank Ballard is viewed as “the man who didn’t have the hit record of ‘The Twist’,” he’s proven that there’s life after The Twist, just as there was life before it. Ballard had already been a defining force in rhythm ‘n blues, supplying pre-rock ‘n roll black music with racy content that scared the daylights out of 1950s Leave It To Beaver parents. Hank Ballard & the Midnighters delivered songs like ‘Work With Me Annie’, ‘Sexy Ways’, ‘Annie Had a Baby’ and ‘Annie’s Aunt Fanny’. Those records formed an uninhibited musical counterbalance to postwar suburban normality. The compelling rhythms and Ballard’s energized vocals on those records were as seductive as forbidden fruit to youngsters whose radios normally fed them a diet of Eddie Fischer and Patti Page.

Ballard was born in Detroit, and raised in Bessemer, Alabama, an area that produced Willie Mays, the Temptations, Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley. Despite his family’s religious grounding, the blues captivated Ballard at a young age. From a New York hotel room, Ballard recently spoke about his inspirations, triumphs, frustrations and – of course – The Twist.

Who were your first vocal inspirations?

Jimmy Rushing, Count Basie’s singer. I didn’t think there was nothin’ in the world like Jimmy Rushing. When he sang, ‘I got a mind to ramble, got a mind to go back home…’ Boy, that was it for me! When I was a kid, I used to sneak out the window at my home in Bessemer, and get up to Birmingham – twelve 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. ‘Course, I wound up with my own sound.

My next idol for the blues was Elmore James – he had a nasal sound too. I have everything he ever recorded and on my new CD (Naked in the Rain, on After Hours), I do his song ‘The Sky Is Crying’. One of my biggest regrets is that I never got a chance to see the man live. Never even seen a poster on him. He didn’t do much tourin’ because he was stage-shy. I would’ve given anything to see Elmore James live.

Billy Ward & the Dominoes were the first vocal group to put strong rhythm with their harmonies, and just I loved Clyde McPhatter’s singin’, with that high tenor. You ever hear that song he did with the Dominoes, ‘The Bells’? Jesus Christ! He cried the solo and he cried the chord changes!

What was your entry point for show business?

At fourteen, I ran away from home and went back to Detroit. Man, I had to get away from that religion! I was workin’ in the Ford plant and singin’ with a group called the Royals. We went to King Records – the Dominoes’ label – and they said we had to change our name because there was already the Five Royales. So we became the Midnighters. We cut ‘Get It’ and ‘Work With Me Annie’: a couple of sexy songs. I met some shareholders of the label at a party and they came up to me and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you cut some more of them songs? They startin’ to sell…’

What was your impression of Syd Nathan, King’s owner?

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 out for my interests. With Syd, you could come off the road and go right into the studio in Cincinnati to record if you had some ideas – no problem.

But Syd couldn’t hear hits. He hated ‘Honky Tonk’ by Bill Doggett, and that record took off like a bat outta hell! One of Bill’s first checks was for $9,000 and it sat on Syd’s desk for two months before he would give it to him. 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 sayin’ ‘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’ and they thought that was the hit. I kept sayin’, ‘Turn it over for ‘The Twist’. That’s the monster!’ And Syd never would spend any money on record promotion.

Your association with James Brown began in the 1950s and resumed, when you joined his organization in the early ’70s.

James used to follow us around on our gigs in Georgia and I used to be his idol. He was all Hank Ballard at one time. ‘Cause I stuck with him when nobody wanted him. I couldn’t go near JB now; he’s too evil a personality. He wants it all. Nobody will ever make it with James because he pretends he cares about other people, but he wants everything for himself. He’s too authoritative. And I’m not gonna be subservient to anybody. He’s bad blood for me.

How long did the original Midnighters group stay together?

Into the ’60s. The Black Muslim thing broke up my group, when they started hating white people. My whole group became Muslims and I had to take ’em to court in ’67 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, doin’ a gig and I said something derogatory about Elijah Muhammad and they all jumped me. I knew that they were so fanatic that they would eventually kill me so I took ’em to court to preserve the whole trade name of Hank Ballard & the Midnighters.

What’s the origin of ‘The Twist’?

I’ve heard nine million guys who say they wrote ‘The Twist’. I was over in England, and they told me about this guy who died – Big Twist – you know, Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows? Yeah, people tellin’ me, ‘Big Twist say he wrote ‘The Twist’ for you.’ I don’t even know him! Everything I’ve ever hit with, somebody say they wrote it. I swear to God… I don’t pay it no mind, but sometimes I get pissed off at those lies.

When the Chubby Checker ‘Twist’ was so big, were any overtures made to bring you in on the action?

No. I was not in Dick Clark’s stable – Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, and Chubby – because he was connected to the Cameo/Parkway label. He knew that King wasn’t gonna put nothin’ behind it, even though I’d been tryin’ to tell people that the monster was on the other side of ‘Teardops’.

There can’t be another dance like it for a thousand years. Nothing has ever been recorded like it, and there’s been four hit records with it. Mine first charted at No. 16 on the R ‘n B chart in ’59. Then Chubby went to No. 1 on the pop charts in ’60. Then they re-released mine, and it went to No. 20 pop. Then Chubby had ‘Let’s Twist Again’ at No. 1 in ’61. (Checker’s 1960 ‘Twist’ returned to the pop charts even stronger in 1962.)

What was the wildest dancing you ever saw to ‘The Twist’?

Let’s see, that would have to be my group, the Midnighters. They used to drop their trousers while they were dancing to it. It was a wild, crazy show; very sexual. And people are still twistin’ to my live performances.

© Kirk SilsbeeLos Angeles Reader, 13 August 1993

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