Hank Ballard: Midnight Man

HANK BALLARD is most often remembered as the man who wrote ‘The Twist’ but lost out to Chubby Chucker as the populariser of the dance craze that swept America in the early Sixties. This hardly does him justice for Ballard was the creative originator of the ‘Annie’ saga of rhythm and blues hits which provided a foretaste of the sort of street-level popularity versus reactionary public controversy that surrounded the emergence of many later rock stars.

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ failure to capitalize on the success of the Twist has unfortunately tended to obscure the fact that they were for many years an immensely popular act; one of the first and most successful black vocal groups to come out of Detroit before Berry Gordy’s Tamla-Motown operation refined and updated the Midnighters’ musical formula in various attractive guises.

Neither Hank Ballard nor the name ‘Midnighters’ were there at the beginning, however. The original line-up came together at the beginning of the Fifties around bass singer Sonny Woods, who had been born in Winston-Salem and raised in Detroit. Woods’ first (temporary) quartet apparently sounded awful and only ever rehearsed two songs, which they performed at a few house parties and local dances before disbanding. An incompetent shambles they may have been, but in retrospect also an historically fascinating shambles, for the short-lived group included Jackie Wilson, subsequently a major star in his own right, and Levi Stubs, later of Four Tops fame alongside Woods and baritone Lawson Smith.

For the second line-up, dubbed the Royals, Woods and Lawson recruited tenors Henry Booth and Charles Sutton, a more compatible if less historic team who modeled themselves on the Orioles.

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THE WEST COAST GODFATHER of rhythm and blues, Johnny Otis, had a hand in the success of the Royals. Otis was acting as a talent scout for Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based King-Federal Records, who, on the recommendation of Otis, dispatched producer Ralph Bass to Detroit to check out the Royals. Impressed, Bass signed the Royals and produced their version of ‘Every Beat Of My Heart’, the group’s debut release on Federal in early 1952.

The Royals’ recording was singularly unsuccessful, however, as were their next five releases. Their sound was not distinctive enough to stand out from the hundreds of similar black vocal groups of the day-until, that is, the US Armed Forces summoned Lawson Smith, leaving a vacancy in the Royals.

Enter one Henry ‘Hank’ Ballard, a young friend of Woods from the local Ford Motor factory. Born in Detroit in 1936, Ballard grew up in Alabama and acquired a liking for blues and gospel. He ran away from home at 14 and returned to Detroit, where he joined the Royals as lead singer. He was good-looking and had a powerful set of lungs, His voice was not conventionally attractive nor even technically impressive — more of a strangulated, adenoidal cry — but it was strong and distinctive. Furthermore, Ballard turned out to have a flair for writing simple, rhythmic songs with instantly identifiable singalong choruses. “The Royals were into an Orioles style,” said Hank, “I had to change them to a more driving, uptempo thing.”

For the newcomer’s first session with the group in May 1953, Ballard co-wrote ‘Get It’, a catchy, repetitive stroll which was to be the prototype for most of the group’s recordings over the following decade. Within two months it gave the Royals an R&B Top Ten hit, no doubt helping producer Bass to over-ride Booth and Sutton’s disquiet about the upstart newcomer who ‘couldn’t sing’. After two more flops, any lingering qualms about Ballard’s vocal ability were swept aside by the huge success of ‘Work With Me Annie’, a million-selling hit.

One legend has it that the song was hastily slung together by the whole group on a train on the way to the group to the recording session, but composer’s credit has always been ascribed solely to Ballard, as confirmed by Bass in Arnold Shaw’s book Honkers And Shouters: “Actually, the word work — I gave that line to Hank Ballard. He came in with a song called ‘Sock It To Me, Mary’ I told him that that was too strong. Now, of course, it doesn’t mean anything. The wife of our engineer happened to come into the control room while we were trying to soften Ballard’s lyric. Her name was Annie and she was pregnant. I said, “I got it — ‘Work With Me, Annie’.”

Despite Bass’s minor censorship, the sexual innuendo of lines like “Annie please don’t cheat, give me all my meat,” was simply too shocking for the Moral Majority of the day, especially coming from a black group. At first even record company boss Syd Nathan, a man not renowned for his sensitivity, refused to have anything to do with the song. When he relented and the recording was released it was immediately banned from most major radio stations and provoked at least one public enquiry, at which Bass defended the song by citing the public acceptability of ‘really dirty’ white pop hits like ‘Makin’ Whoopee’.

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Despite the controversy and lack of airplay, ‘Work With Me Annie’ shot to the top of the R&B chart and become a street anthem for teenage black (and to some extent white) America, for over two years the most frequently heard chant on any block corner. The lyrics marginally changed in accordance with the various follow-up records that were released.

‘Annie Had A Baby’ and ‘Annie’s Aunt Fannie’ were all 1954 hits for the Royals, who were renamed the Midnighters in the spring of that year when King Records signed the (then) more successful Five Royales. These ‘Annie’ songs provoked ‘Annie’s Answer’ from Hazel McCullom and the El Dorados, ‘Annie Doesn’t Work Here Anymore’ from the Platters, and — most significant of all the follow-ups- ‘Roll With Me, Henry’ (retitled ‘The Wallflower’), co-written and produced by Johnny Otis for his latest discovery, Etta James. James’s R&B hit was converted to a major pop hit as ‘Dance With Me, Henry’ by white singer Georgia Gibbs; the Midnighters retaliated with ‘Henry’s Got Flat Feet’, an R&B hit in June 1955.

A slight change of pace with a version of Ted Jarrett’s ‘It’s Love Baby (24 Hours A Day)’ brought the Midnighters’ first run of hits to an abrupt halt in August 1955. The sudden slump in their chart fortunes might partly be attributed to public reaction against too many similar-sounding releases, or the fact that by then King-Federal were backing too many options, but in retrospect it seems to have been mainly a result of the mass breakout of rock ‘n’roll. The Midnighters’ three-and-a-half-year exile from any form of national chart almost exactly coincided with the chart rise and demise of the first great wave of international rock ‘n’ roll stars.

During the second half of the Fifties the

Midnighters remained box-office favourites on the R&B ‘chitterlin’ circuit and continued to issue exciting records, including ‘In The Doorway Crying’ and ‘Tore Up Over You’, a Ballard original since recorded by many others. It was not until March 1959, though, that they reappeared in the R&B chart with a dramatic soul ballad, ‘Teardrops On Your Letters’. On the flip — and also rated in its own right, through lower, on the R&B chart — was a rockin’ throwaway called ‘The Twist.

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The song was supposedly based on one of the Midnighters’ popular dance routines. Another story claims that gospel group the Nightingales gave a song called ‘Let’s Do The Twist’ to Ballard, who then adapted it for the Midnighters. Hank had tried to convince Syd Nathan that ‘The Twist’ had potential, but with the ballad side taking off, Nathan was reluctant to push the reverse.

The Midnighters enjoyed their greatest period of chart success in 1960: ‘Finger Poppin’ Time’ made the Number 7 spot in the Hot Hundred. ‘Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go’ reached Number 6 and in spite of Chubby Checker’s triumph with ‘ The Twist’, the Midnighters had a creditable Top Thirty hit with the song as well.

During the initial sales of ‘Teardrops On Your Letter’ the group had been switched from Federal to the parent King label and were re-named as Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, for by 1959 Ballard had long proved to be the star attraction. Behind him, the Midnighters in one form or another continued to provide solid if generally simple vocal support. By February 1962, when the run of hits finally ended with ‘Do You Know How To Twist’ (Number 87), Ballard’s vocal accompanists had changed completely, then comprising Frank Standford, Wesley Hargrove and Norman Thrasher. Not long afterwards Ballard dispensed with the group altogether.

With the demise of the Twist and associated dance crazes, Ballard may have had cause to regret his star billing. Had he continued to lead from within the comparative anonymity of the group for a few more years, it’s possible he might have side-stepped the Twist and founded a successful solo career. As it was, though, his luck ran out the day the dancing died; as far as general audiences concerned he has not been heard of since.

In fact Ballard continued to record pretty regularly until the mid Seventies, including three separate stings with James Brown and company, with whom he cut many worthwhile records: these included a minor soul hit, ‘How You Gonna Get Respect?’, in November 1968. His last few efforts, though — ‘Let’s Go Streaking’, ‘Freak Your Boom Boom’ and the like — were a sad swansong for the man who contributed most to Detroit’s first black supergroup.

© Cliff WhiteThe History of Rock, 1982

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