Hank Ballard: The Man Who Twisted Himself

COVER VERSIONS have long been the bane of the rhythm and blues field of music. During the ‘Fifties, the major record companies kept their ears open for promising tunes by black artists then recorded them for the white market using clean-cut All-American white boys, Pat Boone being the most notorious plagiarist of them all.

It wasn’t just white artists who carried out the practice, either. America’s r ‘n b market is a complicated affair. There have always been literally hundreds of small record companies in cities across the States fighting for a slice of the cake – or rather the crumbs tossed by the majors.

Most of these smaller record labels suffer from poor distribution. Unable to compete effectively across the nation, they have always tended to concentrate on specific cities. Thus Duke-Peacock, a powerful company in the South, never sold many records North of the Mason-Dixon line, while small New York labels like Old Town and Calla could rarely be found in Southern record stores.

So if something good cropped up on one of these small labels, the major would either buy the master for national distribution or else cover it with an already established artist.

In the case of Hank Ballard and ‘The Twist’, however, other factors came into play. In fact there’s quite a story behind the way in which Ballard blew his chance of the biggie which could have broken the pop market open for him.

The story goes that Ballard wrote the dance-craze song and in 1960 recorded it for King Records in Cincinnati. The record crashed the r ‘n b chart and Ballard and his group, the Midnighters, were booked to appear on Dick Clark’s all important American Bandstand TV show out of Philadelphia.

Ballard, though, was hung up on a girl from Atlanta and failed to show up at rehearsals. Incensed, Clark arranged for the as yet unknown Chubby Checker to cover the record. He got the then-powerful Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway company to release it, taught Checker the dance steps and gave him massive TV exposure and a leg up to a multi million-seller and THE worldwide hit record of the year, Ballard’s own gold disc being only part compensation.

Not that Ballard was any stranger to big sellers himself, however, for back in 1954 he had scored gold with ‘Work With Me Annie’, ‘Annie Had A Baby’ and ‘Sexy Ways’. But those records had been aimed totally at the black sector of the record-buying public.

Contrary to the usual migratory pattern of black America, Hank Ballard, whose real name is John Kendricks, was born in Detroit, Michigan, and later moved down South to Atlanta, Georgia.

Before this he teamed up with a promising vocal group as replacement lead singer for Charles Sutton, who had been forced out by a throat infection.

The group was then known as the Royals, but confusion with the better-known Five Royales led to a name change. The Four Falcons was the chosen title, but there was also already a group known as the Falcons, right there in Detroit. President Records boss Sydney Nathan – who had first recorded the group in 1952 – suggested the Midnighters.

Since Ballard was clearly the biggest talent and most dominant personality, the tag rapidly became Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and those three big 1954 hits established them as a big draw, usually singing novelty songs penned by Ballard himself.

THE LYRICS were very often close to the knuckle with thinly disguised sexual references, just one of the factors which prevented the group from breaking out of an r ‘n b rut despite their enormous commerciality. Besides which: Ballard’s backings were of a somewhat dated style even for that early period, with booting tenors, blues beat rhythms and very sparse line-ups. But then, King never needed to spend vast sums on huge orchestrations – his rich, warm voice was enough to tell the story.

After ‘The Twist’, which despite the competition from Chubby Checker, still earned a gold disc, Ballard completed a highly successful 1960 with the equally danceable ‘Finger Poppin Time’ but thereafter began a gradual slide down to obscurity.

The Midnighters finally broke up in 1968 with Lawson Smith becoming active in the Black Power movement and Sonny Woods in a job with a record distribution company. Norman Thrasher started his own record production company and still cuts artists for King, while Henry Booth died.

As for Ballard, he kept on keeping on, and with the “Rock ‘n Roll Revival” shows of the 70’s found a sudden upsurge in his fortunes. This led to the formation of a new set of Midnighters (Frank Stadford, Walter Miller and Wesley Hardgrove) and a contract with the Chess label after a couple of unrewarding years with Lelan Rogers’ Silver Fox label in Nashville.

At Chess, Ballard was teamed again with Ralph Bass who had helped produce all his earlier sides for King and its subsidiary Federal.

The Chess deal brought no real results, however, and Ballard has now linked up with his former King label-mate James Brown, who is featuring the soul veteran in his touring package show – a gesture Ballard somewhat ingratiatingly acknowledged with a rather sickening monologue on Brown’s recent Get On The Good Foot double album.

© Roger St. PierreNew Musical Express, 19 January 1974

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