IT WAS TOWARDS the end of 1951 that Johnny Otis (born John Veliotes; he found it gainful to pass as black), the 30-year-old Savoy recording star who also worked as a talent scout for King Records of Cincinnati, came upon a group called the Royals at a talent show at the Paradise Theatre in Detroit. Through Otis, the four-man group — Henry Booth, Sonny Woods, lead singer Charles Sutton, and guitarist Alonzo Tucker — were signed by King boss Syd Nathan, and in January 1952 the Royals began recording for King’s sister R&B label Federal.
The Royals’ first record, ‘Every Beat Of My Heart’ (written by Johnny Otis, the song eventually, in 1961, became a hit by Gladys Knight and the Pips), was released in March 1952. This single did not do too well, nor did the four that followed; and in the early summer of 1953, lead singer Charles Sutton moved aside to make room for another Detroit son, Henry Bernard Ballard.
Born in 1921, Hank Ballard had known the Royals since their gospel-singing days, and he had assisted the group in writing their 1952 ‘Fifth Street Blues’. His style was much less tamed, his voice rougher than Sutton’s. ‘Get It’, the first record that Ballard cut with the Royals, entered the R&B charts in July 1953, and rose to become a Number 8 hit. ‘Get It’ was rather lewd and suggestive, as was much R&B in the mid-’50s, but it was nothing compared to what was soon to follow.
During the holiday season of 1953-54, Ballard wrote a song called ‘Sock It To Me, Mary’. In the studio in January 1954, producer Ralph Bass told Ballard that the title was “too strong,” and that it should be changed. King engineer Eddie Smith’s pregnant wife, Annie, came into the control room while Ballard was trying to amend his song, and, within a matter of minutes, ‘Sock It To Me, Mary’ became ‘Work With Me, Annie’.
Annie, please don’t cheat,
Gimme all my meat,
Oo-oo-wee, so good to me,
Work with me, Annie,
Let’s get it while the gettin’ is good.
Federal released ‘Work With Me, Annie’ in February, 1954. Though it was denounced as “smut” by Variety, Downbeat and other arbiters of hep morality, the record sold well in local markets, especially Cincinnati, Detroit and Philadelphia; in the second week of April, it hit the national R&B charts. At that point, the Royals changed their name to the Midnighters, to avoid confusion with the “5” Royales, a successful Apollo group.
‘Work With Me, Annie’ was the Number 1 R&B hit when, in the last week of May, Federal released the Midnighters’ ‘Sexy Ways’. Opening with the rude-blaring electric guitar chords by Alonzo Tucker that would become the most commonly copied riff in rock ‘n’ roll, ‘Sexy Ways’ elucidated the art of love.
‘Sexy Ways’ appeared on the R&B charts at the end of June. Both it and ‘Work With Me, Annie’ remained on the charts through the middle of August, when Federal released ‘Annie Had A Baby’ (written not by Ballard, but by Federal’s owner, Syd Nathan, under his pseudonym Lois Mann, and producer Henry Glover). As August gave way to September, the Midnighters had three of the Top 10 R&B hits, with ‘Annie Had A Baby’ in the Number 1 position.
There was a wave of “Annie” records throughout the rest of the year and well into the following year, beginning with Etta James’ ‘The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry)’ on Modern, and including the Midnights’ ‘Annie Pulled A Humbug’ (Music City), the El-Dorados’ ‘Annie’s Answer’ (Vee-Jay), Linda Hayes & the Platters’ ‘My Name Ain’t Annie’ (King), Danny Taylor’s ‘I’m The Father Of Annie’s Baby’ (Bruce), and the Nu-Tones’ ‘Annie Kicked The Bucket’ (Hollywood Star). As for the Midnighters, they did not bother with the shameful girl after the fall of 1954, when they recorded ‘Annie’s Aunt Fanny’.
The Midnighters released 19 more singles on Federal, through the end of 1958, but their last hit on the label was ‘It’s Love, Baby’ in the summer of 1955. A Greatest Hits album, including all their past and lascivious glories, was released by King in December 1957. In 1959, billed now as Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, the group’s records began to bear the King imprint.
Their first King single was ‘Teardrops On Your Letter’, a mundane weeper written by producer Henry Glover. The record hit the R&B charts in the second week of March 1959, but not too much attention was paid to the flip-side song that Ballard had copyrighted in January under the title of ‘The Twist’. One of those who did pay attention to it was Ernest Evans of Philadelphia, whose recording of it, under the name of Chubby Checker, was released by Cameo in the spring of 1960. King reissued the original ‘Twist’ in July, as the craze was beginning to bloom, but the record rose no further than Number 28 on the pop charts.
Hank Ballard & the Midnighters continued to make records, and a few of these were hits — ‘Finger-Poppin’ Time’ (1960), ‘Lets’ Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go’ (1960), ‘The Hoochie Coochi Coo’ (1961), ‘The Continental Walk’ (1961), ‘Nothin’ But Good’ (1961), and, finally and dismally, ‘Do You Know How To Twist’ (1962). The group stopped recording in 1963. The next and last time that Hank Ballard was heard from was in the fall of 1968, when he asked Aretha Franklin, ‘How You Gonna Get Respect?’, a King single that briefly appeared on the R&B charts in November of that year.
Of scarlet-lettered Annie and of her child, who shall not, even unto his tenth generation, enter the kingdom of God, alas, we have since heard even less.
© Nick Tosches, Creem, March 1983