THE ROYALS HAD a brief but important part to play in the development of rock ‘n’ roll. They were door-openers much like the Chords and Crows, and just like those other groups, they quickly faded from the public eye. Only after a transformation into ‘Hank Ballard & The Midnighters’ in 1959 did they regain their former pop stature, but it was a lean four years between hits.
Hank Ballard, the kingpin behind the success of the Royals in 1954 and the Midnighters in 1959, is a survivor, still active today. He has granted a number of interviews over the years and is truly one of the most accessible figures in black music. Somehow, somewhere along the way, a few facts have been distorted just a bit.
Sometime in 1950 in Detroit, a group who called themselves the Royals was formed. Henry Booth and Charles Sutton traded the lead spots, Lawson Smith was the baritone, and Sonny Woods sang bass. The fifth member of this quartet was Alonzo Tucker, an arranger who played bass or guitar and sang once in while. An amateur contest at Detroit’s Paradise Theater brought them to the attention of Johnny Otis, then working as a talent scout for King Records. Johnny delivered the boys to Cincinnati in January, 1952 and thoughtfully gave them his song ‘Every Beat Of My Heart’ to sing on their first session.
The final song on this session was ‘All Night Long’ and, whether they wanted it or not, Wynonie Harris, in town for a session with Todd Rhodes’ orchestra, added his booming baritone. The next day he cut his own classic ‘Keep On Churnin’ Till The Butter Comes’.
The first seven releases by the Royals on Federal didn’t set the world on fire so naturally they are all hot collector’s items today. Sonny Woods, who reportedly had been Sonny Til’s valet, kept the group pretty much on an Orioles’ track. The ballads that they produced during this first year with Federal are stunningly beautiful in that languorous, wispy style non-fans find impossible to stomach. On ‘Moonrise’, Alonzo Tucker added his vocal chords, and ‘The Shrine Of St. Cecilia’ was a reprise of the 1941 hit by the Andrews Sisters. ‘A Love In My Heart’ owed a lot to the Four Buddies, who owed a lot to the Orioles themselves.
Those innocent days of dirge-tempo ballads were doomed to an abrupt end with the arrival of Hank Ballard. Ballard, born in Detroit November 18, 1936, had been raised in Bessemer, Alabama, which venue he departed in 1949 to run back home. In 1952 he was working on a Ford assembly line, and was just 16 years old when he gave up the security of tightening six nuts and inserting four bolts for the glamour and glory of group singing. Lawson Smith was drafted into the Army and Ballard, by virtue of some church singing down in Bessemer, was able to take his spot in the Royals.
And, all had not been going well with the Royals. In February, 1953, they were caught with their placards down. The Royals had been posing as the Five Royales (then very hot with ‘Baby, Don’t Do It’) on a second-string tour of the South with nonentities Bobby Wallace, the Anna Mae Winburn Band, and the Fou Chez Dancers. Newspaper ads and placards carried photos of the Five Royales and listed their hits waxed on Apollo. They couldn’t list the Royals’ hits because there weren’t any to list. This impersonation came to the attention of Apollo Records, and they slapped an injunction and a lawsuit on the Royals. The process server found the group in Columbus, Georgia, and the joint reallyjumped that night as both Anna Mae and her husband had to be thrown in jail for ‘obstructing the serving’.
Ballard proved to be a very gifted songwriter, even if his songs were not the kind the Royals were used to doing. On January 14, 1954, they recorded his ‘Get It’, a tough bluesy precursor of things to come. ‘Get It’ got the Royals on the R&B charts for the first time, but was followed by two more releases that didn’t make it. Finally, ‘Work With Me, Annie’ was recorded on January 14, 1954 and the Royals no longer needed to add a ‘Five’ to their name to get work.
Far from being the shocking, salacious epitome of ‘dirty’ R&B so admired today by rock historians, the song was rather innocuous when compared to contemporary opuses by Bull Moose Jackson, Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, Dave ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ Bartholomew, and even Dinah ‘Big Long Slidin’ Thing’ Washington. Sure, it was ‘banned’ by a few radio stations, but it wasn’t banned all that bad, since it managed to spend three weeks on the Pop charts in the Summer of 1954.
Engaging stories have been woven about the choice of the name ‘Annie’ for this and subsequent songs. In Goldmine #66, Ballard told Andrew Edelstein, ‘It’s just a good commercial name…It’s just a catchy name. It could have been ‘Work With Me, Mary’ or ‘Work With Me Sue’‘. In the same issue, Ballard told Aaron Fuchs the song was originally called ‘Sock It To Me, Mary’. In Record Collector’s Monthly #36, the singer/songwriter told Drew Williamson, ‘Yeah, I had a girlfriend by that name. A girl that lived in Kentucky…My original title was ‘Rock With Me Annie’‘. Nick Tosches, in Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, goes along with the original title as ‘Sock It To Me, Mary’ but claims that the title change came about when Annie Smith, pregnant wife of King’s recording engineer came into the control room during the session.
Banned or not, it was one of the first R&B records to break the Pop barriers. With a major hit on their hands, the Royals decided they didn’t want the Five Royales riding on their coat tails, so they became the Midnighters. And the hits kept coming. ‘Annie Had A Baby’ made the Pop charts in October, 1954, and ‘Sexy Ways’, ‘Annie’s Aunt Fanny’, ‘Henry’s Got Flat Feet’, and ‘It’s Love Baby’ graced the R&B lists. From 1955 to 1959 none of their records sold well enough to enter the charts. Ironically, some of their finest work is from that lean period: ‘Tore Up Over You’, ‘Switchie Witchie Titchie’, ‘That House
On The Hill’, and ‘Ooh Bah Baby’will do nicely as examples. All were written by Ballard. The group was strong enough to have their own road band, usually consisting of Arnett Cobb, tenor sax; Florence Pleasant, piano; Cal Green, guitar; Leonard Smith, bass; and Albert Jones, drums.
The switch from Federal to the parent King label was marked by the group’s first hit in four years. Now filed under “Hank Ballard & The Midnighters”, a lovely ballad, ‘Teardrops On Your Letter’ was paired with ‘The Twist’ and both sides entered the R&B charts in March, 1959. The now-famous original version of ‘The Twist’, a dance even white folks could do, didn’t make the Pop charts until Chubby Checker had stolen all its thunder in 1960, at which time King reissued Ballard’s record. By that time, all that remained of the Royals were dollar signs in the eyes of rare record dealers.
But the myths keep rolling along. True believers are invited to send in proof of any of these things:
1. There was a sequel track entitled ‘Annie Had A Miscarriage’.
2. Alonzo Tucker says “That little bitch don’t never miss!” on ‘Give It Up’ (actual lyric: “That little bit you’ll never miss.”)
3. ‘Work With Me Annie’ had an alternate flip side, ‘Sinner’s Prayer’.
© Pete Grendysa, Goldmine, 12 August 1988