Hank Ballard: The ‘Twist’ and Turns of a Rock Pioneer

HANK BALLARD wrote and recorded ‘The Twist’, but it was Chubby Checker who had the big hit record. With the early R&B group, the Royals, Ballard wrote the classic “dirty” song, ‘Work With Me Annie’, but the Royals got confused with another group, “5” Royales, and had to change its name to The Midnighters.

One of many victims of mismanagement in the seminal days of rock ‘n’ roll, Ballard is in the midst of a lawsuit to recover monies he feels are owed to him for ‘Annie’.

With 24 years having passed since he’s had a hit, Ballard should have enough sour grapes collected to make a whole lot of bad wine.

But, sitting in a friend’s Mission District flat, Ballard appears to be anything but bitter. Instead, recalling the sweeter moments of his past, he fills the air with cascading whoops of laughter.

Talking about how one member of the Midnighters stopped a college concert by climbing a pole and dropping his trousers, “showing his black butt,” he doubles up on the couch and almost loses control.

Ballard, a fit and youthful 49, performs Saturday night at Major Ponds nightclub. He’ll be backed by a specially augmented version of the local oldies band, Girl Can’t Help It. Ballard says his concert work is “sporadic,” but he insists he’s not bothered by his decline.

“You’re gonna have your highs and lows with everything,” he says. “I never got into that star complex. That ego is nothing but destruction in disguise. My theory is, how can you think you’re God when Billboard‘s got a thing called the Top 100? There can’t be 100 gods.”

His show this weekend, says Ballard, will feature his hits – “all the stuff that sold.”

That “stuff” – which recently earned Ballard a trophy as one of the first 41 nominees for induction into the newly formed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – includes his biggest sellers from 1960, ‘Finger Poppin’ Time’ and ‘Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go’, and the sexy songs that kicked off his career in 1954: ‘Get It’, ‘Sexy Ways’ and, of course, ‘Work With Me Annie’.

‘Annie’, with such lines as “Annie please don’t cheat/Give me all your meat,” was banned from the radio; that action, naturally, sent the record through the roof, to the top of the R&B charts in May and June of 1954.

Various answer songs followed, among them Etta James’ ‘Roll with Me Henry’ (which became a big pop hit in a cleansed version, ‘Dance with Me Henry’, as sung by Georgia Gibbs), and Ballard’s ‘Annie Had a Baby’, with the line, “Can’t work no more…that’s what happens when the gettin’ gets good.”

Annie, Ballard says, “was a girl I used to date in Louisville, Ky. The original title was ‘Sock it to Me Annie’, but (King Records) was afraid of that title; then we went to ‘Roll With Me Annie’; and that was too suggestive. Well, in the ghetto in Detroit (Ballard’s home town), there was a slang for sex; it was called ‘work.’ ‘Say man, you was out with Mary last night. Did you get into work?’ “

Ballard was inspired to write what he calls “raunchy, suggestive” songs by the success of the Dominoes’ 1951 record, ‘Sixty Minute Man’. “So I wrote ‘Get It’.” Ballard sings, “Get it get it get it; I wanna see you with it,” and laughs. “They bought about 250,000 and I said, ‘There’s a MARKET out there!'”

Judging by the campaign by parents against explicit rock lyrics, there still is. And, surprisingly, Ballard is on parents’ side.

“I have kids; I have grandchildren,” says Ballard, who has four daughters, one son and four grandkids. “If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t record a thing like (‘Annie’) now. I was a teenager then, I was just having fun making things rhyme. If I’d known that lyrics would come off as a bad image for kids, I would never have recorded those songs. I wouldn’t dare write some of the things I hear today…like ‘Relax when you wanna come.’ [From Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’] That just turns me off. That’s just too direct. At least mine had double meanings. Give me some room for curiosity.”

But, Ballard adds, “I’m not gonna knock them. Let them have their day; I had mine.”

In the Midnighters’ day, the group did substantial business at colleges. “We had a white audience,” he says, “cause they loved those dirty records. The college crowd wanted you to get DOWN. We’d be singing ‘Finger Popping Time’ and they’d be singing something else!”

Ballard starts laughing again. “You can imagine. It wasn’t finger-poppin’ time. They were drinking that 90 proof grain alcohol!”

Ironically, the Midnighters were doing good business because of the success Chubby Checker had with ‘The Twist’, a Ballard song they’d recorded a year before.

“I’ll tell you how I feel about ‘The Twist’,” says Ballard. “Dick Clark and Chubby Checker did me a favor. King Records hated it. They said, ‘The Twist is NUTHIN’.’ (King put ‘The Twist’ out as a flip side.) But kids saw us doing it, and this DJ, Buddy Deane out of Baltimore, called Dick Clark (then as now the host of American Bandstand) and said ‘The kids are crazy over this record.’ Dick said, ‘I don’t wanna hear it; they cut all those dirty songs’.”

When an artist’s manager also called Clark about the record, Clark, who had business interests in record labels and artists, found Ernest Evans through auditions and renamed him Chubby Checker, a dubious honor to Fats Domino.

“Chubby came closest to my sound,” says Ballard. “Dick took him into the studio and did a clone of my ‘Twist’.”

Ballard recalls being in Miami when he first heard the record. “I was in a pool, and I heard it on a pop station, and I said ‘Wow, I’m getting pop play now.’ I thought it was me!” Ballard unleashes a laugh, one that’s so long he breaks to catch his breath. “Oh, man!”

One reason Ballard can look back without anger is that he earned composer’s royalties on ‘The Twist’ and continues to. Also, he believes that as consolation for blocking the Midnighters’ record of ‘The Twist’, Clark gave plentiful exposure to ‘Finger Poppin’ Time’, which hit the Top Ten and stayed on the charts for half of 1960.

For the Midnighters, the hits didn’t keep on coming, but concert bookings did, until the group broke up around 1967, to the best of Ballard’s recollection. The other Midnighters, he says, became Muslims.

“They became fanatical and they turned on me because I didn’t want to get involved. They were in bad shape. Even Malcolm X told them to leave me alone to make up my own mind. Malcolm followed me around for two years trying to con me. I said, ‘Man, I’m not into organized religion!’

“They got so into Islam,” Ballard says of the other members, “that they’d lost all their stage presence. The Midnighters also refused to sign white autographs or play white dates.”

Religious fervor came to an ugly head, Ballard claims, when the other group members “tried to kill me.” They were in Nassau, he says, “and one of them swung on me. I had him down and the others jumped me. (The one on the ground) had his gun with him and I’m glad I’d left mine in Miami. I would’ve killed all three.”

Ballard continued to perform with other singers, but things weren’t the same. “I really missed them for eight or 10 years,” he says. “That’s why I dropped out of sight. I didn’t think I could ever replace them.”

In the mid-70s, Ballard resisted performing at oldies shows. “It was something about the word ‘oldies,’ that turned me off. Plus I thought I could come back and be contemporary with a hit record. But man, it’s not that easy.”

For the last 10 years, he says, he’s been trying to regain his songwriting touch; he’s dabbled in rock, country, ballads, and some “hardcore blues.” His voice, he says, “is far better now than it was 20 years ago. Far better. I haven’t abused myself; I didn’t get messed up in drugs and all that crap.”

One of his blues numbers, played behind him in a recent network TV appearance, caught the ear of a woman in New York who’s offered to invest in him.

“You can come back if you get the right song,” says Ballard. “That was proven by Tina Turner. Nowadays, you’ve got to have the right (instrumental) track before you do anything. That’s why I’m looking for the best producer I can find.”

After a decade of frustration, Ballard is willing to put himself into others’ hands. “I’m not trusting me any more,” he says. “I have people and some money behind me, and I don’t wanna blow it.”

© Ben Fong-TorresSan Francisco Chronicle, 22 December 1985

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