Interview: Hank Ballard at the Locust, Theater, Philadelphia, PA. February 23, 1980

THERE WAS THIS company in Philadelphia called Sherjam and in the winter of 1979-1980 and maybe the following year they put on a series of great R&B concerts at the Locust Theater.

One of the shows featured Hank Ballard, Martha Reeves, and Solomon Burke. One of my earliest rock and roll memories was hearing ‘Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go’ by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. It was a big hit when I was about nine and on the two Top-40 stations in Philly at the time, WFIL (referred to as “Wiffle”) and WIBG (referred to as “Wibbage”). I don’t even know what it was that got me at that age, whether it was the gospel vocals or the funky guitar.

Either way Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were one of the wilder things happening at the time, and they made their reputation long before.

I interviewed Ballard before the show in a tiny dressing room somewhere high above the stage. I walked in and he was getting his hair ready and smoking a joint. He was an extremely nice guy. I wasn’t expecting his answer concerning Chubby Checker’s cover of his song ‘The Twist’, but if there was any bitterness there, he did a fantastic job of hiding it.

I was also supposed to interview Solomon Burke that night, but he was late in getting to the theater. The Sherjam people kept saying “The Bishop will be here any minute”, but then the show was starting and there was no way I was going to miss seeing Hank Ballard.

PSB: When did you start out?

Hank Ballard: In about 1954.

You’re from Detroit?

Right, originally.

And you started with, the group was originally called

The Royals. Not the Five Royals, but the Royals.

Did that come out of singing in high school or church?

It came out of church [laughs]. Out of the gospel church, the Baptists.

Is that where you met the other guys who were singing in the group?

No I met them on the assembly line at Ford Motors in Detroit, Michigan. The Royals was already an organized group. But what happened, they were looking for a replacement, to replace the baritone singer that was inducted into the army. And they used to hear me sing up and down the assembly line, so they asked me if I wanted to audition for the replacement and I gave it a try. So that’s where it began. It came off all right, you know.

How’d you get signed, who signed you?

They had already recorded a record called ‘Moonrise’, that was a fairly decent hit, a regional hit and what happened, I joined the group, I went in as a baritone singer and what happened, I started writing for the group. And somehow or another, the lead was switched around. The guy who was singing lead originally was a sweet type song, he liked the ballad type. I thought there should be some adjustments made to get away from that sweet Orioles sound. All the groups at that time would sound like Sonny Til and the Orioles and I wanted to go funky. So what happened, I came up with this song called ‘Work With Me Annie’, and it was an overnight smash.

Who was the guitar player on that song?

Arthur Porter out of Louisville, Kentucky.

Was he also the guitar player on most of your hits?

No, Carl Green was on most of the hits. He’s out of Houston, Texas, he’s living in California right now.

I just happened to be listening to that today getting prepared for this.

Hahhhh ha ha ha! That was the beginning. ‘Work With Me Annie’, ‘Annie Had a Baby’.

I was reading there was some radio censorship on some of those songs back then.

Oh yeah. It didn’t affect me because ban a tune from radio, the sales just boom overnight. ‘Cause what happened, it created a lot of curiosity.

When did you write ‘The Twist’?

In October of 1958.

And that was the flip of another hit?

‘Teardrops On Your Letter’. ‘Teardrops On Your Letter’ was responsible for me not being able to be credited with for recording ‘The Twist’ A lot of people don’t even know I had the first record out on ‘The Twist’.

You must have been pretty bummed when Chubby Checker ….

No. That was the best thing that ever happened to me when Chubby Checker did it, because what happened to me, my company had lost the record. They didn’t have any faith in it. I was the only one that had faith in the record. I knew that this record should have been a hit. So what happened, Dick Clark heard it and he felt the same way I felt about it. So immediately he auditioned about 20 different guys and Chubby Checker was the only one that came close to my sound. That was a blessing for me. A lot of people think I got ripped off, but that was really a blessing for me, ’cause it heightened my career, my career skyrocketed right along with Chubby Checker’s, ’cause monetarily, he was gettin’ all the money, but it got me a few pennies, you know [laughs].

You got royalties.

I’m still getting royalties. That’s one of my biggest copyrights.

What’s your favourite song of your own?

‘Thrill Up On The Hill. Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go’. I’m gonna record it over, put a contemporary groove on it.

Do you have a recording contract now?

Yeah. I’m in the studio now. Polydor.

Is this the first album in some time?

Yes. Oh wow. Almost 10 years. I got a good solid contract.

What have you been doing over the last 20 years?

Well, sporadically I’ve been working here, there. But I really don’t wanna get into an oldie thing. I don’t wanna be stigmatized. But there’s such a big demand out there for the old music, it’s hard to refuse. I guess I need the money [laughs].

That was the best time. That was the best time in this history, you better believe the ’50s was the best time was the best time. That’s why everybody’s trying to go back. Buddy Holly was bad, but they’re making money on his name right today.

How do you feel about what rock and roll has become?

I feel great about it because there’s a marketplace for it. Anywhere there’s a marketplace, I feel good about it.

When can we expect your next record?

Within the next…. month. I been really trying to concentrate on writing them lyrics that the public can’t refuse. They gotta buy it, you know.

What kind of sound are you gonna be goin’ for?

It’s a mixture between R&B and rock. Primarily the blues. I like songs with that gospel overtones, got those gospel feelings. I’m very touched by that kind of music. The disco thing… I’ve never…. When they call it disco, it’s been rock all the time.

© Peter Stone Brownunpublished, 23 February 1980

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