Born John Henry Kendricks, 18 November 1927, Detroit, Michigan
On January 20, 2009, Bear Family issued a 5-CD box set by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, devoted to the 1952-1962 period. This seems a good occasion to take another look at Hank Ballard, even though he was the subject of a previous biography by Phil Davies in November 2002. At that time it was still believed that Hank was born Henry Ballard on November 18, 1936. For some reason, Hank lopped nine years off his official age when he turned pro. His King bios claimed he was born in 1936, so when he recorded his first session on May 10, 1952, it appeared that the diminutive Ballard was all of 15 when he was in all likelihood 24. (The Social Security Death Index also says 1927.)
Ballard was not a part of the group when they began recording, and they didn't start out as the Midnighters, but as The Royals, in 1950. That's when the original lead tenor Charles Sutton joined forces with Henry Booth, Sonny Woods and Freddie Pride (soon replaced by Lawson Smith), all from Detroit's East Side. Alonzo Tucker served as their guitarist, primary songwriter and arranger. Johnny Otis gave them the chance to sign a recording contract with King Records in Cincinnati, in November 1951. Until late 1958, their records would be issued on King's subsidiary label, Federal. Otis also penned their first A-side, "Every Beat Of My Heart", recorded on January 8, 1952, with Charles Sutton on lead and produced by Henry Glover. (The song would go on to be a # 6 hit in 1961 for Gladys Knight and the Pips.) Ballard was working on the Ford Motor Company assembly line when, in April 1952, he was invited by Sonny Woods to join the Royals as a replacement for Lawson Smith, who had received his draft notice. Not only did he become the lead singer, he also became their principal songwriter. "Get It", co-written by Ballard and Alonzo Tucker, became their first R&B hit (# 6), in August 1953.
In order to avoid confusion with the vocal group The "5" Royales, the group changed its name from the Royals to the Midnighters in 1954. By that time they had recorded a song that would change their lives forever. Inspired by "Sixty Minute Man", Ballard had written a song originally called "Sock It To Me, Annie", which was changed to "Work With Me Annie" at the suggestion of producer Ralph Bass. Its overtly sexual lyrics eventually led to the record being banned by the FCC, but the controversy and publicity surrounding the song resulted in strong sales. "Work With Me Annie" topped the R&B charts on May 22, 1954, and stayed there for seven weeks. Considering the airplay ban, it was even more amazing that it also climbed to # 22 on the pop charts. This was the first of the so-called "Annie" songs. "Annie Had A Baby" (the consequence of all her "work") also was an R&B # 1, followed by "Annie's Aunt Fannie", which went to # 10. In between they scored a # 2 with "Sexy Ways" which found author Ballard no less obsessed with carnal pursuits than he was on the Annie songs and employing much the same groove. Etta James's # 1 1955 hit "The Wallflower" (aka "Roll With Me Henry" or "Dance With Me Henry" on the Georgia Gibbs version) borrowed its melody from "Work With Me Annie". The Midnighters responded with the answer song "Henry's Got Flat Feet (Can't Dance No More)", which peaked at # 14, using the melody of "Annie Had A Baby". (Ballard often recycled his own tunes.). One more R&B hit followed in 1955, "It's Love Baby (24 Hours A Day)", though its peak position (# 10) was surpassed by the original from Louis Brooks (# 2) and a tasty cover by Ruth Brown (# 4).
Chart-wise, there followed a few lean years for the Midnighters, but the group always had plenty of work, not in the last place due to their dynamic stage show. Personally, I think their 1954-1958 recordings are the most enjoyable of their entire output. During that time, their guitarist was Cal Green (born June 22, 1935, Dayton, Texas), whose major influences were Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown and T-Bone Walker. Green's stinging guitar work is an important ingredient in the consistently high quality of the Midnighters' recordings from this period. Unfortunately, in early 1959 he was arrested for marijuana possession and had to serve 21 months in prison followed by another 13 months of travel-restricted probation. His successor was J.C. "Billy" Davis, also a competent guitarist, but not quite with Green's intensity.
The last sessions on which Green can be heard are those of November 1958. On November 11, Ballard recorded a self-penned song that would become one of the biggest hits of all time. That was not the first version of "The Twist", however. Thinking that his King contract would not be renewed, Ballard had done a self-financed session in Miami and sent demo tapes of the songs to the Vee-Jay label in Chicago. As soon as King honcho Syd Nathan heard this, he renewed the group's contract, moved them over to the more prestigious parent King label and had them rerecord the songs on the demos. Much to Ballard's frustration, "The Twist" was relegated to B-side status on their first single for King. The A-side was Henry Glover's ballad "Teardrops On My Letter", which soared to # 4 R&B in the spring of 1959 (# 87 pop). "The Twist" charted in its own right (# 16 R&B), but that would not be the end of the story.
The year 1960 would propel Ballard to new commercial heights."Finger Poppin' Time" rocketed to # 7 pop over a 26-week stay on Billboard's charts (# 2 R&B). King then threw a belated promotional push behind "The Twist" and by July it too had ventured into the pop Hot 100, where it would peak at # 28 during its 16 weeks there. But Dick Clark decided that instead of spinning Ballard's version of "The Twist" on Bandstand, a cover for Parkway by young singer Chubby Checker was in order. His version stayed so close to the original that Ballard thought he was hearing himself when he first heard Checker's version on the radio. But Chubby was able to introduce a distinctive dance step to go with it. His version topped the pop charts that September and repeated the feat all over again at the start of 1962, an unheard-of accomplishment that underscored the song's amazing endurance.
In the autumn of 1960, "Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go" became Hank and the Midnighters' first R&B chart-topper since "Annie Had A Baby" (also # 6 pop, their highest showing). Seven more smaller pop hits followed in 1961-62, mostly based around a dance ("The Hoochi Coochi Coo", "The Continental Walk", "The Switch-A-Roo", "The Float"). The early sixties were a period in pop history of highly successful dance songs and Hank was one of the leaders of this phenomenon.
In 1963 Ballard and the Midnighters went their separate ways, allowing Hank to appear as a solo act for the first time. The King label would show incredible loyalty to its former hitmaker during the sixties, releasing 32 consecutive non-charting singles on Ballard before his old buddy James Brown helped him out of the commercial doldrums, giving him a place in the James Brown Revue. Ballard drifted from label to label after leaving King in 1969, formed a new group of Midnighters in the 1980s and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990. He died of throat cancer in 2003 at the age of 75.
His King legacy is enormous. The Bear Family box-set covers the years 1952-1962, to be followed by a second box. There are 150 songs on five CD's and, as usual, there's a splendid hardcover book (85 pages), with a biography by Bill Dahl, many pictures and label shots and an extensive discography.
- More info : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hank_Ballard
- Recommended reading : Jim Dawson, The Twist. The story of the song and dance that changed the world. Boston : Faber & Faber, 1995.
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