"And the midnighters"
A Detroit group called The Royals was coasting along with some regional success. Spotted by Johnny Otis at the Paradise Theater amateur night, he recommended them to Federal Records and wrote their first single, With Every Beat of My Heart (1951). That song years later was covered into a #1 hit by Gladys Knight & the Pips. The Royals, whose early influences were the smooth-singing Sonny Til Orioles, now had a hot song but they needed a little musical juice to get past the other bird-named groups.
And that juice would be a smooth-faced 16-year-old runaway named Henry Bernard Ballard working in a Ford assembly plant. After Lawson Smith of The Royals was drafted, the group pulled Hank Ballard off the assembly line. Soon everything would change for the Royals, their delivery, their success, even their name.
When asked about his family. “Last time I saw my mother she was duckin in the woods to avoid a shotgun blast from my father.” Raised by his aunt in Alabama, Hank Ballard said, “I was a runaway at 14. My side of the family was heavy with religion. They use to beat me if they caught me hummin the blues in the house. I was not allowed to sing anything but gospel. I had to get out of that.”
In 1953, with a gospel tinge to his earthy voice, a handsome swagger, a penchant for raunchy songs and a love for country music and Gene Autry, Ballard wrote Get It. The suggestive song jumped to #6 on the R&B charts. After that Hank was singing lead and de-flowering his writing. Instead of the dreamy Orioles sound, the new tempo was upbeat and the lyrics were down and sexy. The group was now composed of Henry Sutton, Alonzo Tucker, Sonny Woods, Henry Booth and young Hank Ballard. Other personnel changes came quickly. But not the name Hank Ballard.
Work With Me Annie was next. And it hit big with sexy rhythm and suggestive lyrics.
Work with me Annie
Let’s get it while the gettin is good
So good, so good, so good
Annie please don’t cheat...give me all my meat
Ooh ooh wee...so good to me
That Annie million-seller with its torrid lyrics gave birth to a new name for The Royals and sired almost 20 sequels and answer records. The new name was “The Midnighters” and quickly became Hank Ballard and The Midnighters. R&B hits were Sexy Ways, Annie Had a Baby #1, Annie’s Aunt Fanny #10 and Henry’s Got Flat Feet. Even Etta James jumped in with an answer song penned by Johnny Otis called Roll With Me Henry. Little Richard joined the name game with Annie’s Back.
Other moderate successes followed. Don’t Change Your Pretty Ways, Rock and Roll Wedding, Open up the Back Door, Rock Granny Roll, I’m Gonna Miss You. All the Annie songs were banned on radio and ignored by Dick Clark, but those songs laced the lists of every juke joint jukebox and sneaked into the closet of many teenagers. At a 10th birthday party of a neighbor, I had to wrap my present in brown paper and slip it to the birthday girl. The present was a forbidden Hank Ballard album.
Hank later went shopping with a little ditty called The Twist. Nobody wanted it. King Records finally picked it up as the B side to a doo-wop ballard called Teardrops On Your Letter where Hank showed off his McPhatter-like pipes. Teardrops climbed to #4 R&B but the B-side Twist wasn’t moving fast until the Midnighters caught a gig at the Royal Theater in Baltimore. Kids took to the dance. The song made the Pop charts and #6 R&B. Buddy Dean called Dick Clark who was still wary of Hank Ballard’s lyrics. “Man you should see the kids over here. They’re onto a song by Hank Ballard. They’re dancin without even touchin!”
Dick Clark said he invited Ballard to perform but it never happened. Instead of Hank Ballard taking his song and everlasting fame to The Dick Clark show, Clark found an 18-year-old South Carolina chicken plucker named Ernest Evans. Clark renamed him Chubby Checker. Chubby took Hank Ballard’s Twist to #1, then again to #1 in 1962. Unheard of. Goldmine Magazine’s interview with Chubby Checker: “Well I knew it was a Hank Ballard song. I’d seen him perform it….and it inspired me. When my twist came out we decided the twist would be like putting out a cigarette with both feet, or like coming out of the shower and wiping your butt with a towel.”
Although none as titanic as The Twist, Hank Ballard would go on to create many dance fads. Hoochie Coochie, Continental Walk, The Float, The Coffee Grind, The Switcheroo were others we learned every time we hit the black clubs like Charlie's Place in Myrtle Beach. While The Twist was a phenomenon, we honor Hank Ballard for his Annie songs as well as his great party and dance songs, like Sexy Ways, Finger Poppin time, Give It Up, Shaky Mae, Keep On Dancing, and the #1 R&B Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Lets Go.
The harder they radio-banned Ballard, the busier they loaded the black and white jukeboxes and beach joints with his songs and the faster teenagers hid them in their closet and under their mattresses. His creative writing, numerous dance creations, earthy delivery and complete body of work make him a giant memory and worthy of induction into the first class of the Beach Music Hall of Fame.