Hank Ballard and The Midnighters achieved prominence on the rhythm and blues charts in the mid 50's and with a number of top forty pop hits in the early 60's. One of their recordings, written by their lead singer, was turned into a tremendously successful #1 hit when it was recorded by another prominent artist.
The group started singing doo-wop in Detroit in 1952 as The Royals. This group was comprised of Charles Sutton, Norman Thrasher, and Henry Booth (at one time, members are said to have included Levi Stubbs and Jackie Wilson); Alonzo Tucker played guitar. Sutton and Thrasher left the group. Lawson Smith and Sonny Woods came in; Smith was drafted into the armed services and was replaced by Hank Ballard as lead singer, late in 1953, at the suggestion of Johnny Otis. They had a top ten rhythm & blues hit late that year with Get It, written by Hank Ballard.
Henry "Hank" Ballard was born in Detroit in 1927 as John Henry Kendricks. His father died when he was seven and he was raised by relatives in Bessemer, Alabama. He lived there for a time as a child, before moving back to Detroit at age fifteen. (Some sources report his birthplace as Bessemer, Alabama and his year of birth as 1936, but this is possibly the result of a mix-up recorded on a birth certificate.) He listened to gospel music and became a fan of singing cowboy Gene Autrey and his song I'm Back In The Saddle Again. Ballard worked for a time on the Ford assembly line in Detroit.
In 1954 The Royals were recording in Cincinnati, and in order to avoid confusion with another vocal group called The Five Royales, their name was changed to The Midnighters. Their guitar player was replaced by Arthur Porter, and subsequently by Cal Green. Inspired by the Dominoes' Sixty Minute Man, Ballard took to writing a song that would change the music scene as it existed at the time. Recording on the Federal label in Cincinnati, his group produced a million-selling hit in 1954 with Work With Me Annie. Like their earlier hit Get It, it contained overtly sexual lyrics, something that could only cause controversy in the mid-1950's. Many radio stations refused to play the record and eventually it was banned by the FCC, but the controversy and the publicity surrounding the song resulted in strong record sales. It topped the R&B chart for seven weeks. This was the first of the so-called "Annie" songs, and The Midnighters released others such as Work With Me Annie and Annie Had a Baby. Along with another of their hits, Sexy Ways, the group was gaining notice releasing songs with sexually auggestive lyrics. All were million sellers. Etta James recorded an answer song with lyrics written by Johnny Otis, The Wallflower (a.k.a. Roll With Me Henry). When the lyrics to this song were cleaned up, the resulting record Dance With Me Henry (Wallflower) became a #1 pop hit for Georgia Gibbs in 1955.
Hank Ballard and The Midnighters were laying a foundation for a very widespread change in popular music. Their Work With Me Annie is regarded by many as one of the first rock-and-roll hits. More "Annie" songs were written and recorded but in time the novelty wore off and they no longer sold well.
The group had no hits for several years, but in late 1958 Hank Ballard and The Midnighters released a song titled Teardrops On Your Letter, which reached the top 100 on the pop chart. It was the song written by Ballard on the reverse side of this record, The Twist, that was to once again shake up the music world. In the summer of 1960, Hank Ballard and The Midnighters had a top ten pop hit with Finger Poppin' Time.
There are various accounts of what ensued next to make The Twist the giant hit that it became. It seems that Dick Clark invited Hank Ballard to appear on his television program American Bandstand to perform the song. Ballard wanted to include The Midnighters in the performance at an additional fee, and Clark disagreed and turned to Danny and the Juniors to handle the job. When their response was delayed, Clark asked a local Philadelphia singer, eighteen-year-old up-and-comer Ernest Evans, to record the song and perform it on the show. Recording as Chubby Checker, Evans had reached the lower rungs of the top forty the previous year with The Class. In August of 1960, The Twist by Hank Ballard and The Midnighters, along with another version of the song by Chubby Checker, both reached the top forty for the first time. The original, by The Midnighters, went to #28. Checker's version -- and supposedly he invented the dance to go along with it which was easy for anyone to do -- skyrocketed to number one. Years later Hank Ballard was quoted as saying "the best thing that ever happened to me was Chubby Checker doing (The Twist)."
The Twist was quite a phenomenon. It inspired a number of other Twist records in the early 60's, including Let's Twist Again and Slow Twistin' by Chubby Checker, Dear Lady Twist and Twist, Twist Senora by Gary U.S. Bonds, Peppermint Twist - Part 1 by Joey Dee and the Starlighters, Twist And Shout by the Isley Brothers, Twistin' Matilda by Jimmy Soul, Twistin' The Night Away by Sam Cooke, and Twistin' Postman by the Marvelettes, among others -- all inspired by Chubby Checker's song that had been written by Hank Ballard. It also set off a period in pop history of highly successful dance songs in the early 60's -- The Hucklebuck, Pony Time, The Fly, Limbo Rock, Mashed Potato Time, The Loco-Motion, and a number of others. And across the country young and old alike were dancing the Twist. Pop music in the 60's would certainly have been quite different had Ballard never written the song. The Chubby Checker version returned in late 1961 and became the only post-World War II song ever to reach the number one position on the pop chart on two separate occasions.
Following the success of The Twist, Hank Ballard and The Midnighters put up their final top ten pop record later in 1960 with Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go. They followed with other lesser hits -- The Hoochi Coochi Coo, Let's Go Again (Where We Went Last Night), The Continental Walk, The Switch-A-Roo -- but by the end of 1961 their run on the charts had declined. All of their pop hits had been recorded on the King label. By 1965, Ballard had left for a solo career and the group was re-formed. The lineup for The Midnighters in the mid-to late 60's included Wesley Hargrove, Walter Miller, and Frank Stanford.
Hank Ballard had been somewhat of an inspiration to young singer James Brown. They both had recorded at King Records in Cincinnati and at times Ballard recorded with the James Brown Revue. Ballard continued recording as a solo artist, went from label to label, and joined the oldies circuit for a time in the 70's. In 1986 he reunited with his old group to do some touring and recording.
Ballard has been acknowledged by many as an early influence on the formation of rock-and-roll music, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. He suffered from throat cancer and died in Los Angeles in 2003. Ballard is best remembered for Work With Me Annie and the controversy of that and the subsequent "Annie" songs of the 50's, for his hits with Hank Ballard and The Midnighters in the early 60's such as Finger Poppin' Time and Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go, and of course as the songwriter of one of the most popular dance songs of all time, The Twist.
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