Ballard, Hank 1927–2003
Hank Ballard 1927–2003
Hank Ballard was a singer and songwriter who earned acclaim in the 1960s with his music and singing. Originally known for his lewd lyrics with the group the Midnighters, Ballard’s true claim to fame came when he penned and recorded “The Twist,” which would become not only a top R&B hit, but also a dance craze throughout the United States and Europe. Ballard recorded over 20 singles that reached the upper positions of the R&B charts and by the time of his death in 2003 had been performing for almost 50 years.
There is a lot of information available about Ballard’s life and career, but some of it is controversial, and various biographical files dispute the facts of his life. For instance, according to birth records, Hank Ballard was born in Detroit, Michigan, on November 18, 1927. In later years, however, all of the biographical material on Ballard would make him ten years younger and list his birth year as 1936. Ballard was born John H. Kendricks.
In some of the interviews with Ballard himself he spoke about the sadness of his early childhood and the fact that he always had a sense of abandonment. His memories of his mother are colored by his last view of her. He told Mai Cramer in an interview on the Real Blues website, “you know, last time I saw my mom, she was running on the gun sight of my father—of a double barreled shotgun. The last time I saw her, she was ducking into the woods—trying to avoid his shotgun blast.” He was six years old at the time. His father died the following year, leaving him to be raised by very strict Baptist relatives in Bessemer, Alabama.
Between the ages of seven and 15, Ballard lived in Alabama. There he sang in the gospel choir at his church and started a long love affair with vocal music. His early love of blues music soon changed to R&B in his teen years. He was also influenced by the country music around him, and he found much to admire in the singers of the day. In an interview with Mai Cramer, Ballard stated that famed cowboy singer, Gene Autry inspried him. “That was the man that started me singing. I used to try to emulate him, you know. I had my little toy guns. He was not my favorite fighter, though. He was my favorite singer. He was too handsome
At a Glance …
Born on November 18, 1927, in Detroit Ml; died on March 2, 2003, in Los Angeles, CA; married Theresa McNeil, 1980s (died 1990).
Career: Singer and song writer, 1951–2003; lead singer with the Midnighters, 1951–63, 1980s–1990s
Awards: Inductee, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1990.
to be a fighter.” At 15 Ballard could no longer take the restrictions of his life in Alabama, so he ran away from his relatives and went back to Detroit, where he found a job working on the line for the Ford Motor Company. One of his cousins, Florence Ballard, was also in Detroit at the time. Florence Ballard later worked for Motown and was a member of the Supremes. In the liner notes to the album Sexy Ways: The Best of Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, Ballard summed up his music: “I’m a little country; I’m a little R&B; I’m a little pop; I’m a little gospel; I’m a little bit of everything,” which has probably explained why his music had such universal appeal.
While working on the assembly line, Ballard met Sonny Woods who was singing with a doo-wop group called the Royals. At that time, the Royals featured Lawson Smith, Henry Booth, and Charles Sutton, with Alonzo Tucker on the guitar. When Smith, the group’s lead singer, was drafted, Ballard joined the group—and the rest, as they say, was history. He made his singing debut in 1951 at an amateur contest organized by bandleader Johnny Otis. The contest was at Detroit’s Paradise Theater. Otis was so impressed by the group and by Ballard’s rich baritone-tenor voice, that the Royals were contracted to the Federal label to record their first record “Every Beat of My Heart,” which would become a smash hit in later years for Gladys Knight and the Pips. In the early years, the group was known for their dreamy slow songs, but this soon bored Ballard. He quickly became lead singer of the group and started writing his own songs, bringing to the group a hard gospel edge. His song-writing career began in 1953 with “Get It,” which he co-wrote with Tucker. This was the beginning of a move into what they called a “raunchy groove” with lyrics suggestive to the times. “Get It” became a top ten R&B hit and gave the group a big boost in popularity. Ballard’s music continued along the same theme and earned the group a lot of attention and some censure when in 1954 they cut “Work With Me Annie.” At the time, the lyrics were considered so suggestive that the song was banned and not played on most radio stations. In spite of this, the tune quickly soared to number one on the R&B charts. Today, the lyrics look almost laughingly pale: “Annie please don’t cheat/Give me all my meat.”
This song launched the Royals who changed their name to the Midnighters to avoid being confused with another R&B group, the Five Royales. The success of “Work With Me Annie” was repeated with two spin off records, “Annie had a Baby” and “Annie’s Aunt Fanny.” Each of the three records sold well over a million copies. To appeal to the more conservative white audiences, “Work With Me Annie” was later re-recorded in a cleaned up version as “Dance With Me Henry.” Ballard and the Midnighters had become a major attraction on the R&B circuit. They performed in major theaters around the country including the Howard in Washington, D.C., and the Apollo in New York City. The group was now known for their quirky, often lewd songs. They were also well known in the R&B music world because of the intense, energetic guitar interludes in their songs. In 1955, still recording for the Federal label, the group cut additional hits such as “Henry’s Got Flat Feet (Can’t Dance No More)” and “It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day).”
One of the more controversial areas of Ballard’s career involved the writing, recording, and subsequent popularity of “The Twist.” There are several stories behind how the song was originally written, but what seemed clear was that the tune evolved from a converted gospel song called “Is Your Love For Real.” The lyrics and dance movements associated with the song probably came about through Ballard watching some teenagers and the Midnighters themselves moving to the music. In any case, the song was to become a major hit in 1958 and to start a dance craze throughout America and Europe. It also spawned several other records and dances.
The story of the Twist becoming a hit was rather bizarre. “The Twist” was released in 1958 as the B-side of “Teardrops on Your Letter.” Although Ballard tried to tell the recording company that “The Twist” was the better song, the company disagreed and refused to change the recording. The public actually agreed—“The Twist” never reached higher than 16 on the top hits charts, but “Teardrops on Your Letter” rose to number four. “The Twist” came to the notice of Dick Clark, director of American Bandstand, and he wanted the group to come on the show and perform the song. By this time, the group was called Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. There are several opinions of what happened at this point, but negotiations fell through and Ballard never appeared. Reportedly Clark was disenchanted by Ballard’s rather notorious reputation involving the lewd lyrics of the Annie songs.
Clark, however, knew that “The Twist” was something special, and he held auditions to try to find someone else to sing the song. He chose Chubby Checker because he sounded the most like Ballard. Checker apparently duplicated the Ballard recording, right down to the dance movements that he went to the Midnight-ers to learn. In 1960 Checker sang the song on American Bandstand and the song along with the dance craze became a major teenage fad. Checker’s recording of the song hit number one on the R&B charts both in 1960 and again in 1961. Ironically, Checker’s version was so close to Ballard’s that Ballard thought it was their recording when he first heard it. Although Checker’s recording of “The Twist” was to become the most popular, it also catapulted the Mid-nighters’ recording with it. Ballard followed this success with several million-selling dance hits like “Finger Pop-pin’ Time” and “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go.” These recordings reached number seven and number six respectively on the pop charts. The Midnighters had by this time switched recording companies and were cutting records for the King label. Ballard also capitalized on the dance craze caused by “The Twist” with other dance hits such as “The Hoochie Coochi Coo,” “The Continental Walk,” “The Float,” and “The Switch-A-Roo.” In the early 1960s Ballard had charted 22 singles on the R&B charts.
In 1963 Ballard disbanded the Midnighters and branched out on his own. He retained rights to the name, however, and reactivated the group later in his life. In the late 1960s the country was invaded by the Beatles and other British singing groups, and R&B took a back seat. Ballard’s popularity dwindled and he started performing solo in small clubs. During part of this time he also joined James Brown and performed with the James Brown Revue. In the late 1960s he had several single recordings that hit the charts. “How You Gonna Get Respect (When You Ain’t Cut Your Process Yet)” reached number 15 on the R&B charts in 1968.
Ballard, an all-round entertainer with a tremendous stage presence, continued to write songs, make records, and perform almost to the end of the century. He produced one minor hit in 1972, “From the Love Side.” He made a stir in 1974 with his “Let’s Go Streaking” on the Charly label, which he reportedly recorded in the nude. He toured and sang frequently in England during this period, where the audiences loved him. In the 1980s his career was rejuvenated when he met and married Theresa McNeil. As his manager, McNeil polished up Ballard’s image and started him into a long-overdue comeback. In the mid-1980s he created and sang with new sets of Midnighters, first female, then male. In 1987 he recorded a live double album, Hank Ballard Live at the Palais. Ballard received a personal crushing blow in 1990 when his wife was killed in a hit-and-run accident. He never fully recovered from the loss.
Ballard’s influence was evident in many groups over the years. In the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, Stambler said “The Allman Brothers recall that their early bands often played Hank Ballard songs in the early and mid-1960s, and quite a few other groups that were to spawn the most successful rock bands of the late 1960s similarly used Ballard material as an important part of their repertoires.”
In a 1996 interview with Mai Cramer, posted on the Real Blues website, Ballard summarized his attitude about music as follows: “There’s no medicine out there as great as music. Music has been more therapeutic than holistic medicine. There’s something about music that’s just therapeutic. If you’re looking for youth, you’re looking for longevity, just take a dose of rock ‘n’ roll.” As a culmination of his career, Ballard was recognized by his peers and inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Ballard died on March 2, 2003, at his home in Los Angeles of throat cancer. With him was his friend and caretaker, Anna Ayala who was quoted in the Courier-Mail as saying “He was just a very good man and loved by many people.” Ballard will be long remembered for the rich heritage of music that he left behind.
“Every Beat of My Heart” (single), 1951.
“Get It” (single), 1953.
“Work With Me Annie” (single), 1954.
“Henry’s Got Hat Feet (Can’t Dance No More)” (single), 1955.
“It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)” (single), 1955.
The Midnighters, Federal, 1955.
Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Deluxe, 1957.
“Teardrops on Your Letter” (single), 1958.
“The Twist” (single), 1958.
Singin’ & Swinging King, 1959.
Mr. Rhythm & Blues (Finger Poppin’ Time), King, 1960.
Let’s Go Again, King, 1961.
Twistin’ Fools, King, 1962.
Jumpin’ Hank Ballard, King, 1963.
A Star in Your Eyes, King, 1964.
Glad Songs Sad Songs, King, 1965.
“How You Gonna Get Respect (When You Ain’t Cut Your Process Yet)” (solo single), 1968.
You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down, King, 1969.
“From The Love Side” (single), 1972.
“Let’s Go Streaking” (single), 1974.
What You Get When the Gettin’ Gets Good, Charly, 1985.
Hank Ballard Live at the Palais, Charly, 1987.
Sexy Ways: The Best of Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Rhino, 1993.
Naked in the Rain, After Hours, 1993.
From Love To Tears, Pool Party, 1998.
The Blackwell Guide to Soul Recordings, edited by Robert Pruter, Blackwell, 1993.
The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 1, edited by Colin Larkin, London: MUZE, 1998.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, New York: Viking, 1989.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1993.
Santelli, Robert, The Big Book of Blues, Penguin, 1993.
Shannon, Bob, and John Javna, Behind the Hits: Inside Stories of Classic Pop and Rock and Roll, Warner Books.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin’s, 1977.
Cincinnati Post, March 3, 2003.
Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Australia), March 13, 2003.
Detroit News, March 4, 2003.
Express (London, England), March 5, 2003.
Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), March 18, 2003.
Independent (London, England), March 4, 2003.
“Hank Ballard and the Midnighters,” The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, www.history-of-rock.com/hank_ballard_and_the_midnighters.htm (July 28, 2003).
“Mai’s Interview of the Month, November 1996, Hank Ballard,” Real Blues, www.realblues.com/intervl3.html (June 16, 2003).
“We Remember: Hank Ballard,” Lee Bailey’s EurWeb, www.eurweb.com. (July 28, 2003).
—Patricia A. Donaldson
"Ballard, Hank 1927–2003." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ballard-hank-1927-2003
"Ballard, Hank 1927–2003." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved September 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ballard-hank-1927-2003
Hank Ballard ventured into new musical territory during the 1950s when he merged gospel rhythms with racy lyrics. Performing mostly with the Midnighters, he had numerous hit songs on the rhythm and blues charts. But he didn’t become well known to the general public until Chubby Checker covered his trendsetting song “The Twist.” Ballard is unquestionably “one of the great rhythm and blues talents,” noted Irwin Stambler in the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul. “His career peaked while R&B was still mainly relegated to a ghetto audience.” Ballard’s songs have been covered over the years by a variety of groups, and he has also been cited as a major influence on James Brown’s style.
As Greg Drust noted in the Rhino Records liner notes to Sexy Ways: The Best of Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Ballard “absorbed the heavy gospel influence around the family home and church, as well as country music, the blues shouting of Jimmy Rushing, and the crooning of Nat ‘King’ Cole.” Ballard’s musical well has run deep and wide during his career. The Detroit-born singer admitted in the liner notes, “I’m a little country; I’m a little R&B; I’m a little pop; I’m a little gospel; I’m a little bit of everything.”
After his father died, young Ballard—then only seven years old—was sent to live with strict religious relatives in Alabama. While there he honed his raw singing talent in church choirs. By adolescence he was hooked on the blues, then he shifted his interest to R&B as a teenager. Country music also influenced him greatly, especially the sounds of Gene Autry. “I heard [Autry] singing ’I’m Back in the Saddle Again’ when I was a little kid, and I said, ’Man, we got us a singing cowboy now!‘,” Ballard was quoted as saying in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
Fed up with his stifling family life, Ballard left his relatives’ home and moved back to the Detroit area where he was born. Also living there at the time was Florence Ballard, Hank’s cousin, who later achieved fame as a member of the Supremes.
By age 15 Ballard was toiling on an assembly line at Ford Motor Company. His singing on the job impressed another coworker, Sonny Woods, who at that time was singing with a doo-wop group called the Royals, which featured Lawson Smith, Henry Booth, and Charles Sut-ton, with Alonzo Tucker on guitar. At other times the group had included Levi Stubbs (of Four Tops fame) and Jackie Wilson. Ballard got his chance to join the Royals when Smith, the group’s front man, was drafted into the army.
For the Record …
Born November 18, 1936, in Detroit, MI; raised by relatives in Alabama.
Began singing with the Royals, 1951; signed recording contract with Federal label, 1951; became lead singer of the Royals; cowrote group’s first Top Ten single, “Get It,” 1953; had first Number One R&B single, “Work with Me, Annie,” 1954; group changed name to the Mid-nighters; released first single to make pop charts (“Teardrops on Your Letter”), 1958; recorded “The Twist,” 1958; switched to King label, 1959; left the Midnighters while retaining rights to group’s name, 1963; played with the James Brown Revue, 1960s; left King label, 1969; signed by Charly label; recorded novelty song, “Let’s Go Streaking,” 1974; has written songs and toured steadily, 1980s-90s.
Addresses: Record company —Rhino Records, Inc., 2225 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404-3555.
Ballard made his debut as the Royals’ baritone-tenor at a 1951 amateur contest staged by bandleader Johnny Otis at Detroit’s Paradise Theater. Competing against other performers such as Wilson and Little Willie John, the Royals won out and were signed by Otis to record Every Beat of My Heart on the Federal label.
In 1952 Ballard shifted the Royals’ music into a new direction, away from the dreamy slow songs that had been their trademark. “I wanted to be different,” he said in the Rhino liner notes. “That’s why I took the group into a raunchy groove—the suggestive lyrics and all. I knew there was a marketplace out there for it.” Ballard moved the Royals into the limelight with “Get It” in 1953, a Top Ten R&B hit that he cowrote with Tucker. At this point he was lead singer of the group, and his songwriting had become more prolific.
Notoriety came Ballard’s way with his R&B hit of 1954, “Work with Me, Annie.” Even though the song’s sexually charged lyrics made it taboo for many radio stations, the tune soared to Number One on the R&B charts. It also triggered many sequel recordings. “’Work with me‘ was a slang in the ghetto that meant… whatever,” claimed Ballard in the Rhino liner notes. As this song made the group more visible, the Royals changed their name to the Midnighters to prevent being confused with another popular R&B group, the “5” Royales.
Ballard and the Midnighters achieved their greatest R&B success in 1954. Despite the lack of airplay, their “Work with Me, Annie,” “Annie Had a Baby,” “and “Annie’s Aunt Fannie” each sold over a million records internationally. “Work with Me, Annie” was later made into a “G-rated” version for American audiences called “Dance with Me, Henry.” Ballard and his group became major attractions on the R&B circuit. They performed frequently at such major theaters as the Howard in Washington, D.C., and the Apollo in New York City, among others.
More than lewd lyrics made Ballard’s group stand out in the music world; their songs also assaulted the listener with intense guitar licks. “Most of the R&B records of the day featured sax interludes, but Hank’s band lacerated the listener’s consciousness with searing guitar breaks, using energy sufficient to barbecue the spiciest ribs in the South’s nastiest roadhouse,” exclaimed Drust. Robert Pruter added in The Blackwell Guide to Soul Recordings, “Ballard’s impassioned lead vocals worked wonders with moody blues ballads.”
Although he was irritated at Federal for forcing his group to record more “Annie” songs after the success of “Work with Me, Annie,” Ballard stayed with the label. He charted additional R&B hits in 1955 with “Henry’s Got Flat Feet (Can’t Dance No More)” and “It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day).” But his greatest success actually came after the release of one of his songs—“The Twist”—by another artist.
“The Twist” evolved from a converted gospel song called “Is Your Love for Real,” which Ballard and the Midnighters had sung in 1957. They altered the arrangement of that song in 1958 to create “The Twist,” which was then relegated to the B-side of “Teardrops on Your Letter.” “The company I was with didn’t have any faith in it,” said Ballard of the song in the Rhino liner notes. “They thought it was just a mediocre record.” Ballard had gotten his inspiration for the song’s lyrics from the Midnighters themselves, who used to dance while they performed. “The Midnighters invented the Twist,” he explained in Behind the Hits. “I was just watching them go through their routines, seeing them twisting their bodies, and the lyric just came to me—’twist.‘”
Ballard and the Midnighters were scheduled to perform “The Twist” on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, but the group had to cancel. Clark tried to get Freddy Cannon to come on his show and cover the record, but Cannon balked. He finally scheduled an appearance by Chubby Checker, who sounded very similar to Ballard doing the song. “[He] did an absolute clone,” stated
Ballard in Behind the Hits. As a result of Checker’s appearance on the show, “The Twist” became a Number One hit in 1960, and the dance became a major teenage fad.
Even though he received little credit for “The Twist,” Ballard never resented Checker’s fame resulting from his song; the exposure helped the singer-songwriter cross over to the pop charts. “We did Twist’ first, but the best thing that ever happened to me was Chubby Checker doing it,” he was quoted as saying in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Ballard took advantage of his new listening audience with dance hits such as the million-seller “Finger Poppin’ Time” and “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go,” which reached Number Seven and Number Six on the pop charts, respectively.
In 1963 Ballard left the Midnighters but retained the rights to the group’s name so that he could still use it while performing with other musicians. Decreasing success by the mid-1960s was due partly to the British Invasion of rock and roll that forced rhythm and blues from the limelight. At this point Ballard was performing solo, usually in small clubs. He continued to release singles—in a funkier style than before. He also performed with the James Brown Revue.
Several singles that climbed the soul charts resurrected Ballard’s career late in the decade. He had hits with songs like “How Can You Say You’re Free (When You Ain’t Cut Your Process Yet).” And his “How You Gonna Get Respect, “which he recorded with the Dapps, reached Number 15 on the R&B charts in 1968.
Ballard remained active, with moderate success in the 1970s, making a stir when he recorded 1974’s “Let’s Go Streaking”—in the nude—as a promotional gimmick. Touring frequently as he faded in and out of view in the next decade, he made a splash with his critically acclaimed double live album recorded in England in 1987, Hank Ballard Live at the Palais. Well into the 1990s, the singer continued to write songs, record, and perform.
Although for many years largely unknown by mass pop audiences, Ballard’s influence has been evident in many mainstream groups over the years. As Stambler noted: “The Allman Brothers, for instance, recall that their early bands often played Hank Ballard songs in Florida clubs in the early and mid-1960s, and quite a few other groups that were to spawn the most successful rock bands of the late 1960s similarly used Ballard material as an important part of their repertoires.”
“Work with Me, Annie,” 1954.
“The Twist,” 1958.
“Finger Poppin’ Time,”1960.
“Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go,” 1960.
“Nothing But Good, “1961.
Greatest Juke Box Hits, Federal, 1958.
Let’s Go Again, King, 1961.
Those Lazy Days, King, 1965.
You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down, King, 1969.
What You Get When the Gettin’ Gets Good, Charly, 1985.
Hank Ballard Live at the Palais, Charly, 1987.
Sexy Ways: The Best of Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Rhino, 1993.
The Blackwell Guide to Soul Recordings, edited by Robert Pruter, Blackwell, 1993, p. 55.
The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 1, edited by Colin Larkin, Guinness Publishing, 1992, pp. 160-61.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989, pp. 65-66.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/ Summit Books, 1983, p. 27.
Santelli, Robert, The Big Book of Blues, Penguin, 1993, pp. 21-22.
Shannon, Bob, and John Javna, Behind the Hits: Inside Stories of Classic Pop and Rock and Roll, Warner Books, pp. 98-99.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin’s, 1977, pp. 35-36.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes to Sexy Ways: The Best of Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Rhino Records, 1993.
"Ballard, Hank." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ballard-hank
"Ballard, Hank." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved September 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ballard-hank