Ballard, Hank (1936—)

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Ballard, Hank (1936—)

Hank Ballard's distinctive tenor voice and knack for writing catchy, blues-flavored pop songs made him one of the living legends of rock 'n' roll, even as his notoriously earthy lyrics made him one of its most controversial figures. Born in Detroit on November 18, 1936, Ballard was orphaned at an early age. He was sent to Bessemer, Alabama, to live with relatives, and during these years he acquired his initial singing experience, performing gospel songs in church. This gospel edge would later characterize some of Ballard's best work, including the hit ballad "Teardrops on Your Letter."

Ballard returned to Detroit at age 15 to work on the Ford Motor Company assembly line. Inspired by rhythm and blues singers like the Dominoes' Clyde McPhatter, Ballard also joined a doo-wop outfit called the Royals. Although the Royals had already established themselves as a reasonably successful group, scoring a minor hit on Federal Records with their version of Johnny Otis' "Every Beat of My Heart," it was their acquisition of Ballard that would define their future style and sound. The group's next recording, a Ballard original entitled "Get It," was released in late 1953, and received as much attention for its "quite erotic" lyrics as it did for its musical qualities.

In early 1954, Federal Records acquired another, better known Rhythm and Blues group called the Five Royales, who had already produced a string of hits on the Apollo label. In an effort to avoid confusion, Federal president Syd Nathan changed the name of Ballard's group to the Midnighters (later Hank Ballard and the Midnighters). The newly-christened Midnighters subsequently produced their most important and influential song, "Work With Me Annie." With its raunchy, double-entendre lyrics, including lines like "Annie, please don't cheat/Give me all my meat," the hit single helped to fuel a firestorm of controversy over explicit lyrics (Variety magazine columnist Abel Green referred to them as "leer-ics" in a string of editorials). Enjoying their newfound popularity, the Midnighters, in the tradition established by country musicians, cut several "answers" to their hit, including "Annie Had a Baby" and later "Annie's Aunt Fannie." Other groups joined in the act, with the El Dorados producing "Annie's Answer" for the Vee Jay label, while the Platters mined similar terrain with "Maggie Doesn't Work Here Anymore." Eventually, the entire "Annie" series, along with two dozen other "erotic" Rhythm and Blues songs, was banned from radio airwaves virtually nationwide.

A few years later, Ballard matched new lyrics to a melody that he had first used on a Midnighters flop entitled "Is Your Love for Real?", and produced "The Twist." Dissatisfied with Federal's management of the group, Ballard took his new song to Vee-Jay Records, and later to King Records, which finally released it as the B-side of the ballad "Teardrops on Your Letter." American Bandstand host Dick Clark liked the tune enough to finance a rerecording by Ernest Evans (a.k.a Chubby Checker), who took the tune to the top of the pop charts not once but twice, in 1960 and 1962. Checker"s version emulated Ballard's to such a degree that Ballard, upon first hearing it, believed it was his own.

The Midnighters continued to experience chart action; at one point in 1960, they had three singles on the pop chart simultaneously. In 1961, however, Ballard elected to pursue a career as a solo act, and the Midnighters disbanded. Thereafter, Ballard found very little success, although he made the Rhythm and Blues charts in 1968 and 1972 with "How You Gonna Get Respect (If You Haven't Cut Your Process Yet)?" and "From the Love Side," respectively. After a long break from performing, Ballard formed a new "Midnighters" group in the mid-1980s and resumed his career. He also made special appearances with well known rock and blues artists, including guitar-ist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who in 1985 covered Ballard's "Look at Little Sister" on his critically-acclaimed album Soul to Soul. Ballard was among the first inductees into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1993, he released a "comeback" album entitled Naked in the Rain.

—Marc R. Sykes

Further Reading:

Martin, Linda, and Kerry Segrave. Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock 'n' Roll. Hamden, Connecticut, Archon Books, 1988.

Shaw, Arnold. Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues. New York, Macmillan, 1978.