Hank Ballard - Biography

By Nick Castro


Hank Ballard is one of the most famous and enduring singers to emerge from the early r&b roots of rock and roll. Ballard is most known for his work with the group The Midnighters and for writing the song, "The Twist", which was made famous by Chubby Checker.


Ballard was born in 1927, in Detroit, Michigan. When Ballard was a young child, his father died and he was sent to love with his family in Alabama, who were devout christians. Because of this, Ballard had a heavy gospel influence in his formative years, as as healthy doses of blues and country music, which he picked up from friends and neighborhood. Ballard has also claimed Nat King Cole as a big influence on his singing style. Eventually, Ballard grew weary of his strict religious family and he moved back to the Detroit area. He got a job, though still in his early teens, at the Ford Motor Company, working on an assembly line. Through a friend and co-worker, Sonny Woods, who sang in the group, The Royals, Ballard would get his first professional singing job when the band's lead singer was drafted to the war. The Royals got a job playing at the Paradise Theater, in Detroit, at a music contest being put on by Johnny Otis. The Royals won that night and were subsequently signed, by Otis, to record for the Federal label. The group released the song "Every Beat of My Heart" with "All Night Long" as the b-side. The Royals had already released another record, when Jackie Wilson and Levi Stubbs were still in the group. When Ballard made his recorded debut with the band, the lineup was Ballard, Woods, Charles Sutton, Henry Booth and Alonzo Tucker. Once Ballard joined, the group began to take their music in a new direction, adopting a raw and sexually suggestive style, in large part because of Ballard's influence. The group had a string of hit records, including the song "Get It", which was banned from many radio stations.


The Royals' first major hit was made with their new guitarist, Arthur Porter, who replaced Tucker. They released the song "Work With Me Annie" in 1954, along with "Annie's Aunt Fannie" and "Annie Had a Baby", later the same year. They sold over a million copies of these records, becoming stars in the process. One of the most interesting facts, is that they got very little airplay due to the overt sexual references in their songs. When they first got attention for the "Work With Me Annie" record, a very common mistake was to confuse the band with r&b group, The Five Royales, who were already famous themselves. The Royals felt it best to change their name, which they did, to The Midnighters. Apparently, Ballard felt some resentment towards his record label, Federal, for forcing the band to record the follow-ups to the the "Work With Me Annie".


Though the band was being criticized by many for their salacious lyrics, they were not deterred and followed up their previous hits with the song, "Sexy Ways". This only served to solidify their position as one of the most lascivious groups of their time. Another trick the bad were using, was to turn the guitar up as loud as it would go. This overdriven guitar was still only being heard in small blues bars at the time, and hank Ballard and the Midnighters made excellent use of this upfront guitar styling.


The next year, Ballard released the first full length albums with the Midnighters, on the King Label, which was the parent company of Federal. Some of the records the band made were Hank Ballard and the Midnighters (1957 - King), Singin' & Swingin' (1959 - King) and Mr. Rhythm & Blues (1960 - King). Though these are strong statements of their respective genres, the band had their most inspired moments in the mid 50's.


in 1959, the Midnighters released the song "The Twist" as a b-side to "Teardrops On Your Letter". Ballard protested this maneuver and thought "The Twist" should have been the song for radio airplay. The label disagreed and, in the end, won the dispute. The next year, Chubby Checker, always the opportunist, took advantage and covered the song himself, and in a very similar fashion. The Checker version became an instant classic and today, most people just assume that he wrote it, leaving Ballard with no credit for an otherwise inspired moment of his career. Ballard did credit Checker with giving him the exposure he needed to crossover in to the mainstream. Ballard quickly released the songs "Finger Poppin' Time" and "Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go", on the King label, in 1960. Both records sold a total of a million records together. Ballard was back in the driver's seat.


Soon Ballard would leave the Midnighters, taking the band name with him, and make an attempt at a solo career. For a short time he worked with James Brown, who had hailed Ballard as a big influence on him, but no major successes came of it. With the changing musical landscape in the mid-60's. By the late 60's it seemed that Ballard was about to make his comeback, when he released, in 1968, the song "How You Gonna Get Respect (When You Ain't Cut Your Process Yet)", which became a hit. He released this song with his new band, The Dapps. They followed this song, in 1969, with "You're So Sexy" but it fell flat. He even released an album, produced by Brown, in an attempt to rejuvenate his career. You Can't Keep a Good Man Down (1969 - King), was a solid album, that has become a classic amongst record collectors, but did not do what it was intended to.


Though Ballard made many records throughout the 70's, many of them consisting of excellent material, he was never able to get a hold on stardom again. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. He died in 2003, in Los Angeles. Ballard suffered from Throat Cancer in his later years.

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