Born November 18, 1936, in Detroit, MI; raised by relatives in Alabama. Addresses: Record company--Rhino Records, Inc., 2225 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404-3555.
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 Sutton, 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.
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."
by Ed Decker
Hank Ballard's Career
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 Midnighters; 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.
- Selective Works
- 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.
- "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.
- 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.