Hank Ballard & The Midnighters Biography

John Kendricks, 18 November 1936, Detroit, Michigan, USA, d. 2 March 2003, Los Angeles, California, USA. His date of birth is disputed, and varies between 1927 and 1936. Ballard’s truck-driving father died when he was seven years old and he was sent to Bessemer, Alabama, to live with relations. The strict religious and gospel upbringing caused him to run away, and by the age of 15, Ballard was working on an assembly line at Ford Motors in Detroit. His cousin, Florence Ballard, became a member of the Detroit girl group the Supremes. Hank Ballard’s singing voice was heard by Sonny Woods of the Royals, who was amused by his mixture of Jimmy Rushing and Gene Autry. He was asked to replace frontman Lawson Smith during the latter’s army service. The Royals, who also included Henry Booth and Charles Sutton, had been recommended to King Records by Johnny Otis and had previously recorded ‘Every Beat Of My Heart’, later an R&B hit for Gladys Knight And The Pips.

In 1953, Ballard’s first session with the Royals led to their first US R&B Top 10 entry, ‘Get It’, which he also wrote. Ballard composed the newly renamed Midnighters’ 1954 R&B chart-topper, ‘Work With Me Annie’, although its sexual innuendoes were too strong for some radio stations to broadcast. Its popularity spawned sequels (‘Annie Had A Baby’, ‘Annie’s Aunt Fannie’) as well as answer records (the Platters’ ‘Annie Doesn’t Work Here Anymore’). Etta James’ ‘Roll With Me, Henry’ was modified by Georgia Gibbs to ‘Dance With Me, Henry’, while Hank himself responded with ‘Henry’s Got Flat Feet (Can’t Dance No More)’! The group also had success with ‘Sexy Ways’, ‘Don’t Change Your Pretty Ways’, ‘Open Up Your Back Door’ and ‘Tore Up Over You’. In 1955, the Drifters had converted a gospel song into ‘What’cha Gonna Do?’ and, in 1957, Hank Ballard And The Midnighters (as the group was now known) used the same melody for ‘Is Your Love For Real?’. They then modified the arrangement and changed the lyrics to ‘The Twist’. Not realizing the song’s potential, it was released as the b-side of ‘Teardrops On Your Letter’, a number 4 US R&B hit. Shortly afterwards, ‘The Twist’ was covered by Chubby Checker, who embellished Ballard’s dance steps and thus created a new craze. As a result of ‘The Twist’, Hank Ballard And The Midnighters received exposure on pop radio stations and made the US pop charts with such dance hits as ‘Finger Poppin’ Time’ (number 7), ‘Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go’ (number 6), ‘The Hoochi Coochi Coo’ (number 23), ‘Let’s Go Again (Where We Went Last Night)’ (number 39), ‘The Continental Walk’ (number 33) and ‘The Switch-A-Roo’ (number 26). On the strength of Chubby Checker’s success, their original version of ‘The Twist’ made number 28 on the US pop charts.

In the mid-60s Hank Ballard split with the other members, but he retained the group’s title, which enabled him to work with numerous musicians using the Midnighters name. For some years he worked with James Brown, who has paid tribute to him on record. In the late 80s, Ballard recorded a double album at the Hammersmith Palais in London. In 1990, he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. The best of his later recordings is 1998’s From Love To Tears, which features the excellent ‘Two Bad Boys’. Ballard died from throat cancer in March 2002.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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