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Ballard, Hank

pop midnighters hit smash

Ballard, Hank, singer-songwriter best-known for writing “The Twist”; b. Detroit, Nov. 18, 1936. Ballard was born in Detroit but raised from age seven in Besemer, Ala., by relatives after his father died. He ran away from home at age 15, returning to Detroit and finding work on an assembly line. In his off-hours, he began to sing, and was heard by Sonny Woods of the vocal group, The Royals.

The Detroit-based Royals originally formed in 1950, with members Jackie Wilson and Levi Stubbs (later of The Four Tops). The group’s membership eventually stabilized with Henry Booth and Charles Sutton (leadsand tenors), Lawson Smith (baritone) and Sonny Woods (bass), with Alonzo Tucker on guitar. Spotted by R&B talent scout Johnny Otis in early 1952 at the Paradise Club in Detroit, The Royals signed with Cincinnati’s Federal label upon Otis’s recommendation and achieved early success with the Otis ballad, “Every Beat of My Heart.”

Hank Ballard joined in 1953 when Lawson Smith was drafted into the army, and The Royals soon registered a R&B smash with “Get It.” Changing their name to The Midnighters in April 1954, the group scored a top R&B hit with Ballard’s blatantly sexual “Work with Me Annie.” Although banned from radio station airplay, the song sold over a million copies. Through 1955, The Midnighters achieved major R&B hits with “Sexy Ways,” the inevitable followups: “Annie Had a Baby,” and “Annie’s Aunt Fannie,” and “It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day).” Etta James recorded the “answer” to the Annie songs entitled “The Wallflower” (subtitled “Roll with Me Henry”), with songwriting credit going to James, Ballard, and Otis. White cover artist Georgia Gibbs quickly co-opted the song for a major pop hit.

In the second half of the 1950s, The Midnighters endured a number of personnel changes, including the departures of Charles Sutton and Sonny Woods, the return of Lawson Smith, and the addition of guitarist Cal Green and vocalist Norman Thrasher. They switched to King Records for singles releases, and became Hank Ballard and The Midnighters in 1959. Their 1959 smash R&B hit “Teardrops on Your Letter” was backed by Ballard’s song “The Twist,” which initially drew little attention. Rereleased after another dance-novelty number, “Finger Poppin’ Time,” became a smash pop and R&B hit for the group in 1960, “Teardrops” became an R&B smash. However, it took Chubby Checker’s cover version—a blatant copy of Ballard’s record—to capitalize on the song, scoring top pop hits with it in both 1960 and 1961, and thus launching the international dance craze.

Despite losing out on the Twist craze, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters continued to enjoy popularity on the R&B and pop charts. They scored their biggest popular success with the late 1960s “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go,” a smash pop and top R&B hit. Other major pop hits through 1961 included “The Hoochi Coochi Coo” and “The Switcheroo,” but after 1962, neither The Midnighters, nor Ballard’s solo, achieved another major hit. The group disbanded in the mid 1960s, and Ballard left the King label in 1969. He subsequently joined the James Brown Revue in the late 1960s and early 1970s, dropping out of the music scene from 1974 to 1982. Hank Ballard resumed touring in the 1980s, eventually recording for After Hours Records in the 1990s.

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