One of the great voices in R&B history was stilled this past March 2, as Hank Ballard succumbed to cancer at his Los Angeles residence. He was 66.
Although not a blues singer per se, his music was blues-based with gospel style harmonies and he always carried a first-rate, gritty blues guitarist in his band to propel his dance-driven numbers. And when he did decide to tackle a true out and out blues tune such as Jerry Leiber (Baltimore born and bred) and Mike Stoller's "Kansas City (King 5195)," he could hold his own against any of the big-voiced blues shouters of the era.
Henry "Hank" Ballard was born in Alabama on November, 18, 1936, but his family soon moved to Detroit as part of the vast migration of Southern Afro-Americans during and immediately after WW II seeking a better standard of living, many of them, like the youthful Hank, taking jobs on the assembly lines in the burgeoning auto industry.
Although Hank did sing in a church choir, his major vocal inspiration during his formative years, he confessed in an interview, was none other than the "Singing Cowboy," Gene Autry, and one song in particular, his signature, "Back In The Saddle Again," captured his fancy. Back in the 40s, blues and R&B existed on race labels which were sold basically by word of mouth, but not yet broadcast via the radio; so it really wasn't that an unusual admission that he was influenced by C&W broadcasts.
Hank's biggest break came in 1951 when percussionist/ talent scout/ impresario Johnny Otis (b. Veliotes in Vallejo, CA, 1921) came to Detroit in 1951 and arranged a cattle call in hopes of recommending some potential candidates for recording contracts. And here is where the facts get a little fuzzy. According to some sources, Ballard was already leading a group called the Royals when he was recommended to the bespectacled, cigar chomping Syd Nathan of King records (based in Cincinnati, OH, at 1540 Brewster Ave.) and his Federal subsidiary run by the legendary producer, Ralph Bass. Other writers say that after the audition, he was later recruited by the already established Royals, which included, as charter members, Jackie Wilson and Levi Stubbs, the latter who would go on to front Motown's Four Tops. The former, Wilson, would, himself, soon leave this aggregate to replace Clyde McPhatter (who moved on to Atlantic records' Drifters) of Billy Ward's Dominoes, yet another Federal group, as was the Lamplighters (with Thurston Harris of "Little Bitty Pretty One" fame) and the Platters, well before their career took off with a move to Chicago-headquartered Mercury.
The consensus of opinion is that Hank Ballard hitched on to the Royals not at the very beginning but near it (1953), perhaps replacing then-lead Lawson Smith, with Charles Sutton, Sonny Woods, and Henry Booth singing backup. And no doubt R&B pioneer of Greek origin, Johnny Otis, who had just disposed of his celebrated urban juke joint, the Barrelhouse in Watts, L.A., was intimately involved with its inception. In fact, it was Otis who penned their first doo-whop masterpiece, "Every Beat Of My Heart (12064)," which did not sell particularly well, but became a cult classic, so much so, that the single (later covered by Gladys Knight & the Pips on Bobby Robinson's Fury label) commands over a $1000 dollars and, in colored vinyl, four times that figure. Indeed, the tender, ethereal four-part harmonies that marked the Royals first half-dozen recordings, including "Starting From Tonight (12077)," "Moonrise (12088)," "A Love In My Heart (12098)," "Are You Forgetting (12113)," and "The Shrine Of St. Cecilia (12121)" collectively represent some of the most sought after treasures in the world of record hunting. How about $15,000 for a ten-inch, Their Greatest Hits (295-90)? But, ironically, it would be an erotic, jump blues number—"Get It (12113)"—penned by the seventeen-year-old Ballard and underscored by co-writer Alonzo Tucker's blues guitar, which would be the precursor of the type of style which would put the ensemble on the map and put bread, lots of it, on their table. And success would be just around the corner.
When "Work With Me, Annie (12169)" appeared in 1954, it created a sensation and a furor. For that period, the lyrics were extremely sexually explicit-- "Annie, please don't cheat. Give me all my meat." And although it was anathematized by many men of the cloth and banned from many a disk jockey's play list, it still sold by the thousands. The rollicking "Annie" came to symbolize what the white establishment feared the most—the stereotypical latent sexuality of the Negro running amok. "Hank Ballard & the Midnighters were the 2 Live Crew of the early 50s, burning up the airwaves and Black jukeboxes," asserts Cub Koda in his review of the 1993 retrospective, Sexy Ways, a "best of" package on Rhino records, which specializes in reissues.
Former mentor, Johnny Otis, seized upon this opportunity to "appropriate" the melody and offer a less blatantly sexual version of the number to the public when he had the then fourteen-year-old Etta James (Jamesetta Hawkins) record "Roll With Me Henry" for the Bihari brothers' indie Modern (947) at 686 N. Robertson in Los Angeles, featuring Richard Berry, the originator of rock classic, "Louie Louie (Flip 321)." But Otis, too, had to compromise, changing the title to the more innocuous "The Wallflower." Such a practice, basically stealing a song, was rampant in this decade before such copyright laws were strictly enforced. In fact, Etta James soon sang a response to the macho "I'm A Man (Checker 814)" by Bo Diddley, retorting with "W-O-M-A-N (972)." Another egregious example of this custom was Johnny Guitar Watson's "cover" on RPM (436) of Earl King's "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights (Ace 509)" in 1955. Other such illustrations of the "Annie" rip-off phenomenon included the vocal group El Dorados ("At My Front Door"), who countered with "Annie's Answer (Vee-Jay 118)," the West Coast Midnights (notice the name similarity), who replied with "Annie Pulled A Hum-Bug (Music City 746)," the Champions, who responded with "Annie Met Henry (Chart 602)," and label mates, the Platters, who answered with "Maggie Doesn't Work Here Anymore (12204)," credited to the writers Taylor and Lynch. In all fairness, Otis did share the royalties between himself, James, and Ballard. But, for the most part, R& B artists of the 50s are still trying to recover what unscrupulous publishers of that era owe them.
But not only were other R&B artists jumping on the "Annie" bandwagon. Pop chanteuse, Georgia Gibbs, further sanitized both the title, "Dance With Me Henry," and lyrics, resulting in a monster hit on Mercury (70572) in 1955—a song that was now so fit for public consumption that it sold over a million copies.
Taking full advantage of this new "Annie" fad, the Royals released a series of best selling recordings dealing with the same theme—"Sexy Ways (12185)," "Annie Had A Baby (12195)," "Annie's Aunt Fanny (12200)," and "Henry's Got Flat Feet (12224)," but not before a name change was in order. After the first "Annie" hit, they would now be known as the Midnighters, as not to be confused with another such group, the Five Royales, that Ralph Bass was now bringing to the King roster, having acquired them after their smashes on Hy Siegel's NY-based Apollo label—"Baby Don't Do It (443, '52)" and "Help Me, Somebody (446, '53)." It turned out to be a nice coup for Bass, as the group produced two R&B standards in the late 50s—"Think (5053)," later redone by James Brown and "Dedicated To The One I Love (5453)," which was converted into a blockbuster by the Shirelles.
Although the Annie craze eventually ran its course, the Midnighters continued to fabricate, well toward the end of the decade, a substantial number of steady-selling recordings on the Federal label including, "It's Love Baby (12227)," "Don't Change Your Pretty Ways (12243)," "Tore Up Over You (12270)," "Let Me Hold Your Hand (12288)," and "In The Doorway Crying (12293)." And they became the darlings of the so-called "Chitlin'Circuit," often traveling in tandem with another Federal artist, the up-and-coming James Brown & the Famous Flames, making stops at the Apollo in New York City (125th St., Harlem), the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. (7th and T), the Regal in Chicago (47th and S.Parkway, now Martin Luther King Dr), and Baltimore's Royal (Pennsylvania Ave). Invariably, the Midnighters' guitarists of that time would do a few blues numbers onstage, warming up the audience before it was "showtime." And the Midnighters/Royals always unveiled some great ones, including the aforementioned Alonzo Tucker, Arthur Porter, and last, but not least, the multi-faceted Cal Green.
According to noted blues critic Dick Shurman's 1975 biography in Living Blues, the Houston-headquartered Green, a disciple of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and a close associate of Roy Gaines (then known as "Little T-Bone"), hooked up with the Midnighters in that east Texas city when they were accompanied by yet another King artist, pianist Todd Rhodes, who formerly had, as a lead vocalist, LaVern Baker, before she came under contract to Atlantic and authored such hits as "Tweedle Dee (1047)" and "Jim Dandy (1116)." Feeling that Rhodes's music was "getting tired" and knowing that present guitarist Arthur Porter was in the process of being drafted, the booking agency, "Universal Attractions decided to build a band around Cal, with Pat Patterson on trumpet, Hank Moore[and later alto Paul ‘Bugs' Dwyer] on tenor, Jimmy Johnson on piano, and humpbacked drummer George DeHart," states Shurman. This ensemble would then constitute the core of the Midnighters' heralded supporting cast of the mid to late 50s.
Cal Green, formerly of B.B. King's band and who backed his pianist, Connie McBooker, on his RPM sides, became Hank Ballard's right hand man, not only helping with many compositions, including the "Twist," but also with arranging. Federal, too, was impressed with his abilities and had high hopes for him, but his two singles "The Big Push (12318)" bw "Green's Blues," both instrumentals, and vocals "I Can Hear My Baby Calling (12340)" bw "The Search Is Over," failed to generate any interest, despite the fact that he often showcased them while opening the night's proceedings. Tragically, Cal Green's promising career was derailed in 1959 on a marijuana possession charge in Houston, just after the group had played the Eldorado Ballroom, an arrest which culminated in a two-year prison sentence in Huntsville, TX. Replaced during that stretch by Chicago bluesman, Bobby King, Cal did return briefly to the group in the early 60s. But with his reputation thus ruined, his relationship was never again the same with his former boss.
By the end of the 50s, the Midnighters now switched to the King label, since they were doing much more recording on the East Coast under the direction of trumpeter Henry Glover, Syd Nathan's all in all—producer, writer, arranger, talent scout—you name it. Glover had been over the years intimately connected with all the celebrated King artists, including the famed doo-whop group, the Swallows, Bull Moose Jackson, pianist Todd Rhodes, Lucky Millinder and his former jump vocalist, Wynonie Harris, Tiny Bradshaw, Earl Connelly King, and pianist Sonny Thompson and his leading lady, Lula Reed, for whom he wrote "I'll Drown In My Tears (4527)." This is the same Henry Glover who jumped ship in about 1960 and joined up with the notorious gangster, Morris Levy, who ran Roulette records in New York. Working in the same capacity for Levy, he produced all of the Louisiana Red (Iverson Minter) sessions of the early 60s.
One of Glover's last contributions to Syd Nathan and his King label was to write the love ballad, "Teardrops On Your Letter," which he proferred to the Midnighters and which became King 5171 in 1959. It was one of those mournful, sobbing, histrionic, and lugubrious numbers that were so common in the 50s, like Billy Ward and his Dominoes' "The Bells (Federal 12114)" and Donald Woods and the Vel-Aires' "Death Of An Angel (Flip 306)." They were so overblown and over the top emotionally as to appear quite ridiculous today. But back then, it was a different matter. "Teardrops" returned the Midnighters into the public's consciousness and revived a group that was frankly by that period in a downward spiral toward obscurity.
But what was most interesting about the record was its flip, "The Twist," a song and dance routine that for quite a spell had been an integral part of the Midnighters' stage presentation. During this era, it was normal to couple a ballad with an up tempo tune, hoping the DJ's would test the waters with both sides. In the 50s and 60s there was no such thing as a throw away track. Nowadays, it's difficult to find one to play.
"The Twist" sparked a few sales and was considered a moderate success. Nonetheless, on the strength of the A-side, the Midnighters were invited to perform on Dick Clark's American Bandstand show, then still situated in Philadelphia. But mysteriously, they never made the gig. By the time they were planning a rescheduling, Chubby Checker (Ernest Evans) had already made his appearance, singing a version, nearly note for note, of the same song (Parkway 811) and the rest is history. And there is absolutely no question that the powers that be of that time frame were going to allow Ballard again the chance to corrupt the morals of American youth, especially when given the wherewithal to reach several million of them. Chubby, though, was OK. He was Black, but not too much so. In fact he was wholesome, the kid next door. Indeed, he posed no threat to public decency as he good naturedly gyrated. With him, it was merely a dance, nothing more.
Despite being denied this public forum and undoubtedly a good shot at superstardom, the Midnighters (now composed of Norman Thrasher, Frank Stanford, and Wesley Hargrove) perhaps buoyed by the triumph of this latest disk, embarked upon a new era of creativity reminiscent of their old Royals days. As the 60s dawned, there began a whole string of smashes (many crossing over into the pop charts), commencing with the aforementioned "Kansas City (5195)," which competed admirably with Wilbert Harrison's "shuffling" rendition on Fury (1023). Then came a reworking of Marty Robbins's "Sugaree (5215)," which did quite well, but not like the boogie-based megahits composed by Hank Ballard that followed close on its heels—the double entendre of "Finger Poppin' Time (5341)" and "Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go (5400)," later reincarnated as the equally popular "Do You Know How To Twist (5593)." This latter platter was released during the height of the dance craze era, as was "The Switch-A-Roo/The Float (5510)" and "The Continental Walk (5491)." Other items in a similar vein during this span of years (early to mid-60s) and which also fared substantially well were "Let's Go Again (Where We Went Last Night) (5459)," "Keep On Dancing (5535)," and "Can't You See I Need A Friend (5550)."
But after the dance trend was over, Hank Ballard, now as a solo artist, found it difficult to find another niche for himself. It was clear that he was experimenting, possibly regurgitating oldies like the late songwriter Otis Blackwell's "Daddy Rolling Stone (5931)" or even trying to make it back on top with selections that had some shock value—"Poppin' The Whip (5996)" and "Do It Zulu Style (6001)." Also, he was never quite able to make the transition to soul music, attempting such lackluster material as "Funky's Soul Train (6131)." By this time, it was clear that the label was losing patience with him as well, and accorded this heretofore prolific singer fewer and fewer opportunities to record. His 1968 release, "I'm Back To Stay (6177)," another flop, would soon prove to be ironic.
As the 60s wore on, music in general, reflecting the times, took on a more serious, social conscious, tone. Every song had to convey a message and no artist worth his salt was immune to this new direction, which even affected Elvis, who did his part with "In The Ghetto," while Diana Ross chimed in with "Love Child," and Dion contributed "Abraham, Martin, and John." At this juncture of his career, Hank Ballard was down and out and gratefully accepted the patronage of longtime friend, James Brown, who also joined this new wave with "Say It Loud--I'm Black And I'm Proud (6187)." And in fact, Hank Ballard's last hurrah for the King label was the very Godfather of Soul-esque "How You Gonna Get Respect (When You Haven't Cut Your Process Yet) (6196)" in 1968.
When King folded at the beginning of the 70s, Hank found that some companies were still willing to take a chance on an artist of his magnitude, including Chess, which, itself, was very soon to experience a similar demise. And after this brief cup of coffee--a solitary single which went nowhere--with the renowned Chicago indie and an equally inauspicious debut with another, Silver Fox (a subsidiary of Shelby Singleton's SSS International), he accepted an invitation to join his longtime partner, James Brown, on his newly created People label, a division of Starday of Nashville, which had purchased the King inventory. But while Brown prospered on his new label with hits like "Hot Pants (2501)" and "Escape-ism (2500)," Ballard, who was just basically re-releasing his oldies but goodies (and poor versions to boot), really struggled, especially after People in turn was swallowed by the big conglomerate, Polydor, where Brown, again, continued to thrive in his new-found funk mode, backed by Fred Wesley and the J.B.s.
By mid-decade, Hank had landed on the soul label, Stang, a division of All Platinum (which eventually bought Chess) of Englewood, NJ, run by the husband and wife team of Joe and Sylvia (of Mickey and Sylvia fame) Robinson, whose bread and butter was the soul group, the Moments. Being an entertainer from the same era, Sylvia remembered well Ballard's talent from a generation ago. But instead of tackling something worthwhile, a new departure, he limited himself to churning out insipid novelty tunes like "Let's Go Streaking (5053)," followed by "Let's Go Skinny Dippin' (5061)."
Not being able to make the adjustment to disco music, which became all pervasive in the mid to late 70s, Hank Ballard closed out his recording career on the Le Joint label in 1979.
But Hank Ballard's story does not end here. He became a huge attraction on the oldies revival circuit and was particularly idolized overseas. The UK label Charly first issued a compilation, What You Get When The Gettin' Gets Good, in 1985 and two years later recorded (a two-disk effort) for posterity his exuberant performance in Hammersmith (London), Hank Ballard Live At The Palais. A dozen years ago, he was the top headliner at the now-defunct Blue Bayou festival held at the Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro, MD, where he put on a spectacular show with a twelve-piece orchestra. And he remained active up until his death.
Hank Ballard will be remembered as an American original, who was able to leave behind as his legacy not only a whole host of doo-whop standards forever to be revered as the quintessence of that genre but also a raft of high energy, soul stirring dance numbers, in which he adroitly combined blues, gospel, and rock and roll. Ahead of his time, he pushed the envelope of freedom of expression to his own detriment, like a Lenny Bruce. But, in doing so, he paved the way for those that followed and even the rappers of today, who are totally unaware of his trials and tribulations at the hands of the establishment, owe him a debt of gratitude. Not exactly a martyr or sacrificial lamb in this regard, but he was, indeed, a true pioneer.