unfortunately he died. Every November in addition to remembering my Mom’s birthday and where I was when Kennedy got it, I think about Hank, because for thirteen years I’d do a tribute to him on my radio show this time of year, and even though I haven’t done the show in a decade I still pull a bunch of Federal and King 45’s off the shelves and give ’em a spin because to me Hank was one of the Kings of Rock’n’Roll, right up there with Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. He was a rock’n’roll star while Elvis was still popping zits in back of the classroom at Humes High and on his first comeback before Elvis got out of the Army. Hank Ballard saw the music biz from the top and the bottom, but mostly the middle for nearly fifty years and came out of it an incredibly decent human being. Somebody I really loved and admired, he was perhaps the most unaffected lead singer I ever met.
This is the part where we back pedal. He was born in Bessemer, Alabama in 1927, and moved to Detroit as a tyke. Flo Ballard of the Supremes was his first cousin. His first inspiration was country music and his favorite singer was Gene Autry (he was even a California Angels fan because Autry owned the team). Hank first came to the attention of bandleader/producer/talent scout/singer/songwriter/etc. Johnny Otis at a Detroit talent show where he was competing against Jackie Wilson (who won with his rendition of “Danny Boy”) and Little Willie John. The official story goes when Federal Records recording act the Royals lost their lead singer to the draft, producer Ralph Bass got a line on Hank via Otis, although according to Hank he knew a member of the Royals from working on the Ford assembly line and was brought in to the group. Both good stories, I believe Hank’s version because he was there.
No matter, Hank’s first disc with the Royals– “Get It” was a sexy, single entedre fuck tune with a greasy bump and grind rhythm and gave the Royals their first hit, rising to #6 on Billboard’s R&B chart in the summer of ’53. Federal, a subsidiary of King had just signed Apollo R&B stars the 5 Royales and to avoid confusion they changed their name to the Midnighters, a name more applicable to their new, greasier sound. “Get It” pointed the direction and Hank didn’t need a road map, the next number he brought to the group ” Work With Me Annie” (originally titled “Sock It To Me Mary”) was even more blatant and it became a monster smash, hitting #1 R&B in the spring of ’54. It would spawn dozens of sequels and answer records, including several from the Midnighters themselves (“Annie Had A Baby“, “Annie’s Aunt Fannie“, et al), not to mention Etta James’ great “The WallFlower (Roll With Me Henry)” (that’s Richard Berry, author of “Louie Louie” doing the spoken bit on the intro), Buddy Holly’s “Midnight Shift” (his best record in my opinion), Danny Taylor’s “I’m The Father Of Annie’s Baby“, and many others. In fact, here’s a whole Annie set pulled from an old aircheck from my radio show. In addition to the Midnighters originals are Linda Hayes and the Platters’ “My Name Ain’t Annie”, Hazel McCollum and the El Dorados’ “Annie’s Answer”, along with the aforementioned Buddy Holly song and an accapella group doing a tune called “Daddy Don’t Work” who for the life of me I can’t identify.
The Midnighters, who like all vocal groups had a bewildering amount of personnel changes were at this time in addition to Ballard, Sonny Woods (bass vocal), Henry Booth and Charles Sutton (tenors) with guitarist Aruthur Porter and electric bass player (one of the first) Alonzo Tucker. In late ’54 Cal Green would replace Porter on guitar and they issued a string of 45’s on the Federal label that need a better word than classics. However, I cannot think of such a word to do justice to these fine discs which include “Sexy Ways“, “Switchie Witchie Twitchie“, “Tore Up“, “It’s Love (24 Hours A Day)“, “Let ‘er Roll“, “What Is This Is See” and “Open Up The Back Door“.
Most prevalent on these discs are Cal Green’s distorted guitar work, he was a genius and his name is rarely mentioned today but he deserves to be credited as one of the inventors of rock’n’roll guitar. Federal would sign him to a solo deal where he cut some killer instrumentals like “The Big Push” and “Red Light”. Green would get busted in Texas in ’56 for a small amount of marijuana and serve five years of a nine year sentence in a Texas state penitentiary. He was replaced by Billy “Spunky Onions” Davis.
1956 was the breakthrough year for rock’n’roll, Elvis hit and all hell broke loose. You know the story. These should have been the gravy years for the Midnighters who were making their best records but Syd Nathan the owner of King/Federal was a cheap prick who refused to fork over the payola for airplay and the Midnighters were absent from radio, and in turn from the charts. From 1955 when they scored their last Billboard top ten with “It’s Love (24 Hours A Day)” (a cover of a tune Earl Gaines cut for Excello, Ballard thought the original was better) which hit #10 R&B, the Midnighters would go hitless for four years. They made a good living on the road, especially on the Chitlin’ Circuit (black clubs and theaters, mostly in the South) and at southern frat parties where, like Jimmy Reed, they had a huge white following, and these Animal House style gigs were often their best paying jobs.
Hank Ballard wrote “The Twist” in 1958 but Nathan hated it and refused to release it. He took it to Chicago’s Vee Jay records where he cut this demo version, but Nathan would not release Ballard from his contract. Eventually, in 1959 “The Twist” was issued by Hank Ballard & the Midnighers as they were now called, as the b-side of a ballad– “Teardrops On Your Letter” which would go to #9. “The Twist” was based on the Drifters’ “Watcha Gonna Do”, itself based on an old gospel ring chant. The Midnighters had used the melody for “Is Your Love For Real“, an earlier recording. Here’s a genealogy of the twist from an old Hound show aircheck. It starts with the Drifters tune, followed by the two Midnighters recordings then to show how the twist covered pop culture like a fungus we have the “Muddy Waters’ Twist”, rockabilly legend Bobby Lee Trammell’s “Arkansas Twist” and the Ravens’ attempting a comeback with the bizarre “Ungowa Twist”. The entire segment is heard here.
“The Twist” first broke on Baltimore’s answer to American Bandstand, the Buddy Dean Show an after school time dance show which John Waters’ used as the basis for the Corny Collins Show in the movie Hairspray. The kids in Baltimore went twist crazy and Dick Clark was quick to pick up the ball and run with it, he had a two-bit singer named Chubby Checker do an exact copy of the Hank Ballard version (the first time Hank heard it on the radio he thought it was his own version) on a label which he owned shares in (Cameo-Parkway, soon to be taken over by Allen Klein). Clark knew he was being unscrupulous and must have felt guilty because he gave heavy play to Ballard’s next few singles, pushing them up the charts. The new sound of Hank Ballard & the Midnighters was more upbeat, less sleazy, but still rockin’ and he enjoyed a string of excellent minor hits– “Finger Poppin’ Time“, “Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go”, “Hoochie Coochie Coo“, “The Float“, and others. Hank was back on top for a minute.
Hank Ballard & the Midnighters cut dozens of fine singles and albums, churning ’em out and many of his best sides never made the charts and were issued only as b-sides or album cuts. Here’s a few of my favorite rarities, first of dig this one, the flip side of “Do You Know How To Twist”, it’s got the most thundering bass line in R&R history— “Broadway“. “C’mon Baby Let’s Shake It” was only issued on the LP The 1963 Sound of Hank Ballard & the Midnighters but it’s a killer. “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” is another LP track, it’s not the Otis Blackwell tune but a great Ballard original. “Little Sister” didn’t chart but later became a huge money maker for Hank when Stevie Ray Vaughn recorded it. He cut this duet with Little Willie John shortly before John ended up in Walla Walla prison, it’s called “I Want To See My Baby“. I’ve always like this one too– “I’m Young“. Eventually the hits dried up and so did the touring money. The original Midnighters had become Black Muslims and refused to play the frat houses. Eventually in desperation Hank took to recording junk like “How You Gonna Get Respect (When You Ain’t Cut Your Process Yet)”. Hank went solo, putting in time in James Brown’s entourage, cutting some good Brown produced sides like this re-make of “It’s Love (24 Hours A Day)” from 1967. Hank told me that Brown was smoking angel dust as early as the mid-sixties and had never written a song in his life, all his tunes were written by band mates like Bobby Byrd (who according to Hank wrote “Please Please Please”) and bought flat out on the cheap or else just stolen by Brown. He was not surprised when James freaked out and ended up in jail. He stayed with the James Brown Revue on and off into the early 70’s, even scoring a minor hit with “From The Love Side” on Brown’s People label in ’73.
By the late 70’s Hank was back to small clubs, he had a female Midnighters and wore a headband. It was in one of these dives he met Teresa McNeil, a girl many years his junior and a big fan of old rhythm & blues and rock’n’roll. They fell in love and she took over Hank’s career, advising him to lose the headband and female back up singers and put together a real version of the Midnighters in the same style that brought him fame in the fifties. Hank took her advice and with a great new group went back on the road, even playing England where they cut an excellent live album for Charley.
I reckon from the above photo you’d have guessed it, here’s where I enter the picture.
In the fall of 1987 the reconstituted Midnighters hit New York, booked into the old Lone Star Cafe on the corner of 5th Ave and 13th Street. Dressed in tuxedos and led by guitarist Billy Davis, they were truly amazing. The last real R&B show on the road. They did the all the old tunes throwing in some apporpiate new covers like Elmore James’ The Sky Is Crying”. It was one of the best shows I ever saw. I gave them a good review in the Village Voice and Teresa McNeil called to thank me. Hank loved the review, he liked that I called the early Midnighters’ singles “fuck songs”. He was like that. A straight talker. The next time they came to town I had Hank on the radio show. Here’s an excerpt from the WFMU broadcast with songs spliced in. I got to be friends with both Hank and Teresa and spent time hanging out with them in New York and New Orleans where they played a showcase at the Fairmount Hotel ballroom and also at Jazz Fest.
Teresa pushed hard to get Hank in the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame. A dubious distinction to be sure, and it’s not like Hank gave a shit, but she correctly surmised it would raise his profile and get his price for gigs up. At that point they were losing money on the road. She also helped Hank get his publishing back, and when Charley Records issued the ’58 demo of “The Twist” on a compilation, it allowed him to recover full control of his most valuable copyright. The only people who really make money on the old hits are the publishers and sometimes songwriters, and it can be a substantial sum, especially on a tune like “The Twist” which has been recorded by dozens of artists. Luckily, on the Hall Of Fame front Hank had a powerful mentor in Sire Records mogul Seymour Stein who’d begun his career working for Syd Nathan at King. Hank was inducted in ’88 (I wrote the bio for the booklet that year which unfortunately was edited by a hack Rolling Stone editor named Sid Holt who rewrote it into so much advertising copy pablum….I know some day we’ll meet face to face, and I’ll slap the shit out of him). I have no idea why the rest of the Midnighters were shunned, mostly likely because Seymour Stein couldn’t remember their names. The night that Hank’s induction was announced, Hank and Teresa were in New York City and later that night when they were returning to their hotel she was the victim of a hit and run cab that ran her over on Lexington Ave, dragging her several blocks. She died in surgery that night. Hank appeared at the Lone Star Roadhouse the next night, in shock, somehow he managed to get through his set. Later that week he appeared on the Hal Wilner produced TV Show Night Music. Fellow guest Miles Davis took Hank aside for a chat and a toot to help ease the pain. Hank got through the show in good form considering what he’d just been through.
Keeping the Midnighters (three vocalists, two guitars, two saxes, bass and drums plus a road manager all on salary) on the road was an expensive proposition. Hank knew he wasn’t going to get a hit record at that stage of the game and keeping the band together was getting problematic. Billy Davis had remarried and his new wife didn’t want him to tour so he went back to his day job teaching music to disabled children.
To his credit, Seymour Stein did his bit to help Hank, getting his tunes into many movies including River’s Edge. With a good income from his song writing and without Teresa McNeil around for encouragement Hank eventually lost interest in the music business, especially touring which isn’t much fun even when you’re making money.
Hank was a Buddhist and he no longer sought the fame or adulation or even riches he did when he was young, he was happy to stay home and tend his garden, smoke reefer and watch the Angels lose on TV. He played his last shows in the early 90’s and became something of a recluse in his last decade.
We stayed in touch, calling each other every now and then to catch up, the last time we talked was around 2001, he sounded relatively happy. We talked about music, we both really liked early Fleetwood Mac and agreed Jeremy Spencer and Peter Green where an unbeatable team. I’m pretty sure that was our last conversation. He said missed singing less and less as the years passed. Eventually, he too passed, in March of 2003, at age 76 he went from throat cancer. Hank Ballard, a great man, I miss him.
Top) First Midnighters EP on Federal.
Middle) Detail from first Midnighters LP which I bought at the Thunderbird SwapShop Flea Market in Ft. Lauderdale in 1975. A life changing find. Hank’s autograph in lower right corner.
Bottom) Me and Hank Ballard, Lonestar Cafe, 1987. I look drunk. Photo by Teresa McNeil.