By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Just how uptight were Americans about s-e-x in 1954?
That year, squeaky clean Rosemary Clooney's "Mambo Italiano" got blacklisted by ABC radio and television for containing "offensive lyrics." Offensive? She was just singing in Italian, for crying out loud! Even Johnnie Ray, everybody's favorite Hit Parade crybaby, had a record called "Such a Night" which was banned for being too sexually suggestive. If room-temperature lyrics like "just the thought of your kiss sets my heart on fire/I reminisce and I'm filled with desire" inspired banning, what possible hope could Hank Ballard and the Midnighters have had with getting this lascivious couplet on the radio: "Annie please don't cheat/Give me all my meat"? Answer--not a hope in Hades!
But that's the way Hank planned it. "During that time, America thought everything was obscene," Ballard cackles through the phone wire from his home in Orange County, California. If they'd a caught a woman wearing a minidress, they'd have shot her in the street."
What the Midnighters lost in airplay, word of mouth and jukeboxes more than made up for. "If your record was banned, people bought it out of curiosity, and sales would escalate," Ballard says. In fact, his streak of low-down and dirty discs from 1952 to '56 touched off such a furor that they were actually confiscated from jukeboxes by Catholic Youth Organizations. You can't buy better publicity than that.
Ironically enough, it was church music that inspired these ungodly intonations in the first place. "It was all gospel overtones," Ballard says of those pioneering black vocal groups of the early Fifties. "Back then, all the groups sounded like Sonny Till and the Orioles--slow, romantic sounds. Nothing funky."
Ballard's first gig as baritone/tenor for the Royals was an amateur contest in which the five-man team beat out the likes of Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John. Bandleader/record producer/R&B star Johnny Otis was there to scout talent that night. "Otis was looking for a group to record a song he'd written called 'Every Beat of My Heart,'" Ballard remembers. Needless to say, he was blown away by the Royals, a vocal group and a self-contained band of seasoned jazz musicians all rolled into one. And they danced just as well as they played.
Not long after that single, Ballard assumed lead-singing duties and convinced the Royals to make a radical shift in direction. His first song contribution to the group was slow and romantic and as far away from Till's "Crying in the Chapel" as he could get. The bumping and grinding "Get It," with its ecstatic "oowwwwww" screams inviting you to "git it! Git it! Git it! I wanna see you wit' it!" screeched up to No. 6 on the R&B charts. Overnight, everything changed to up-tempo. "That," snickers Ballard, "was the death of Sonny Till and the Orioles." In order to avoid confusion with another vocal group called the 5 Royales, the band changed its handle to the Midnighters, just as "Work With Me, Annie" was working its way to No. 1 on Billboard's R&B chart. It remained there for a staggering seven weeks in mid-1954. Though toned down considerably from Ballard's first draft, "Sock It to Me, Annie," Ballard's use of the word "work," then a slang term for doing the nasty, was still mighty steamy. Its follow-up was "Sexy Ways," the first popular song to the best of Ballard's knowledge to use that now-overused word in its title. Somewhat of a precursor to "The Twist," "Sexy Ways" contained a litany of helpful commands from "wiggle wiggle wiggle 'til your hips get weak" to "crawl, baby, crawl," all carried out with no sign of mom and dad anywhere in the house.
Meanwhile, hardworking Annie refused to roll over and play dead. Quite the reverse--"Annie Had a Baby," preempting her from working, hugging, squeezing and teasing poor Hank, rock's first known sufferer of postpartum depression. It fetched the Midnighters a second R&B No. 1. The next installment of the saga found "Annie's Aunt Fannie" coming to live with the young couple. This made "working" especially difficult, despite Hank sending Auntie F to the store for candy all the time.
As 1955 wound down, a rash of "Annie" answer records appeared. Etta James, another Johnny Otis discovery, responded with "Roll With Me, Henry," which her record label changed to the incongruous "Wallflower." At the same time, a sanitized-for-your-protection cover version by white singer Georgia Gibbs called "Dance With Me, Henry" zoomed to the top of the pop charts for three weeks. When Ballard was strong-armed by his label to record an answer record to Gibbs' answer record, Henry had a shit fit! Perhaps the cryptically titled "Henry Has Flat Feet (Can't Dance No More)" was meant to kill off the possibility of the Midnighters doing any more sequels.
"In those days, artists didn't have the control," offers Ballard. "The record companies had the final word. I have never sung that [`Henry Has Flat Feet'] since. I got so goddamn sick of those 'Annie' records. After 'Sexy Ways,' I was through. 'Annie's Aunt Fannie' I couldn't stand, either. The only thing I like about it was the sax solo."