By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
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When the smoke cleared, there were some 40 or 50 "Annies" in all. "I used to get these 'Annie' records from collectors in Europe and all over," marvels the singer. "I didn't know until recently that Buddy Holly had an 'Annie' record, 'Annie's Been Working on the Midnight Shift.' Then there was 'Annie Pulled a Humbug,' 'Annie Got Married,' 'That Ain't My Baby That Annie Had.' Those were the days when you could take a melody and wear it out. All you had to do was change the lyrics."
Was it really that crass? "Absolutely," Ballard says, laughing. "There was a group called the Vibrations that did a song called 'The Watusi' in 1961 that was virtually identical to 'Finger Poppin' Time.' We took them to court for that. You know, the first eight bars of a song can't be the same. They were slick, though." Only the first seven bars were identical to Ballard's 1960 hit.
Prior to "Finger Poppin' Time," Ballard and the Midnighters couldn't cross over into pop radio. "King Records had a hard time getting records played," says Ballard. "They really didn't believe in payola. The only reason James Brown [also on the label] was getting airplay was that he was paying disc jockeys out of his own pocket. The late Sid Nathan, the president of King, he's the one who snitched on the disc jockeys and caused all the payola hearings. He was paying a few of 'em and he kept the canceled checks. So when he still couldn't get his product played, he blew the lid on them. Then they started playing his products for a while. They were afraid not to."
The 1959 single "Teardrops on Your Letter" marked a departure of sorts. The first record credited to "Hank Ballard and the Midnighters," it was also the first ballad released as an A-side, done up in the style of James Brown's recent smash "Try Me." Excellent though it was, Ballard was convinced its B-side was the hit. In a classic conflict of interest, the author of "Teardrops" was Henry Glover, the vice president of Ballard's record label. Glover deemed the flip side "mediocre" and refused to put any promotion behind it. That song was "The Twist."
Dick Clark, however, believed in "The Twist" after he convinced himself it was not dirty, as some of Hank's other records had been. Clark thought the song would be an ideal vehicle for Ernest Evans, a chicken plucker from Philadelphia that Clark's wife christened Chubby Checker. Prior to "The Twist," Checker had scored a novelty hit called "The Class" which featured the rotund rocker doing impersonations of Fats Domino, the Coasters, Elvis Presley and even the Chipmunks. His mimicry would come in handy when Clark rushed Checker into the studio with one directive--to copy Hank Ballard note for note.
"Although it was kept quiet, Dick Clark was Checker's manager," points out Ballard. "I've never had any animosity toward either man. There would've never been a 'Twist' without Dick Clark. I don't even give Chubby Checker the credit. Anybody could've recorded 'The Twist,' and, as long as Dick Clark was playing it [on American Bandstand], it would've been been a hit.
"The deal Dick Clark made with King Records was 'don't release Hank's "Twist" and I'll make "Finger Poppin' Time" a hit for him.' I didn't find it out until years later, from my A&R man. King Records had the copyright on both songs. Now what record company doesn't want Dick Clark playing two of its products? If you grunted on a record, Dick Clark could make it a hit overnight. That's how powerful he was."
If there's any animosity to spread around, it seems to emanate from Checker himself. In a recent interview for this publication, Chubby had this to say about Ballard: "Hank Ballard should kiss me every time he sees me because I made him a very wealthy man. He acts as if I stole something from him. I gave him something. His gift ran out on him. Because when I took 'The Twist,' it was a dead item, it was nothing. His 'Twist' died. I took that song and turned it into a living monument and immortalized his name forever."
"He always says that," Ballard sighs with a chuckle. "Yes, he made me a lot of money. And I'll still be making money as long as I have that one copyright. I've always been Chubby's friend, but he's the one with all the ego. What really pisses him off is that he knows he cannot go down in history without dragging me with him. I'm like excess baggage to him.
"Chubby can't get into the Hall of Fame because he never did anything original. Everything he did was a clone except for one. 'Let's Twist Again' was original. 'The Pony' was a Don Covay tune. 'Hooka Tooka' was a Paul Williams song," Ballard points out.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame probably figures it has "The Twist" covered since it inducted its creator in 1990. "The Twist" has the distinction of being the only record in the rock era to go to No. 1 twice, a year and a half apart. Ballard also had a pop hit with it twice. "When Chubby Checker was having all this success with 'The Twist,' it didn't bother me because we had three hits in the pop chart at the same time. We were so goddamn hot, I didn't have time to think about Chubby Checker."