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."
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."
After the British Invasion, things cooled considerably for the group. Worse, the Midnighters, hell raisers who one time dropped their pants and climbed flagpoles at a university gig, discovered the Nation of Islam. Around 1967, Ballard's bandmates became Muslims, refused to sign white fans' autographs and do white shows. When Ballard lost that group to Malcolm X, he was heartbroken and quit touring. Sometime later, Ballard alleges that three of the other members of the group tried killing him, which rules out the possibility of a reunion in this lifetime.
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But you'll find Ballard touring with a more agreeable set of Midnighters these days. "I'd rather make less money and put on a good show. Not like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. All they do is travel with a guitar, pick up any kind of band. They don't care what they sound like. And Chuck Berry plays out of tune all night long."
Ballard plays 150 to 200 dates a year. "I'd rather work more. Back in the Fifties, we were working 365 days a year. That was when the one-nighters were really popular. The chitlin circuit. Man, goddamn!" Reviewers of his recent tours have commented that Ballard's sultry tenor has lost none of its urgency and that the height-challenged legend is possibly more of a dynamo at age 58 than he was starting out.
"I stayed away from drugs, and my voice is better than ever now that I stopped smoking last year," he boasts. Ballard is also looking forward to recording some new material. Chances are it will be more in line with what made him famous and less like some of the trendy singles he released after the Midnighters split, like 1968's "How You Gonna Get Respect (If You Haven't Cut Your Process Yet?)" and 1974's saucy "Let's Go Streaking." Ballard, secure about his place in history, is brimming with optimism about his place in rock's future. "When Barry White hit the charts after 17 years of not being on, the industry started looking for singers again. Isaac Hayes has a new record coming out. So does Percy Sledge. I'm gonna be next," he promises.
"Of course, you know," he adds, "all the best singers come from the Fifties.