By Todd R. Baptista
During the 1950s, the most popular and successful of Detroit’s R&B vocal groups was Hank Ballard and The Midnighters. Between 1953 and 1961, the group hit the pop chart 13 times and scored 14 Top 10 R&B hits, including the trio of No. 1 songs — “Work With Me Annie,” “Annie Had A Baby” and “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go.” Their suggestive lyrics, rhythmic style and soulful harmonies, coupled with Ballard’s songwriting and powerful lead, made them a dominant and influential force in the industry.
It was with mixed emotions that the singer traveled to New York City in January 1990 to take part in his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction just months after his wife and manager, Theresa MacNeil, was killed by a hit-and-run driver in the city. He danced on stage after Boz Scaggs’ induction speech, but broke down in tears as he paid tribute to his wife.
“I heard (one of the inductees) say it didn’t mean a damn thing to him,” Ballard told reporters that weekend. “But this means everything to me.”
Although Ballard was inducted into the Hall without The Midnighters, in the presence of this writer, he once chastised a concert producer for allowing a marquee to advertise his name alone in large bold letters. By the time the doors opened, the sign had been changed to Hank Ballard and The Midnighters. Hall of Fame politics aside, Hank knew he was part of a group effort, and it was one he was infinitely proud of. “I love these Midnighters!” he frequently enthused to interviewers in his later years.
Originally known as The Royals, the group was formed by five young men from Detroit’s East Side in 1950. They were baritone lead Charles Sutton, tenor Henry Booth, baritone Freddie Pride, bass Ardra “Sonny” Woods and arranger/songwriter/guitarist Alonzo Tucker. The group appeared locally on amateur talent shows, singing the early hits of The Dominoes and Orioles, for whom Woods had once worked as a valet. Within six months, Pride was drafted and replaced by Lawson Smith. All of the group members worked day jobs at the Ford or Chrysler auto assembly plants.
In the fall of 1951, The Royals won an amateur show at the Paradise Theater, singing the 5 Keys’ “The Glory Of Love,” splitting $25 and capturing the attention of bandleader Johnny Otis, who was headlining at the venue that week. The quintet signed a one-year managerial contract with Otis, who hooked them up with his label, Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based King/Federal firm.
The Royals’ first session, in January 1952, produced the group’s first two singles, including Otis’ timeless ballad “Every Beat Of My Heart,” which featured Sutton’s velvety lead. The flip side, “All Night Long,” is notable for the inclusion of R&B great Wynonie Harris, who was in the studio and sang the bridge. Not long after, Smith was drafted and replaced by Ballard, who worked with Woods at Ford.
Ballard was born John Henry Kendricks in Detroit on Nov. 18, 1927, (he frequently gave the year as 1936), and, after the death of his father, lived with a paternal aunt and uncle in Bessemer, Ala. from the ages of 5 to 12.
“I listened to country and western music, because there was no black radio then,” Ballard admitted. “Gene Autry was my first inspiration.”
After serving in the Army, Ballard returned to Detroit.
“Sonny, who founded the Royals, and I, worked on the assembly line at Ford. He thought I had the right voice. I passed their audition, but I didn’t have any control. I was singing flat and sharp. I joined them as a background singer. See, during that time, all the groups were sounding like Sonny Til and The Orioles. They started all this.”
“Moonrise”, a haunting ballad written by Tucker and led by Sutton, was issued in July 1952. Although “Moonrise,” 1953’s “The Shrine Of St. Cecilia”, and the other early Royals discs failed to draw national attention, R&B collectors have come to revere the simplistic charm and soul of these initial offerings.
By 1953, more of the group’s efforts began to feature Ballard in the lead. The Royals’ breakthrough hit, “Get It”, issued in the summer of 1953, hit No. 6 on Billboard’s R&B chart. Written and led by Ballard, with bass Sonny Woods reciting the bridge, the bouncing “Get It” was the blueprint for the group’s successful style. Ballard’s leads, developed with the help of guitarist/arranger Alonzo Tucker, allowed The Royals to take on a more rocking, up-tempo persona.
“Clyde McPhatter and The Dominoes came, and the tempo went up, you know, ‘Sixty Minute Man’, ‘Have Mercy Baby’,” Ballard recalled. “We sold about 250,000 on ‘Get It’.”
Working with A&R man Ralph Bass, Ballard conceived the overtly sexual “Sock It To Me Mary,” which found its way onto wax as “Work With Me Annie” in spring 1954. An undeniable classic, it spent 23 weeks on the R&B chart, including seven at No. 1. “Work With Me Annie” spawned a whole series of answer records, including Etta James’ “The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)”.
By this point, a legal battle that had ensued in 1953 — when The Royals were reluctantly booked into masquerading as the Five Royales on a lengthy tour — resulted in a name change. With confusion, the threat of ongoing litigation, and the Five Royales apparently on their way to the King roster as well, Nathan changed The Royals name to The Midnighters while “Work With Me, Annie” was climbing the charts.
The Royals/Midnighters also cashed in on the “Annie” answer craze. After the Ballard-penned “Sexy Ways” went to No. 2 during a 17-week chart run, “Annie Had A Baby” topped the charts for two weeks in the fall of 1954. The saga continued into mid-1955, with Henry Glover writing or co-writing the hits “Annie’s Aunt Fannie” and “Henry’s Got Flat Feet (Can’t Dance No More).” Despite the success of the records, lyrics like “Annie please don’t cheat, give me all my meat” caused an uproar with parents and civic organizations who labeled them offensive and obscene. Subsequently, “Work With Me, Annie”, “Sexy Ways” and “Annie Had A Baby” were banned by many radio stations. “People were calling me a dirty old man,” Ballard laughed. “Those songs were banned from the radio, but they were big jukebox hits.”
The rocking, guitar-driven sound of The Midnighters’ early records featured Arthur Porter, who took over from Tucker and played on “Work With Me, Annie”, “Sexy Ways” and “Annie Had A Baby.” Beginning with “Annie’s Aunt Fannie,” Porter was replaced by Texas guitarist Cal Green (1937-2004), who stayed until J.C. “Billy” Davis replaced him in late 1958. Over the years, personnel changes also affected the vocal group lineup. Illness forced Sutton to leave at the end of 1954, with Lawson Smith rejoining as baritone. In the mid- to late 1950s, Smith, Booth and Woods would all be in and out of the group.
The Midnighters’ cover version of “It’s Love Baby (24 Hours A Day)” cracked the Top 10 in the summer of 1955. The group toured constantly and recorded stellar material throughout the decade. With the enormous success that the group had enjoyed in 1954-55, Nathan did little in the way of promoting subsequent releases, believing the records would essentially sell themselves. Consequently, a host of splendid 1955-56 sides, “Rock and Roll Wedding,” “That House On The Hill,” “Don’t Change Your Pretty Ways,” “Rock, Granny, Roll” and “Tore Up Over You” failed to attract the attention they richly deserved. By 1957, Woods left and was replaced by Norman Thrasher.
Hank Ballard and The Midnighters’ chart resurgence began in early 1959 with the release of “Teardrops On Your Letter” / “The Twist” on Nathan’s parent King label. A strong, brooding ballad written by producer Henry Glover, “Teardrops” hit No. 4 on the R&B chart that spring. “The Twist”, credited to Ballard despite a questionable lineage, took over the mainstream airplay and eventually became a Top 30 pop hit.
The origin of “The Twist” can be traced back to the Casbah in Washington, D.C. There, in early 1958, The Spaniels were approached by Jo Jo Wallace of the gospel group The Sensational Nightingales, who had come up with a rocking variation of The Drifters’ “What’cha Gonna Do” titled “The Twist.” Strictly a spiritual group, The Nightingales never copyrighted the song and had no intention of recording it.
“The Nightingales gave it to us, and we asked to come back to Chicago to cut the song,” Spaniels bass Gerald Gregory recalled. Their label, Vee Jay, felt it was too suggestive for The Spaniels to record.
Instead, it wound up in Ballard’s hands, who recorded a long-unissued version for Vee Jay on July 8, 1958. Federal/King had released Ballard and The Midnighters from their contract earlier in the year, but Vee Jay never inked them to a recording pact, and Nathan subsequently resigned them to King. The group re-recorded “The Twist” in November at King’s Cincinnati studio, and the record was released shortly thereafter. Some have claimed that Wallace later sold the song to Ballard after The Spaniels were unable to record it. Ballard, whose name appeared as sole author, claimed he wrote the song in about 20 minutes after watching The Midnighters’ dance up a storm on stage.
“We recorded it first for Vee Jay and they passed on it,” Ballard admitted. “Then I changed a few of the lyrics, and we had a mild R&B hit with it before Chubby Checker had a No. 1 hit with it twice.”
The album that followed, “The One and Only Hank Ballard and The Midnighters,” was a dynamic artistic triumph that included the new hits, great rockers like “Sugaree” and “Kansas City” and the pleading ballads, “Rain Down Tears” and “House With No Windows.” “Kansas City” hit the R&B Top 20 on the heels of “The Twist,” and over the course of the next two and a-half years, Ballard and The Midnighters would appear on the pop or R&B lists an additional 10 times.
“Finger Poppin’ Time” hit No. 7 on the Hot 100 and No. 2 R&B in the spring of 1960. Although Checker easily outsold Ballard’s “Twist”, the originator was never bitter. He continued to hit with dance tunes, following with “The Hoochi Coochi Coo,” “The Continental Walk,” “The Float” and “The Switcheroo,” all Top 20 R&B hits.
“It was all about business,” he maintained. “Dick Clark had an interest in Cameo with Chubby Checker. King owned the publishing (and made money no matter who recorded it). Dick was playing ‘Finger Poppin’ Time’ every day to keep from playing my version of ‘The Twist’. That was just the way it was supposed to happen. I’m not bitter.”
In the fall of 1960, the group returned to the No. 1 spot for three weeks with Ballard’s own personal favorite, “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go,” also a No. 6 pop hit. The Midnighters’ formula, featuring a driving rhythm with honking saxes and fiery guitar, continued to draw audiences at a rate of nearly 300 booking dates a year in the early 1960s. During one Memphis visit, Elvis Presley dispatched a state trooper to their hotel to bring them to his Graceland mansion for a meeting.
“The trooper said, ‘Which one of you is Hank Ballard?’ guitarist Billy Davis remembered. “We all pointed to Hank at once and said, ‘He is!’ The man said, ‘Mr. Elvis Presley would like to meet you.’”
Reluctant to go, Ballard only relented when he saw the eager Midnighters proceeding to go on without him!
By 1960, The Midnighters included Henry Howard and returning original Royals Sonny Woods and Freddie Pride. With personnel changes taking their toll, The Midnighters disbanded in 1962, and Ballard continued on as a solo artist. Backed by The New Dapps, he hit the R&B charts with “How You Gonna Respect” in 1968. In the early 1970s, he spent 18 months touring with James Brown’s Revue and scored again with the contemporary “From The Love Side” on Polydor. In 1974, “Let’s Go Streakin’” and “Hey There, Sexy Lady,” issued on Stang, became regional soul hits.
With the reissue of his classic 1950s material in the mid-1980s, Ballard experienced a resurgence in popularity. Guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan covered “Look At Little Sister” on two of his platinum-selling albums. With the help of his late wife and manager, Theresa MacNeil, Ballard and his re-formed Midnighters, with veteran guitarist Billy Davis, began appearing at concerts and festivals worldwide. A 1986 performance in London was broadcast by the BBC and released as a CD by Charly Records. Several new studio albums followed, including “Naked In The Rain” in 1992 and “From Love To Tears.” In 2000, the group appeared in the PBS television blockbuster, “Doo Wop 51.” By this point, Hank’s health had begun to fail. Ballard struggled with throat cancer for several years before succumbing to the disease at his Los Angeles home on March 2, 2003, at age 75. He was buried in Atlanta’s Greenwood Cemetery.
Many of the original Royals/Midnighters also have passed away. Lawson Smith, now known as Abdul Bin-Asad, lives in a suburb of Chicago and is nearing age 80. The original Royals’ lead, Charles Sutton, went on to sing with Stanley Mitchell and the Tornados. Retired from Chrysler, he lives in Michigan, as do guitarist Billy Davis and bass singer Norman Thrasher.
In 2009, Bear Family Records issued a definitive five-CD boxed set, “Hank Ballard and the Midnighters: Nothing But Good: 1952-1962,” with the group’s recorded legacy sounding as fresh and vibrant as ever.
“There’s no medicine out there as great as music,” Ballard told Real Blues in 1996. “There’s something about music that’s just therapeutic. If you’re looking for youth, you’re looking for longevity, just take a dose of rock ’n’ roll.”
Thanks to Howard A. DeWitt, Marv Goldberg, Larry Englund, J. C. “Billy” Davis, Abdul Bin-Asad (Lawson Smith), Charles Sutton, Norman Thrasher, and, of course, the late Hank Ballard and Theresa MacNeil.