Hank Ballard Interview
Hank Ballard (11/18/27 – 3/2/03) was a seminal force in the development of rhythm & blues and soul music. His mid-50s trilogy of Annie songs (“Work With Me Annie,” “Annie Had a Baby,” and “Annie’s Aunt Fannie”) sold incredibly well, despite being banned from radio as being too suggestive. As the 50s turned to the 60s he and the Midnighters scored with a few more songs, and he benefited from Chubby Checker’s recording of “The Twist,” written by Ballard and initially issued as the B-side of “Teardrops on My Letter.” When the hits stopped he worked for a while with James Brown, and had a minor hit in 1968 with “How’re You Gonna Get Respect If You Haven’t Cut Your Process Yet.”
In the mid-80s, he put together another group of Midnighters and went out on the road, recording Live At the Palais, on Charly Records in 1986. I caught up with him between sets at the Cabooze in Minneapolis on a March evening in 1987. The show that night was a barnburner, starting with a crackerjack horn band that played a few songs before Hank came on, and continuing with searing solos from guitarist Billy Davis, a Temptations medley from the backing vocalists, and a star turn by Caesar Valentino evoking the spirit of Jackie Wilson. Ballard himself was an energetic entertainer, and turned in a particularly effective version of “The Sky is Crying.”
As we sat in his tour bus, he was effusive and ebullient, clearly happy with his life and the recognition he was receiving. (He would go on to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.) It didn’t take much for him to start talking, bragging, and laughing about his career. This is a slightly edited version of the interview. I started by asking about his joining the Midnighters, who were known as the Royals at that time (the early 50s). Ballard was working at the Ford Plant in Detroit, and was signed by Johnny Otis.
HB: I passed the audition, but they said I had the voice but I didn’t have any control. I was singing flat, sharp. When I was off-key I thought I was on key because I had trained myself wrong by listening to records, you know. What happened, during that time all the groups were sounding like Sonny Til and the Orioles.
HB: Everything was sweet, and smooth, and doo wop. But then Clyde McPhatter came through with the Dominoes, and they had “Sixty Minute Man.” That’s when the music changed. Everything went up-tempo. They had “Have Mercy” (sings while tapping the bus dashboard, Have Mercy Mercy Baby) I said, Whooa, this is me! This is what I want to hear – that gospel.
LE: The gospel sound.
HB: Yeah, that gospel thing. ‘Cause the Orioles had it but it was sweet and romantic, but Sonny Til was Hot! All the groups back then were emulating Sonny Til and the Orioles, until Clyde McPhatter broke the ice. What I did, I told everybody I think we need to change, man, cuz in order to make it now, you’ve got to be different. So what happened, after Sixty Minute Man, which had a few suggestive lyrics on it, I wrote a song called “Get It,” which was the first song I wrote, and the first song I sang lead on. We had mild success with it, about a quarter million records. The stockholders at King Records, they said, “Write some more of those dirty songs. Write some more.” (Laughs) Well you know it’s all about the bottom line. It’s about that dollar. (hearty laugh). I wrote “Work With Me Annie,” and that was a woo, wow! I ran away from Ford Motors and left my check there. (laughs) I’ve haven’t been back to get it. When the company (King Records) called, they said “It’s a smash!” Then we followed that up with “Sexy Ways,” then “Annie Had a Baby.”
LE: Were these records getting played?
HB: Not on the radio. Only in one city, that was Pittsburgh. There was a disc jockey there that had enough guts to put it on. But it made the record hot. All that carryin’ on. What is this record about? You can’t hear it on the radio. Banned! I tell you, in the Boston area, the nuns and preachers were going around snatchin’ my records off the jukebox in all the colleges. It was funny, but the record, Work With Me Annie, stayed on the charts for twenty-six weeks. I mean stayed in the top ten for twenty-six weeks. Annie Had a Baby went to number one in one week on the R&B chart. During that time, you could take one melody and wear it out. Just bleed it. You can’t get away with that today. You can’t do that today. You’ve got Work With Me Annie, Annie Had a Baby, Sexy Ways, uhh, those three tunes all have the same chemistry.
LE: Sure, they work. What did you do once you had gone through those three? You tried a few other things?
HB: I tried a few country things, but Syd (Nathan), the President of King Records, wouldn’t allow me to have violins. When you’re gonna do country you gotta have ‘em. See Ray Charles beat me to it, ‘cause King Records was too stingy to pay for the strings. It was always my aim – I’m gonna be the first black to hit big with country. This was before Charley Pride was out there, you know. But Ray Charles, Ray beat me to it. (sings the line, I Can’t Stop Loving You), (laughs). Ahhh.
LE: How did “The Twist” come about then?
HB: Watching the Midnighters dance. Twistin their bodies. The lyric just came to me – Twist. It sounds commercial. Like “Finger Poppin’ Time.” I was talkin’ to a friend of mine in New York. We’re sittin’ in a bar. And a young lady walked in and asked, “What time is it mister?” And he said, “Oh baby, it’s finger poppin’ time!” Wow, that sounds like a good title for a song. I went to the hotel room and wrote that one in about fifteen-twenty minutes. Finger Poppin’ Time is bigger now than it was in 1960. It’s in this movie called Peggy Sue Got Married, and Kentucky Fried Chicken was using it in a commercial as “Nugget Poppin’ Time.” Did you ever hear that – it ran for about four months. And it was in The Flamingo Kid, in that movie also.
LE: When they wanted to use those did they contact you?
HB: No, they contacted the publisher. Whatever monies they pay publishers, they’ll split with the writer. The only advantage to having your own publishing is that you control it. See Stevie Ray Vaughn did one of my songs last year – “Look Little Sister.” They asked for so much money, cause Stevie wanted to do a video on it, it was the strongest thing on the album. I don’t know what amount of money the publisher asked for, but they wouldn’t let him do it. Cause the people that own that catalog, they’re filthy rich, and they could care less. The best thing that happened with that Twist was when Chubby Checker did it. Dick Clark auditioned about twelve different guys trying to find someone to come close to my sound. And they did an exact clone of my version, and I was glad they did it, otherwise it would never’ve been heard, cuz King Records didn’t like it. They said it was a nothing (chuckles)
LE: I remember seeing you on Dick Clark, singing it, or lip-synching it.
HB: Yeah. I’ll tell you what happened. He wouldn’t ever let me bring the Midnighters though. What people didn’t know was Dick Clark was managing Chubby Checker. And he had interests in Cameo Records at that time. Was that Cameo? Yeah. His wife was the one who named Chubby Checker. It was all about business. King Records could care less because they had the publishing on Finger Poppin’ Time and The Twist. Dick Clark was playing Finger Poppin’ Time about three times a day, to keep from playing my version of The Twist. Dick and I are very good friends. He sent me a couple of passes last a month for that big award thing they had in Hollywood.
LE: What about “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go”? How did that come about?
HB: I got that from Fats Domino when he did “Blueberry Hill.” He sang I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill. I said, I’m gonna write a song, Thrill on the Hill, Let’s Go Let’s Go. Fats Domino said there’s a thrill up there, I said let’s go get it. (chuckles).
LE: Tell me a little more about the gospel aspect. You were singing dirty lyrics, but there was a heavy gospel sound to it.
HB: I was born in Detroit, and when I was five years old, went to Alabama. Bessemer, Alabama, that’s twelve miles out of Birmingham. I was living with an aunt and uncle there for several years. Boy they kept me in church each Sunday, three times a day on Sunday, morning afternoon, and night. And I was only allowed to go to the movies once a week, and that was on Saturday and had to be at noon. I had to be in the house before the sun went down. That’s how strict they were. But I think, I appreciate that now, because that’s where I got my roots. My gospel roots came from the South. Most all your singers are out of the South. All your blues and rock and roll singers are out of the South.
LE: It seemed to anticipate what came in the later sixties.
HB: Yeah, yeah.
LE: What do you think was the smartest thing you’ve done in your career?
HB: Let me see. What was the smartest thing I did in my career? (pauses) Oh, the smartest thing was to regroup. You know two of the original Midnighters are deceased now. Regroup. Bring my band back together. Put the group back. See I’ve got four Midnighters now. That four-part harmony just beats that three-part harmony. Great stuff. Oh, I love these Midnighters I have. They’re from Birmingham Alabama, except for Caesar. (asks) Caesar, you’re from Chicago? (Caesar answers yeah from the rear of the bus). See now, It gives my show a variety, you know.
LE: That’s the revue thing. A Temptations song, some Midnighters songs, Caesar comes on and does the Jackie Wilson thing.
HB: I think it helps. I do all my stuff and let them do their thing. A lot of artists don’t do that. But see, I’m not on an ego trip. I want somebody that’s going to enhance my show. It doesn’t bother me, but I know a lot of artists that will not do that.
LE: Do you have any plans to get on a U.S. label?
HB: I’m talking to EMI in London. They saw our show in London and they’ve been calling us. We have some things that we’ve recorded. When we get back out to Hollywood, we’ve got more songs to record. We’ve got one song they really like called “Keep That Fat Right Where It’s At.” It’s a positive song about fat people. A good, positive song. (laughs). I’ve got a family full of fat folks. It’s got a good beat on it too. You know, that’s how Tina got her break, working with EMI of London. They didn’t want her over here. She couldn’t get a deal nowhere over here. When I was there in December, the Womack Brothers were there. They started a production company over there. It’s just a different scene over there.
LE: What’s going on nowadays that makes it valuable for Hank Ballard and the Midnighters to tour?
HB: I’ll tell you what it is. It’s that resurgence of fifties and sixties music. The disc jockeys in London, the ones bringing it back, say “That’s the real music.”
LE: Are people tired of other music?
HB: I know they’re tired of heavy metal. But, on my new stuff, I’m using hard rock guitar. It’s not radical, but it’s hard rock. That seems to be the mainstream sound now, hard rock guitar. I like hard rock guitar, but I don’t like heavy metal, cuz I can’t feel it, you know? Luck to those who like it. I’m not knocking it. I feel good. We’re working steady. We’ve been having some nice crowds, some nice crowds. People haven’t seen me in a long time, a long time. For about eight or ten years I didn’t do anything. I had writer’s block.
LE: Didn’t you have a studio down in Florida for a while?
HB: Naw, I went to Florida, fell in love with a woman, and got stuck there for five years. (laughs/cackles) Then I left there and went to California. I was in New York for twelve years. Sometimes you just can’t… I don’t like to go out unless I’ve got my act together. You can’t go out there half-assed. I just don’t want to do it. Cuz I get enough royalties to make it.
LE: You’ve got a lot of songs out there.
HB: Yeah, I’ve got a lot of songs. A couple of artists just recorded “Tore Up Over You,” one of my songs. I’ll tell you who just recorded it. Ike Turner, they gonna reissue it on Ike Turner and uh, what’s the blues singers name, Nappy Brown. You know Nappy Brown?
HB: See, he was in England same time we was over there for the first time. Let me tell you man, I saw some young English groups doing Lynn Hope, Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan. Young dudes! In the teens! And doing it! I couldn’t believe it. You would not find a young band in America doing that kind of music. We really had a good time over there.
LE: Well, it’s good to see you back on the road. You’re looking good.
HB: I feel good. Thank you