Drummer Johnathan Blake

January 25, 2011

Interview from December 4, 2010

Johnathan Blake at the Dakota. Photo by Andrea Canter

Johnathan Blake is a grammy-nominated drummer and composer, who regularly works with musicians such as Tom Harrell, Oliver Lake, and Russell Malone, as well as with his own group. He came to town to work with the Dakota Combo, a group of high school students in a program co-sponsored by The Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education and The MacPhail Center for Music. This year, the combo is working on the music of Charles Mingus. Given that Blake spent ten year’s  as the drummer for the Mingus Big Band, he was brought in to work with the combo. Blake appeared on Rhythm and Grooves the snowy morning of December 4, before heading out to a workshop with the combo and other students, and an evening performance with the combo at The Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant in Minneapolis. This is a lightly edited version of our discussion that morning.

LE: Good morning, Jonathan

JB: Good morning.

LE: You arrived in spite of the snow.

JB: In spite of the snow. Got in just before it started.

LE: Let’s explain to the audience a bit of your background and how you’ve come here to work with the Dakota Jazz Combo.

JB: Sure. I guess I was exposed to music even before I was born. My father was a jazz musician. A jazz violinist named John Blake. When I was born, he was actually performing regularly with Grover Washington, Jr.  He stayed with him for about three years from 1976 until 1979. In ’79 he was asked to join the McCoy Tyner group and he stayed with McCoy for about five years. So I was really exposed to it at a young age, which was amazing. My father, being a traveling musician, when times allowed, would take me with him. So I was able to meet a lot of musicians at a young age, like McCoy, and a great saxophonist Joe Ford, even in Grover’s band at the time was Tyrone Brown a great bassist who went on to work with Max Roach, Sid Simmons, and Pete Vincent, the drummer. So it was great to be around those musicians at a young age. It really made a lasting impact on me.

LE: I’m sure. And so you got into the music and became a jazz drummer. I noticed that in the last few years you went back and got a graduate degree.

JB: I did, I did. I went to William Patterson for my undergrad work. Actually, while in school I was performing a lot. I was asked to join the Mingus Band in 1998 and stayed with them for about ten years.  And so I started that and when I graduated, took some time off to tour. Then, my wife was pregnant with our first child. I thought I should take some time off to be with my wife and watch my kid grow. I thought back to when my father was in the same situation – he said, “I really have to be around for my kids.” So I knew that if I was going to be taking off from working I still had to make a living and provide for my family. I went back to school and got a full scholarship to Rutgers University. They also have a fellowship that gives you a stipend, because they realize you’re going to be taking time off from work. I went back, and really wanted to focus on composition and writing. I studied composition with Stanley Cowell, who’s a great composer and arranger and also with Conrad Herwig. It was 07 when I graduated. I started in 05.

LE: You mentioned that you had been at William Patterson. Is that where you met Adam Linz? (Jazz Coordinator at MacPhail, and teacher/mentor to the Dakota Combo)

JB: Yeah, that’s where I met Adam. I think we came in the same year, 1985.

LE: You mentioned that you were asked to join the Mingus Big Band. What goes through someone’s mind when asked, “Do you want to play the music of Mingus?”

JB: It was such an honor I was in shock when I first got the call from Sue Mingus. Apparently what happened was that I was playing a lot with another great saxophonist and composer and his big band. His name is Oliver Lake,

LE: Oh sure.

JB: Oliver and I have known each other for a long time. He and my father played together for many years. In the big band there was also a great saxophonist named John Stubblefield. Stubblefield heard me playing and recommended me to Sue Mingus.  So the next thing I know, I’m getting a phone call from Sue, asking me to come down and participate with the band. I was in awe. I was a young kid – 19 or 20. This was a big responsibility but I really wanted to step up to the plate.

LE: And at that age you really don’t have very much fear.

JB: No, I don’t think you do. You go into it blindly and learn as you go.

LE: I was fortunate enough to see the big band about six weeks ago, and what I noticed was that Ta Cumba Frank Lacy was doing a lot of directing.

JB: Oh yeah.

LE: What is it about the music of Mingus that is so inviting and so challenging at the same time?

JB: I think: one, it’s very open. There’s a lot of freedom in his music and a lot of freedom to explore, which is great for musicians in general. Jazz musicians are taught to be creative, and look at a piece of paper and take what’s on that paper and run with it. I think that Mingus’s music has a lot of that element built into it. It’s like nothing is wrong, so you really feel the freedom. Also, I think the challenge with his music is that there are a lot of intricate parts, where you really have to learn how to blend with a section. There are lots of dissonant harmonies that might not be familiar to the untrained ear. There are a lot of delicate things that you have to watch out for. You know, I learned a lot from being in that band. For me, as a drummer, I learned that it’s my responsibility to drive that band. That’s a hard job, to drive fourteen people (chuckles). It’s a big weight, but you really have to learn how to do that and grow.

LE: I understand that from here, you are going to have lunch with members of the Dakota Jazz Combo, and then you’ll conduct a workshop for them and other young musicians. The combo has been studying the music of Mingus since the beginning of the school year. Adam Linz received an NEA grant to promote the study of Mingus’ music and perform some concerts. So what kinds of things will you be looking for in working with the young people?

Student Quentin Tschofen, with Adam Linz, and Johnathan Blake Photo by Andrea Canter

JB: Well, we had a little rehearsal yesterday, which was great. It was really amazing to hear some of these kids. They’re so much further along than I was at their age (chuckles). It’s amazing. This young pianist Quentin is really amazing – just his writing, and his playing. He has such great imagination on his instrument. So basically what I look for and try to convey to the students is about blending in a section, and working together. I was mentioning to them yesterday, when we play this music, or any kind of music, the main thing is to use our ears and listen. Not to try to outdo one another, but to play together. I was telling them there is no “I” in band, and to come together as a unit, and really listen, thinking “how can I make this performance better.” I want to instill that into them and work with them more.

LE: Now, the workshop is this afternoon and it’s open to any youngsters that want to come by at 2:30 at MacPhail Center for music. And tonight at 6 o’clock you’ll be at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant with them. Will you be playing with them?

JB: Yes I will. They’ll be playing a bunch of Mingus songs, and I was invited to come and play some of the music.

LE: Will you be replacing their drummer, or will there be two drummers?

JB: Emerson, their drummer, will play a few tunes, and then I’ll play a few tunes.

LE: You will be performing with the Dakota Jazz Combo this evening at six o’clock at the Dakota. You will also be conducting a jazz workshop for any high school students that are interested at MacPhail at two-thirty. And you are currently playing in at least three different kinds of groups, a trio, a quartet, and a quintet. You just had an album come out with the Oliver Lake Organ Quartet. How does the role of the drummer differ in each of those configurations?

JB: I think it’s really based on the individuals writing. A lot of Oliver’s music is somewhat similar to Mingus’ in that he has a lot of inner textures, and a lot of different tempo changes. He’s one of the only people I know that, for the drummer, writes out specific charts.

LE: Wow.

JB: Which is really amazing because I don’t get to see that. It’s usually a lead sheet or a piano sheet. So it’s really amazing. You really have to be aware of what he wants. There are specific snare drum hits that he needs to hear. So my role in that is trying to take what he’s written and make it my own. So it does have specific things that are written that I have to play.

I play in a few different trios. There’s one with a great saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, and also with Kenny Barron’s trio. With Donny’s music, it’s kind of intricate. He really has a lot of different things like metric modulations and things. I think you really have to be aware of what’s going on there. He has some vast dynamic changes. With Kenny, Kenny’s music is really based in the bebop tradition. The thing that I really admire about someone like Kenny Barron, is even though his heart is in bebop, he’s really an open-minded individual. And he really wants the drummer to play not just what Philly Joe Jones would play, or Max Roach. He really wants the drummer to be experimental and really play the more modern things so he can pick up and that and play to what you’re doing. It’s really amazing that he allows the drummer to have that much freedom to do that. I’ve learned a lot from being in that band with him for the last two years.

LE: That is an important part of the jazz tradition – younger musicians play with older players and learn from them.

JB: Totally, totally. I think that about 75% of what I know now is through being on the road with older musicians. Now, for the past five years, I’ve been fortunate enough to play with the great Tom Harrell. Tom is just amazing person in general. He’s diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and for anyone who doesn’t know, that disease can really limit a lot people. He marvels not only musicians – fellow musicians, but also doctors, because they can’t understand how a person with his condition can travel, and be in front of an audience and play, just play beautifully. Not only that, he just writes such great music. I watch him sometimes when we’re on a plane. He writes anywhere. He has these little notebooks that he takes out and just writes. It’s very inspiring for me to be around somebody like that. He doesn’t really say very much. He just wants you to take what he’s written down and make it your own. Maybe he’ll say, maybe you could try this, but it’s really up to the individual. I think he puts all his trust into the musicians that he hires. I can’t say enough about him; he’s just a beautiful person.

LE: That’s great. If somebody wanted to know more about you and where you’re appearing, do you have a website?

JB: I do. It’s Jonathonblake.com. It has an up to date schedule and everything. I have a recording coming out and it talks about that.

LE: When is that expected?

JB: the second week in January.

LE: And who do you have playing with you?

JB: My regular working quintet, which is Mark Turner, a great saxophonist, Jaleel Shaw, whom I’ve known for more than half of my life. We grew up in Philadelphia together. He’s playing alto saxophone. Kevin Hayes is playing piano, and Ben Street is playing bass. Then I have special guests. I have Tim Warfield on one song, tenor saxophone. Tom Harrell plays on two songs. Robert Glasper and a great harmonica player

LE: Well, I look forward to hearing that when it comes out. Thank you very kindly for stopping by and taking time out of your schedule while you’re here. It’s great.

JB: Thanks for having me.

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Estoy con la banda, part 3

January 20, 2011

Musical Highlights from Traveling With a Band

The Afro-Peruvian Sextet

I have returned from a ten-day trip with Gabriel Alegría and the Afro-Peruvian Sextet. Alegría, who has a doctorate in jazz studies from USC, started the group in 2005 with a few of the best musicians in Peru. Since then they have recorded two CDs, and performed at over 400 concerts and events. The group fuses traditional Peruvian percussion (which doesn’t include congas) with jazz, exploring the common African ancestry of both, and creating a new form of Latin Jazz in the process. Along the way they’ve gathered a legion of fans, many of who will help out at concerts and in other ways.

After starting the band and beginning to perform quite a bit, Alegría realized that though they were touring a lot, they weren’t touring in Peru very much, a country with a relatively small base of jazz fans. His solution was to create Tour Peru and invite fans to travel to Peru with the band. He arranged for some unique tour experiences, as well as a tour of Machu Picchu, and started the fan/band tours in 2008. One participant in the 2008 tour was so inspired that she opened a restaurant, The Tutuma Social Club, which serves Peruvian dishes and features jazz, including the sextet. You can read a review I wrote of the sextet’s performance at the club here. You can see a video of a performance at the club here.

As anyone who has experienced the reality of returning from a remarkable trip can attest, it takes a while to process everything that occurred. Nevertheless, I do want to acknowledge some of the musical highlights.

A dance troupe portraying slavery and emancipation in El Carmen, Peru

The first was an outdoor concert in the square at El Carmen, a small town that was hit by the earthquake of 2007. The stage was located in front of a beautiful little church. The opening act was a dance troupe that portrayed the bondage and emancipation of African slaves that were brought to Peru. The closing act was a dance/acrobat troupe called Milenio. They evoked Stomp!, The Blue Man Group, and other highly percussive dance companies. They did a pantomime of a soccer game that was hilarious, complete with over the head kicks, fights, and more.  In between the Afro-Peruvian Jazz Sextet did a 45-minute set that had the audience clapping and singing along, and yelling for more as their set ended.

Another highlight was a performance by a panpipe band in Cusco, the “belly button of the world” according to Incan lore. Mauk’Allalta is a four piece band using two different kinds of flutes, a guitar, a 10-string charango, a large, cow skin covered drum, percussion, and three different sizes of pan pipes, the largest of which was about four feet long. Two members of the band are Incan shamans, and they explained the relationship of their music to the Incan belief system. Consequently, a song that evoked thunder, wind, and rain had more context knowing that Incans believe in living in harmony with mother earth. The next day during a tour of Machu Picchu, we heard more about the Incan belief system and their relationship to the world. I don’t have the space to go into the details, though I can say that the belief system, and its relationship to the music of panpipers, is much more complex than you might imagine from hearing this music on the streets of your city, or in new age gift shops.

As the healing ceremony began, the sound of the ram's horn wafted down the valley to Cusco.

The day after we went to Machu Picchu, the shamans of Mauk’Allalta invited us to their house for cleansing and healing ceremonies. The ceremonies took place in a low ceilinged room that contained vintage stereo consoles and radios, as well as a small table for preparing herbs, flowers, and other accoutrements for the ceremonies. Members of the sextet and about eight of the sixteen fans went through the ceremonies while the music of the Incans was being played. The sextet and the fans all came from a variety of belief systems – Hebrew, Catholic, Protestants, agnostic. Nevertheless, we all agreed that the ceremonies, combined with the music, made for a moving experience. Afterwards, we all shared chicha, a fermented corn liquor. This was definitely not a stop on a usual guided tour.

We had three different drum sessions, in which the sextet’s Peruvian drummer, Hugo Alcázar, taught us about the cajón. The lessons allowed us to learn about the Peruvian national instrument, and what it takes to create its one of a kind rhythms. The cajón was created out of necessity, when plantation owners would not allow any Africans to own instruments. So the African slaves picked up drawers or crates and began pounding out rhythms. A half dozen of the tour participants even played cajón during the last song of the sextet’s performance one evening. The sound was thunderous and the results joyous. It is more than ironic that the cajón once a symbol of oppression, is now a national symbol for Peru.

We also had zapateo lessons from the sextet’s percussionist, Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón. Zapateo is a form of percussive dancing done to accompany the rest of the band. Lobatón, a master of Afro-Peruvian percussion, is also a three time national Peruvian zapateo dancing champion. While only a few people mastered the basic steps he was teaching, we all gained further insight into Afro-Peruvian music.

We heard the band do eight sets over the course of a week or so. Familiar songs took new turns each time out, but the audience always responded enthusiastically, clapping in syncopation to the rhythms, and singing along. By the time of the last song for the last set at The Jazz Zone in Lima, the band had three drummers on stage, along with Huevito on cajón, and Tonio Beeches doing zapeteo dancing.

Finally, we went to two additional peñas besides the one at Don Porfirio. One was held at Don Pepe de Villalobos, in the La Victoria section of town. In my previous post I wrote about the afternoon session full of warmth, incredible singing, good food and drink. The final day, some of us were able to go to a private event, where literally dozens of musicians and singers hung out. It was an event for a group of students from NYU who are documenting Afro-Peruvian music. Alegría, who is Associate Director for jazz studies at the school, arranged the event, so we were invited along. It was a perfect ending to a highly unique, musical vacation.

Too many musicians to list, gathering and playing for a peña


Estoy con la Banda, part 2

January 15, 2011

Victoria Villalobos, singing at La Casa de Pepe Villalobos, Lima, Peru

It has been a mighty busy week, what with 16 fans of the Afro-Peruvian Sextet tagging along as they tour Peru. We’ve been to El Carmen, a little town that suffered during the earthquake of 2007, and watched an outdoor performance there. We’ve gone to the high altitude town of Cusco (11,000 ft), catching our breath and seeing a performance by the sextet as well as an indigenous band, went to Machu Picchu and returned to Lima, where the sextet performed last night and will do two final performances tonight. I’ll have more to say in another post about the week.

Today, after our troupe of fans and band members spent a free morning in various pursuits (I was looking for a Panama hat), we went to an afternoon Peña at La Casa de Pepe Villalobos in Lima. Located in a narrow side street in a neighborhood of warehouses and graffiti filled walls, the Peña is actually held in a home. What appears to have been a closet serves as a kitchen, and two rooms, with white walls, wooden tables, historic photos, and paper maché decorations serve as the music/dance area. Two musicians sat in front of a large photo and played guitar and cajón. Their singing was gorgeous, full of sonorous harmonies. Owner Pepe Villalobos, a noted musician himself, would occasionally join them to sing and play the jawbone of an ass, using a comb.  I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

Then his daughter Victoria Villalobos got up to sing, and I experienced something extraordinary. I was moved to tears. Really. Though I didn’t understand the words, her voice, her emotion, and the melody was such that my chest was heaving and I found myself wiping tears from my eyes. I’ve heard of others having such an experience, but it’s never happened to me. I was dumbfounded, perplexed, unable to speak.

It’s something we should all experience at least once in our lives.


Estoy con la Banda

January 10, 2011

The sextet performing at Peña Don Porfirio. Photo by Polly Whitehorn

I am currently on a tour of Peru with Gabriel Alegría and the Afro-Peruvian Jazz Sextet. The tour, organized by Tour Peru, includes concerts and performances, as well as some typical and not so typical tourist activities. One of the not-so-typical activities was a visit to Peña Don Porfirio, which not coincidentally, included a performance by the band. Here are my impressions of the evening.

Many jazz artists, at some time in their career, explore some of the traditional music of their native country.  For Gabriel Alegría, and the Afro-Peruvian Sextet, it is more than a simple exploration. It’s a calling. The Peruvian trumpeter and his group use the rhythms of coastal Peru to underpin all of their music, whether it’s an original, or standards such as My Favorite Things.

These rhythms, in 3/4, 6/8, and 12/8 time, and the percussion instruments that support them, date back centuries, to when black slaves were brought to Peru to work on plantations. The slaves were denied the use of their own instruments, and so would use drawers, boxes, or whatever they could find, to make music, creating cajóns, cajítas, and other unique percussion instruments. Now, Alegría and his sextet use those instruments to create a polyrhythmic sound that is both traditional and new.

On Friday, January 6th, Gabriel and his group performed at Peña Don Porfirio, located in Lima on a side street of the Barranco neighborhood. Like many social halls, tables are arranged in rows, encouraging interaction among all. The room is decorated with balloons and streamers. A large sepia-toned photo of a quintet is on one wall. Portrait photos of other performers are on another. It’s a family run affair. A minimal menu is available, with lomo saltado (a delicious plate of beef, tomatoes, and potatoes) being the specialty. The beers are cheap, the food is good, and conviviality is in abundance.

Dancing at Don Porfirio

Historically, peñas were gatherings of musicians, often friends and family members, who would play for their own enjoyment and dancing. Over time, they have become somewhat commercialized, though there is still a loose, familial feel to them. The musicians are close-knit, and there is a strong emphasis on tradition. And though there are exhibitions of traditional dances, the emphasis is on dancing by customers. That is why it is so surprising that Alegría and Afro-Peruvian Sextet are welcome to play at Don Porfirio’s, albeit in a relatively short, thirty minute set.

The evening started with the house band playing and a gentleman with a rich baritone singing as customers grabbed partners and danced to the complex rhythms. Whether in their 70s or 20s, couples smoothly moved their hips and their feet in time to the music. The resulting dance was modest, yet seductive in manner.

A couple dancing the Marinera. Photo by Polly Whitehorn

After a few songs, a couple of exhibition dancers delighted the customers with very traditional dances including two versions of the Marinera, in which the man and woman both twirl handkerchiefs, with the object of the male encircling the female.

After some more dancing by the customers, the band took a break and Alegría and the sextet took to the stage. They opened with” Taita Guaranguito,” from Pucusana, their second album on Saponegro Records. It is performed in 12/8 time – a Landó – goosed along by the rhythms of percussionist Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón on cajón and cajíta, and’ Hugo Alcázar on drumset and cajon as well. Soon everyone in the room was clapping along in syncopation and shouting encouragement. Next up was “Puerto Pimental,” a slower number featuring lyrical contributions from Alegría, saxophonist Laura Andrea Leguía, and acoustic guitarist Yuri Juárez.  Finally, the band performed “Piso 19,” alternating between 12/8 and swing time, with supple support from New York bassist Maeve Royce and Lobatón, leaving the stage to cheering and enthusiastic applause.

Alegría and his band have received well-deserved accolades from The New York Times, Downbeat, and a number of Latin Jazz periodicals. Judging by the response of the audience at Don Porfirio’s, the band’s approach to Afro-Peruvian rhythms is gaining new fans among tradition-loving Peruvians as well. Stay tuned.


Hank Ballard – 3.23.87

January 2, 2011

Hank Ballard Interview

Hank Ballard during a PBS special

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.

LE: Sweet sounds.

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.”

The Midnighters originally recorded as the Royals. This 78 rpm label for Work With Me Annie shows both names.

 

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?

LE: Sure

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


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