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Perhaps you’ve never heard of Detroit’s Hank Ballard, but you’ve almost certainly heard of his dance. Ballard wrote and recorded “The Twist” in 1958. Two years later, Chubby Checker had a hit with his cover of the song. Checker’s version remains the most famous. Nonetheless, it is Hank Ballard who is the real Father of the Twist!
A Royal and a Midnighter
Hank Ballard began life as John Henry Kendricks. He was born in Detroit on November 18, 1927 (Some sources give a birth year of 1936. The 1927 date would seem to be correct, though, as it appears on Ballard’s grave stone).
Ballard’s parents died when he was seven, and he was sent to Bessemer, Alabama to live with relatives. At the age of fifteen, he ran away and returned to Detroit. Ultimately, he found a job at a Ford Motor Company plant. He recalled singing to the rhythm of the assembly line. One of his co-workers was Sonny Woods, a bass player for a band called the Royals. Ballard soon began singing for the group.
The Royals were under a recording contract with King/Federal Records. Famed band leader/talent scout Johnny Otis signed the group after hearing them at a Detroit amateur talent contest. Ballard later described the Royals as “traditional rhythm and blues types.” He recalled convincing them to try “a modern, urban sound.” Toward that end, he wrote a tune called “Get It,” and the Royals recorded it in 1953. It ultimately reached number six on the national R&B charts.
Ballard then wrote “Work With Me Annie,” described by author David A. Carson as a song with “a driving beat and raw, suggestive lyrics” (See Page 8 of Carson’s book Grit, Noise and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock ‘n’ Roll.). It reached number one on the R&B charts. At about this time, the group changed its name to the Midnighters (There was another group called “the 5 Royales,” and Ballard and his band mates didn’t want to be confused with them.).
The Midnighters followed “Work With Me Annie” with “Sexy Ways” and then with two “sequels” to “Work With Me Annie.” “Work With Me Annie,” “Annie Had a Baby” and “Annie’s Aunt Fanny” formed a sort of trilogy. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll (Third Edition) notes that each “Annie” song “sold a million copies internationally despite being banned from the airwaves” (The lyrics were considered risqué.).
In the early 1960s, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters charted hits with “Finger Poppin’ Time” and “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go.” At some point thereafter, Ballard began a solo career. He performed in clubs into the 1990s, sometimes touring with James Brown. He passed away on March 2, 2003 and is buried in Atlanta, Georgia.
…and then, there’s “The Twist”…
Why wasn’t “The Twist” a hit for Hank Ballard and the Midnighters?”
The song originally appeared as the B side of “Teardrops on My Letter.” “Teardrops” was a hit for the Midnighters, but “The Twist,” as a B side, naturally attracted much less attention.
Gerald Early, in his book One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture, also suggests that Chubby Checker possessed strengths as a hitmaker that Ballard did not. Early notes that “Checker’s youth and manner, and his lack of reputation as an aggressively sexual R & B artist, put the song over for white mainstream audiences, including adults.”
Regardless, there would have been no “Twist” without Ballard, and Ballard unquestionably left his mark on rock and roll. This impact was recognized in 1990, when Ballard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Hank Ballard Sings “The Twist
The video below is a link from the YouTube site. To visit the YouTube page, click Hank Ballard’s “The Twist” on YouTube.