'Tales From The Woods' raises a glass and says “Farewell” to the legendary Hank Ballard who died on March 2nd, aged 66, of throat cancer. The 'Tales From The Woods' editorial board witnessed this superlative performer in action just once, back in 1986 at London’s Hammersmith Palais. Action packed, spirited and passionate workout through his R&B back catalogue; ‘Sexy Ways’, ‘Tore Up Over You’, ‘Sugaree’, ‘Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go’, ‘Finger Poppin’ Time’ to name but a few along with a brilliant gut-bucket blues workout on ‘The Sun Is Shining’. Hank’s band the Midnighters were so tight and professional they made your eyes water. I can remember quite clearly one of the guys in the band doing a Jackie Wilson tribute complete with back flips, a voice not as wonderful but certainly as near as it is possible to get. This was indeed one of the great gigs of the 1980s (the decade that dare not speak its name) looked back upon by those who were fortunate enough to be there with much acclaim - at least ¾ of the regular contributors to this esteemed magazine were in the audience.
It was a night to play “spot the face”; at least one Beatle, a Rolling Stone or two, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, writer/broadcasters Charlie Gillett and Stuart Colman and, oh yes, one time Birkenhead talent scout and promoter Peter Stringfellow. I wonder what happened to him? Despite the star studded turn-out, despite the buzz this gig created (still a major talked about event some 17 years later) Hank never performed again in the U.K. Yet another opportunity lost!
Hank Ballard was born John H Kennedy in Detroit, Michigan on November 18th, officially in 1936 although it’s possible that Hank might have fibbed a little about his true age when starting out in the business. At least one broadsheet obituary placed his birth date as early as 1927. At just four years old he found himself despatched to Bessemer, Alabama on the sudden death of his truck driver father. There, as a young boy, he sang in church but the strict religious ethos of his relations’ home was certainly not to his taste and he fled back to Detroit as soon as he was old enough, working on the assembly line at Ford. Obviously a strong singing tradition in the family - his cousin the late Florence Ballard was the often forgotten founder member and first casualty of the Supremes. The Detroit group the Royals had recorded ‘Every Beat Of My Heart’ (1952), a song which has been recorded countless times over the years, incidentally, nine years later (1961), giving Gladys Knight and the Pips their first hit. A vacancy arose in the Royals when their lead singer, Lawson Smith, was drafted and Hank was invited to step in.
He wrote their first hit ‘Get It’ (1953) and a year later their highly controversial ‘Work With Me Annie’ gave them a number one R&B hit – “Annie please don’t cheat, give me all of my meat!” doesn’t actually leave a great deal to the imagination. Not surprisingly virtually all the radio stations across the United States banned the record. Around the same period of time the group changed their name to the Midnighters to avoid confusion with the gospel outfit the Five Royales and, within a short while, to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. The huge success of ‘Work With Me Annie’ created an Annie gala with ‘Annie Had A Baby’, ‘Annie Kicked The Bucket’ and amazingly ‘Annie’s Aunt Fanny’. Answer records came in the shape of Etta James with ‘Roll With Me Henry’ and a much watered down version for the white market by Georgia Gibbs entitled ‘Dance With Me Henry’. The next few years saw some fine records that sadly never emulated the success of ‘Work With Me Annie’ which included ‘Tore Up Over You’, ‘Don’t Change Your Pretty Ways’ and ‘Open Up The Back Door’ (now that DOES sound a bit raunchy – H)
There are numerous conflicting stories concerning the reason Ballard never cashed in on ‘The Twist’ which appeared on the B-side of ‘Teardrops On Your Letter’ (No. 4 R&B 1959). Disc jockeys began to flip the record and play the B-side, a novelty dance record ideal for nationwide TV show American Bandstand hosted by Dick Clark. Ballard was approached by Clark to perform the song on Bandstand but wanted too much money so Clark asked Danny and the Juniors to cover the song instead. Slow to react, the opportunity was given to a then unknown, Chubby Checker, and the rest is history as they say. Another story is that Ballard’s image was too raw and raunchy for the white teen market at which Bandstand was aimed. Whatever the truth, Hank lost out big time.
As the fifties gave way to the sixties Hank and the Midnighters had a string of hits on the U.S. pop charts with ‘Finger Poppin’ Time’ (No. 7 1960), ‘Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go’ (No. 6 1960), ‘Hoochi Coochi Coo’ (No. 23 1961), ‘The Continental Walk’ (No. 33 1961), ‘The Switch-A-Roo’ (No. 26 1961). Come 1962 and the entire group disbanded and Ballard recorded as a solo, the first of which was with James Brown’s band, produced by Brown. Staying with King Records until 1969, the decade that followed was spent label hopping. Ballard sold his songwriting rights to record industry big-wig Morris Levy for $5,000, a deal he would later very much regret. The contract was later declared unlawful and he was able to reclaim the rights to his own material.
The 1980s would see him reforming the Midnighters and making his first and only trip to the U.K. for the aforementioned gig at the Hammersmith Palais which was recorded for posterity on a double live album in 1987 entitled ‘Hank Ballard Live At The Palais’. 1990 would see his entry into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. By all accounts he also appeared at the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival during the course of the nineties although, sadly, not in any of the several years that I attended.