Awesome Men Throughout History: Hank Ballard
This week’s Awesome Men Throughout History assumes that you’ve all heard Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” before. Some of you have probably done it at a wedding reception after a few trips to the open bar. Don’t be ashamed, we’ve all been there.
Thing is, Chubby Checker didn’t write that song. He wasn’t even the first person to sing it. That distinction belongs to Hank Ballard, who led a group called the Midnighters and was something of a pioneer in the field of writing songs too dirty for commercial radio. He was also, as you may have guessed, awesome.
Hank was born in Detroit, but was moved to Bessemer, Alabama to live with relatives after the death of his father. This was back when moving from Detroit to rural Alabama was considered a downgrade. Hank stayed there until he was fifteen, at which point he got tired of his strict religious environment and ran away back to Detroit, where he got an assembly line job at Ford Motors.
Hank may have hated the church, but it did get him singing, and he was eventually asked to join a group called the Royals (who later changed their name to the Midnighters), replacing a member who’d joined the Army. Hank’s songwriting contributions were full of sexual double-entendres, as evidenced by songs like “Get It,” “Work With Me, Annie,” and “Sexy Ways,” all of which were considered obscene by that era’s standards. They were also jukebox favorites, so there was clearly an audience for what he was doing.
Let it be known, while we’re on the subject, that Hank’s lyrics came from a certain amount of, ahem, “field research” – if you had a skirt and a pulse, he was interested. If his business acumen had been as strong as his mack, I wouldn’t be writing this column today because you’d all know who he was already. But alas, here we are. Hank himself often said that it was a good thing he didn’t get famous because his inability to behave himself would have caused serious problems, and the twinkle in his eye made it very clear what he was talking about.
Anyway, Hank and the Midnighters recorded “The Twist” in 1959, as the B-side to a song called “Teardrops On Your Letter.” It didn’t do all that well (the record label insisted that “Twist” be the B-side, much to Hank’s chagrin), but it did catch the attention of Dick Clark, who had Chubby Checker cover the song for American Bandstand. Of course, Clark owned Chubby’s version of the song, due to crazy 1950s copyright law, and promoted the hell out of it until it became a huge hit that still resonates with lame white people to this very day.
Hank didn’t even realize the fix was in until he heard the new version of the song on the radio and thought it was his until the DJ credited Chubby Checker, at which point Hank probably facepalmed hard enough to give himself a concussion. Still, the Midnighters got some exposure from the whole thing, and kept plugging away until 1967, when they disbanded. Ballard went on to work with James Brown, who produced his album It’s Hard to Keep a Good Man Down.
It’s tempting to feel sorry for Hank Ballard since he pretty much got screwed out of being the face of that era’s biggest dance craze, but he put out so much good music (including the Grammy-nominated “Finger Poppin’ Time”) that it makes more sense to celebrate his career than mourn lost opportunities along the way. Still, just for fun, here’s his version of “The Twist.”
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.