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The King of the Twist - Hank Ballard

Updated on June 24, 2013
Billrrrr profile image

Bill Russo is featured in the film & TV show, The Bridgewater Triangle & has written several books (both fiction & non) on Amazon Kindle.

Hank Ballard 1957 L.P.

Finger Popping Time - #7 in 1960

Let's Go (Have a Thrill on the Hill) - #6, 1960

While the names of lesser talents have become iconic, the fabulous Hank Ballard, today is almost forgotten by the public and even the music industry.

As a writer, Hank was responsible for some of the biggest hits of the rock era. It’s not an overstatement to say that he was in large part responsible for ‘Rock n Roll’, because Hank put the ‘Roll’ in Rock when he wrote the early 50s classic ‘Roll With Me Henry’.

It was Etta James first and only number one song - recorded when she was just 16. She’s known today for her signature song, “At Last”, which did not sell particularly well in its initial release.

Following the routine procedure of the 1950’s, a white artist was assigned to “cover” Etta’s rough edged R&B version of 'Henry'

. Georgia Gibbs was given the song. With sanitized lyrics and an altered title, (The Wallflower-Dance With Me Henry) the tune went to NUMBER ONE on the pop charts.

Etta, owing to reduced airplay and limited audience, was able to score Number One on the much smaller Rhythm & Blues charts.

Georgia Gibbs also covered La Verne Baker’s “Tweedle Dee” and carried it to number 2 on the pop charts, prompting anger by Ms. Baker. In her defense, Georgia Gibbs explained that she, like most white artists in the 50s had no input in the choice of material and arrangements.

This situation resulted in travesties like Little Richard's frenetic "Tutti Frutti" being sung by Pat Boone. 

More Tunes by Hank

Hank Ballard wrote several songs similarly themed to ‘Roll With Me Henry’, including a whole series of racy ‘Annie’ songs. There was “Work With Me Annie”, “Annie Had a Baby” and even a hit called “Annie’s Aunt Fanny”. The music moguls couldn’t get any white artists to cover these songs because they were all banned from radio airplay.

That didn’t stop Hank. He wrote his most famous song in 1959 and even though it only went to Number 87 on the Hit Parade, it became one of the biggest hits of all time. Hank’s version stopped at the bottom of the hot 100, but another young singer named Chubby Checker took Mr. Ballard’s song, ‘The Twist’ and brought it all the way to NUMBER ONE in 1960. Two years later the Chubby Checker version again zoomed to the top spot on the hit parade and stayed at NUMBER ONE for two more weeks.

Hank as a Performer

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters recorded for many years with great commercial success. Starting with the ‘Annie’ series which sold very well, Hank had a king like streak of hits including the top ten smashes, “Finger Popping Time” and “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go/Have a Thrill on the Hill".

Hank was born in 1923 in Detroit. (He is a member of the Michigan Hall of Fame, but is not yet in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame). He passed away (throat cancer) in Los Angeles in 2003.

His first cousin was the late Flo Ballard, who was a founding member of the Supremes. Over a four year period beginning in in 1963, she sang on 16 tunes that made the top forty, including ten NUMBER ONES.

Detroit has given Hank his due, placing the singer/songwriter solidly in the Michigan Hall of Fame. He is not yet in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, but if voters were to listen to his music, they might find that they need to make a spot for Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.


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    • Billrrrr profile image

      Bill Russo 5 years ago from Cape Cod

      You are one hundred per cent correct Stef, when you say that Johnny Otis deserves an article of his own. He was an amazing force in R&B. He had hits on the music charts all the way from the 1940's to 1969. His major hit, "Willlie and the Hand Jive" was number one in R&B and cracked the top ten in pop. He discovered and nurtured many artists during his long career that sadly came to an end in January of 2012 when he passed away at the age of 90.

      Thanks for the great comment and for remembering Johnny Otis.

    • Stefmagura profile image

      Stefanie Magura 5 years ago from Asheville, NC

      And it was my turn to get information wrong. Roll With Me Henry is creditted to Hank Ballard, Etta James, and rhythm & blues musician Johnny Otis, who I think deserves an article of his own. Ballard's probably creditted because of the song's similar melodies. I apologize for misleading you and implying you got this information wrong earlier.

    • Stefmagura profile image

      Stefanie Magura 5 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Cool write-up, and not to be too nit picky, but you did miss a couple things. Etta James wrote Roll With Me Henry as an answer to Work With me Annie, and Hank Ballard is in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and has been since 1990. Unfortunately, his fellow midnighters weren't inducted until earlier this year. So the Hall of Fame got it right...sort of.

    • Billrrrr profile image

      Bill Russo 5 years ago from Cape Cod

      Thank you for the wonderful comment James. I especially value your opinion since you bring a performer's perspective to the table.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

      Fascinating Hub about a man who should be better remembered. I enjoyed reading your excellent and pithy writeup. Thanks for the good read.

    • Billrrrr profile image

      Bill Russo 5 years ago from Cape Cod

      Thanks KF. I think it's all about the beat. As you said, it is infectious.

      No drum kits. No overproduction. Just a good vocal section, screaming sax, hand clapping,and foot stomping.

      I wish they would bring the Saxophone back to pop music and stop focusing so much on guitars.

    • KF Raizor profile image

      KF Raizor 5 years ago

      Good hub. "Finger Poppin' Time" is one of those hopelessly infectious songs you can't get out of your head for hours. And that's a good thing!

    • Billrrrr profile image

      Bill Russo 5 years ago from Cape Cod

      Thanks for reading and commenting giocatore. I was a junior in high school when Finger Popping Time and the Thrill on the Hill were topping the charts. My pals and I loved the rhythm and the wailing Saxophone.

      In these days when Guitar is God, people forget that it was Slap Bass and Saxophones that helped to make early rock great.

    • giocatore profile image

      giocatore 5 years ago

      Nice story. Hank Ballard was a great one! Cheers.