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The King of the Twist - Hank Ballard
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.