Hank Ballard dies

SoulfulDetroit.com FORUM: Archive - Beginning April 17, 2003: Hank Ballard dies
Top of pageBottom of page   By ted cogswell ( on Monday, March 03, 2003 - 10:44 pm:

Soul Pioneer Hank Ballard Dies.
Obituary by Felix Hernandez.

Hank Ballard, the R&B singer and songwriter who led the group the Midnighters and helped James Brown's ascent to stardom, died in Los Angeles, according to the Associated Press.

While working on a Ford assembly line in Detroit in the early 50's, Ballard was discovered by West Coast R&B impresario Johnny Otis, who was in the Midwest recruiting talent for Cincinnati-based King Records. Ballard joined the R&B group the Royals, whose racy 1954 hit "Work with Me Annie" featured Hank on lead vocals. The group later changed their name to the Midnighters and ultimately to Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, to avoid confusion with the Five Royales, another group who had a contract with King.

Hank and his group scored many of the first major hits that bridged the gap between the doo-wop and soul eras, including Let's Go Let's Go Let's Go, The Hoochie Coochie Coo, and Finger Poppin' Time. In a 1986 interview with this writer, Ballard recalled his near-triumph with The Twist, the original version of which was released in 1959 by King Records as the B-side to the Midnighters' ballad hit Teardrops on Your Letter. "I told them [at King] that 'The Twist' is the A-side, that's the hit," said Ballard, "and they didn't listen. But Dick Clark was listening, and he went and found Chubby Checker." Checker, a Philadelphia singer whose real name is Ernest Evans, covered Ballard's song note for note and had an international hit.

During the same interview, Ballard told his story of introducing a reluctant young singer named James Brown to the executives at King Records. "They said, 'We can't have this guy screaming please please please like that.' This is 1955 don't forget. I told them, 'This guy's gonna be a star.' So they took a chance." Brown's first release became a top R&B hit. In later years, Ballard's success was surpassed by that of James Brown, yet they remained friends. Ballard in fact recorded many songs produced by Brown, most notably the funky How You Gonna Get Respect (When You Haven't Cut Your Process Yet).

Hank Ballard's fevered gospel style influenced many of soul music's first generation of singers. In an era when smooth R&B crooners like Sonny Til of the group the Orioles, Jimmy Scott and Jesse Belvin were in fashion, Ballard and a handful of other singers brought a more frenzied style of singing to black popular music and helped change the texture of R&B for the next generation.

Ballard continued to record sporadically with and without the Midnighters over the next few decades, settling into retirement in Los Angeles. Hank Ballard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. His age at death is uncertain.

Copyright 2002, Felix Hernandez.

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