One thing’s for certain: In the ’50s a woman named Annie was busy. First she had the song “Work with Me, Annie” written for her, which of course led to “Annie Had a Baby.” Then “Annie’s Aunt Fanny” got into the mix. Eventually, “Annie Kicked the Bucket.” Now, unfortunately, so has the singer of those songs, the venerable Hank Ballard.
Ballard was discovered by Berkeley’s very own Johnny Otis, the musician, writer, producer, and KPFA DJ who also blessed us with Little Willie John, Big Mama Thornton, Esther Phillips, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Jackie Wilson, and Etta James. Dang. Hank had a peculiar strain of a voice, sort of like a smallish elementary school janitor would sound as he sang to himself in the echoes of the boys’ bathroom. One writer described Ballard’s voice as sounding like the singer had a throatful of molasses. But what he did have was it, that indefinable thing that makes someone who sings as badly as Neil Young or Bob Dylan work.
“This is my song, like it or lump it,” said Frank Zappa of Ballard’s style. No wonder Zappa dug him. Zappa had to defend his own music his whole life, usually summing it up with, to paraphrase, “If I have to explain it to you, you will never get it.”
“Work with Me, Annie” was one of the first records Zappa ever bought. The song was banned on the radio for its salacious double entendres. Thirty years later, Zappa would sit before Tipper Gore’s PMRC and argue against the government stepping in and forcing musicians to label their music as having explicit language.
Since Ballard was such a controversy when he emerged in the early ’50s, he was often asked what he felt about hip-hop versus the music of his day. “It wasn’t thrown in your face like they are today,” the singer said in a 1996 interview. “My lyrics have double meaning.”
Take “The Twist,” a double entendre Ballard wrote — some say by ripping off a Drifters’ tune — and Chubby Checker made famous. “People think that Chubby wrote it, but they are wrong,” he told The New York Times in ’88. “They call Chubby the father of the Twist, but he’s just the stepfather. I’m the father. It’s my baby.”
Chubby has been a bad boy. His ego seems to dwarf even that of Little Richard, whom Johnny Otis was the first to record. Checker once took out a full-page ad in Billboard demanding to have a statue of himself placed in the courtyard of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. “I want my flowers when I’m alive,” he wrote. “I can’t smell them when I’m dead. I will not have the music business ignore my position in the industry.” Sheesh. What a buffoon. Even Chubby Checker’s name is a ripoff, a riff on Fats Domino. (And speaking of fat, Chubby Checker recorded “The Twist” with the Fat Boys, bringing Hank Ballard and rap full circle.)
Not a lot has been written about Hank Ballard, and few people have even heard of him. His daddy ran off his mom with a shotgun when Hank was six, then his daddy plum run off and died himself when Hank was seven. He moved in with his strict Baptist relatives in Alabama, only to run off to Detroit himself when he was fifteen. It was there that he met other musicians — working on a Ford assembly line with a member of doo-wop group the Royals. He became the singer of the Midnighters, which became Hank Ballard and the Midnighters once his charm became apparent.
The same could be said for the Supremes, which eventually became Diana Ross and the Supremes, though probably not for the “charm” of the group’s singer, who happened to be shtupping the owner of Motown. Hank Ballard’s cousin Florence was a Supreme. She died a penniless alcoholic in the projects, a black Maria Callas.
Not surprisingly, Ballard felt a strong sense of abandonment. After losing his mother, his father, and his cousin, Ballard lost the thing most dear to him, his wife Theresa, killed by a hit-and-run driver. “I had never experienced that kind of grief,” he once said of the event. “It scared me. I was so screwed up, I had lost myself completely. I dialed 911 to come out to the house and see about me. I was in bad shape.”
The man who was always there for Ballard was James Brown, his lifelong friend and former bandmate. Ballard got Brown signed to King Records. If you get a chance to hear their collaboration “How You Gonna Get Respect (If You Haven’t Cut Your Process Yet)?” you’ll walk away the better for it. Hank loved novelty songs, and he even recorded “Let’s Go Streaking” in ’74, reportedly with no drawers on.
With Ballard gone, a handful of the old ’50s guys remain, only to hobble onstage in concerts that KQED airs during pledge drives, but the Midnighters collection on Rhino is highly recommended for anyone who wants to re-experience Ballard and his “Sexy Ways.”