Answer quickly, who sang the original version of The Twist? Chubby Checker. Easy, right? Wrong. Although Chubby Checker was certainly the one responsible for the song to be known all over the world, and making thousands learn how to Twist, Hank Ballard was the one who wrote the song and was the first to record it. That was in 1959, one year before Chubby came out with his version. Hank Ballard never got to be a chart topper for a long time, but he wrote and sang other Rock n’ Roll tunes like The Hoochi Coochi Coo, Finger Poppin’ Time, Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go, and Work With Me Annie. One year after this last single came out, Etta James recorded The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry). Etta James and Hank Ballard wrote it, so there’s no question here that the difference between the songs were simply lyrics.
Born John Henry Kendricks, Hank Ballard started singing in a church choir during the 40’s. Later, in 1951, he was invited to become a member of The Royals. The group, which at sometime had Jackie Wilson and future Four Tops Levi Stubbs as members, was now composed of Ballard, Henry Booth, Charles Sutton, Lawson Smith, and Sonny Woods. In 1952 they signed with Federal Records and but it wasn’t until two years later that they had their first hit, Work With Me Annie. They also changed their name to The Midnighters, so as not to get them confused with another group, The Five Royales. Soon after that, they recorded another chart topper, Annie Had a Baby, an answer song to Work With Me Annie. They went on to record other hits, like The Twist, which caught the attention of Chubby Checker through American Bandstand’s Dick Clark. The streak ended in the early 60’s, and eventually The Midnighters broke up.
Hank Ballard went on to a solo career, and even had James Brown produce several singles for him during the 60’s and 70’s. In the 80’s, Ballard decided to form The Midnighters again. He started out with only female singers, but later changed to an all male group. In 1990, he was inducted as a solo singer to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for his innovative approach to R&B music. He continued to tour for two more decades until 2003, when he passed away due to complications from throat cancer.
In the video bellow, you’ll enjoy Hank Ballard and the Midnighters in the 2000 PBS special Doo Wop at 51. It’s part of a fantastic series of shows produced by PBS, which are available on DVD. I will get to that on a later post, as they’re really worth having.