Eighty two years ago today, the man who originally wrote the Twist was born. Hank Ballard and his Midnighters never had the same kind of luck with the song and associated dance that Chubby Checker did.
Ballard's version was released as a b-side to the slow and sinuous Teardrops on Your Letter in '59 and failed to reach the top fifth of Billboard's Hot 100. Frankly, I see the logic of the Twist as a flipside, Teardrops is a superior song.
Checker's cover of the Twist, by contrast, topped the charts initially in September of 1960 and then, stepping into the same league as Bing Crosby's White Christmas, hit number one again in a separate release January of '62. Hardly a stretch to say that the song was the spark, if not the mainstay, of Checker's career. He has complained it was a success so big that everyone assumed this was the one and only trick his pony could do. It's tempting to observe that Checkers has ever gained much ground in attempts to disprove that, but all that's another story since today's spotlight is on Ballard.
Hank Ballard had a reputation for lyrics that were too raunchy for airplay in the uptight and repressed '50s, even back when his group was more doo wop than R&B and was called the Royals (they later changed to the Midnighters to avoid confusion with the 5 Royales who had hits such as Think and Dedicated to the One I Love). Take for example Get It where Ballard certainly seems to be evoking love more carnal than romantic when amidst various whoops and hoots he sings, "get it, get it, get it, I wanna see you with it." and the bass man asks "now ease on up here baby, now don't you wanna see a good man with it?" Paper roses, this ain't.Many radio stations refused to play Get It, which was similar in structure to the better known, but no less ribald, Work with me, Annie ("Annie, please don't cheat/Give me all my meat."). This was followed by the song Annie Had a Baby with Ballard singing, "Annie had a baby, can't work no more." You only have to listen to the song once to understand he was not talking about maternity leave.
It gets better. The Midnighters' third hit was simply called Sexy Ways. Plenty of rock and roll songs circa '54 implied sex and sexuality, but not many had the word in the title. Great piano touches in this song if you listen closely.
And (this'll kill ya') Ballard, who died in '03, has been quoted as saying "If you're looking for youth, you're looking for longevity, just take a dose of rock and roll—it keeps you going."
Amen, brother Hank. Amen.