Hank Ballard (real name John Henry Kendricks) was born in Detroit on 18 November 1927. When he was seven he was sent to Bessemer, Alabama to be raised by strict Baptist relatives after his father died.
He acquired a liking for blues and gospel there, but hated the religious restrictions and ran away from home at 14 to return to Detroit.
He teamed up with a promising doo-wop group as replacement lead singer for Charles Sutton, who had been forced out by a throat infection. The group was then known as the Royals, but confusion with the better-known Five Royales led to a name change.
The Four Falcons was the chosen title, but there was also already a group known as the Falcons, right there in Detroit. President Records boss Sydney Nathan – who had first recorded the group in 1952 – suggested The Midnighters.
Since Ballard was clearly the biggest talent and most dominant personality, the tag rapidly became Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and the group quickly established themselves as a big draw, usually singing novelty songs penned by Ballard himself.
The first song to put him and his group, The Midnighters, on the map was the thinly veiled sexual invitation Work With Me Annie in April 1954.
As well as enjoying healthy sales, it provoked an answer record along similar lines, called Roll With Me Henry by Etta James. Ballard’s subsequent hit, Annie Had A Baby, continued the story – as did one of Buddy Holly‘s first records, Midnight Shift, which found the legendary Annie engaged in a modelling career.
Ballard also wrote The Twist and in 1960 recorded it for King Records in Cincinnati. The record crashed the R&B chart and Ballard and The Midnighters were booked to appear on Dick Clark’s all-important American Bandstand TV show out of Philadelphia.
Ballard, though, was hung up on a girl from Atlanta and failed to show up at rehearsals. Incensed, Clark arranged for the as yet unknown Chubby Checker to cover the record. He got the then-powerful Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway company to release it, taught Checker the dance steps and gave him massive TV exposure and a leg up to a multi-million-seller and THE worldwide hit record of the year,
After The Twist (which despite the competition from Chubby Checker, still earned Hank a gold disc), Ballard completed a highly successful 1960 with the equally danceable Finger Poppin Time but thereafter began a gradual slide down to obscurity.
The Midnighters finally broke up in 1968 with Lawson Smith becoming active in the Black Power movement and Sonny Woods in a job with a record distribution company. Norman Thrasher started his own record production company while Henry Booth died.
As for Ballard, he kept on keeping on, and with the “Rock ‘n Roll Revival” shows of the 70’s found a sudden upsurge in his fortunes. This led to the formation of a new set of Midnighters (Frank Stadford, Walter Miller and Wesley Hardgrove) and a contract with the Chess label after a couple of unrewarding years with Lelan Rogers’ Silver Fox label in Nashville.
At Chess, Ballard was teamed again with Ralph Bass who had helped produce all his earlier sides for King and its subsidiary Federal.
While in New York City in the early ’90s, his wife was hit by a car in the afternoon and he played a show that night at the Lone Star. Hank continued to perform and record through the nineties. In 1993, he released Naked in the Rain and, in 1998, From Love to Tears.
On 2 March 2003, he died at the age of 76 of throat cancer in his Los Angeles home. He was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia.
During the 1960s, Ballard’s cousin, Florence Ballard, was a member of the Detroit girl group The Supremes. Ballard was also the great uncle of NFL player Christian Ballard.