Hank Ballard and The Midnighters
"Singin' and Swingin'"
1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die
Hank Ballard is yet another example of a guy who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Henry Glover, the producer of "Singin' and Swingin'," the second album from Ballard and his group, The Midnighters, thought that the group should go with ballad "Teardrops on Your Letter" as the album's first single, mainly because Glover wrote it. The B-Side, a little pop ditty titled "The Twist," gained popularity on the east coast and Dick Clark wanted it performed on "American Bandstand." Ballard wasn't available, so the similarly voiced Chubby Checker stepped in. The rest is history.
For my money, Ballard's version is still the better of the two. Checker's was more polished and radio-ready, but the original is a raucous number that better simulates the feeling of a house party (or a more lascivious romp, as Ballard was want to sing of). Contributing to the chaotic feeling are Don Wilkerson and Albert Jones, the group's alto saxophonist and drummer. Jones hits his cymbals with more abandon, and Wilkerson adds emphatic blares from his instrument.
The track also finds the Midnighters at their best (The band members weren't Midnighters; only Ballard's back up vocalists). The group drew its vocal influence from the relatively recent doo-wop trend, an R&B form that emphasized group harmony around the lead singer, often punctuated by simple "oohs" and "ahs." Cincinnati, the home of King Records, had found success with the sub genre and worked it into the developing rock music movement. Ballard's backers have plenty of "bop-bop"s to enunciate, as well as the more famous "round-and-around-and-around" description of the dance (and intimate act) during "Twist."
Ballard's vocals add an element of underhanded humor to the whole album. The vocalist has a strong baritone to be sure, but when he exerts himself, the nasal nature of his voice causes him to sound vaguely like Marvin Martian. It isn't always so obvious, but listen intently and you'll hear the resemblance.
The rest of the album's songs may not be "The Twist," but are still worth a listen. They generally fit into two categories. Some, such as aforementioned single "Teardrops on Your Letter" and "Don't Say Your Last Goodbye" strongly evoke doo-wop and the blues half of "Rhythm and Blues." Those songs don't sum up Ballard as well as his dancehall numbers, such as "Twist" and other lively numbers like "Ring A-Ling A-Ling" and "Whatsonever You Do." Although the group's selling point was its doo-wop vocals, guitarist Cal Green and Wilkerson share worthwhile dueling solos between their instruments throughout the album, particularly on "Whatsonever."
So yes, Ballard created one of the 20th century's most popular songs and dances, and most people have never heard of him. It's a darn shame. It may be a little late to remake a single out of "The Twist" (although Checker did just that in 1988), but do yourself and Ballard's memory a favor by checking out his version.
INTERESTING FACT: Billboard compiled a list of 100 songs to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Hot 100 in 2008. "The Twist" was no. 1. Does that mean the song has the most requests in Billboard history? I don't know. But it's still pretty cool.