Most people today associate "The Twist" with Chubby Checker, but the song was actually first recorded by Hank Ballard, born on this day in 1927.
Born in Detroit, Hank Ballard grew up in Bessemer, Ala., with his aunt and uncle following the death of his father. Though he sang in the gospel choir at church, he cites his most important early influence as singing cowboy Gene Autry, whose song "Back in the Saddle Again" was a big hit in 1939.
As a teenager, Ballard ran away from home and moved back to Detroit. In 1951 he started a doo-wop group before meeting multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Johnny Otis, who invited Ballard to join The Royals, a band already under contract to Cincinnati-based R&B label Federal Records. The group changed its name to The Midnighters and released their first single, "Get It," in 1953.
Unfortunately, many radio stations refused to play it.
It was a circumstance that would repeat itself throughout Hank Ballard's career. His risqué lyrics were only part of the problem – in the 1950s, most white radio stations shied away from playing R&B and rock recorded by black artists, which is why many of the artform's black songwriting innovators never become as well known as the white acts that covered them – people like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Ballard wrote the 1954 Midnighter’s release "Work With Me, Annie," but it was banned from the airwaves by the FCC for its suggestive lyrics. The government may not have approved, but they couldn’t keep it out of the hands of white teenagers. The record rose to No. 1 on the R&B charts and stayed there for nearly two months, selling nearly a million copies. Follow ups "Annie Had a Baby" and "Annie’s Aunt Fannie" were also restricted from radio and were also big hits. An answer song by Etta James called "The Wallflower" – more popularly known as "Roll With Me Henry" was later a hit for Georgia Gibbs with new, less risqué lyrics as "Dance With Me Henry." Now called Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Ballard's group responded with "Henry’s Got Flat Feet." All used the same melody and 12-bar blues progression.
While some artists toned down their material for airplay, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters went the opposite direction with songs like "Sexy Ways." The group continued garnering lesser hits, including 1960’s "Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go" and the Grammy-nominated "Finger Poppin' Time," but the song that remains most firmly lodged in pop culture memory today wasn't a big hit for Ballard.
"The Twist" was released by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters as a B-Side to "Teardrops on Your Letter" in 1959, but charted only at a modest No. 16 – this despite the new dance the band had come up with to perform along with the song. But when it was recorded the next year by Chubby Checker, his version rocketed up the charts. It became the only song to reach No. 1 twice on the Billboard Hot 100 (in 2008, Billboard named it the biggest hit of all time), spawned a dance craze, and was even credited with getting adults out on the dance floor with teenagers. It made Checker’s career, leading him to record follow-ups like "Twistin’ U.S.A.," "Slow Twistin'," "Let’s Twist Again" and a collaboration with 1980s hip-hop act The Fat Boys called "The Twist (Yo, Twist!)."
At right: Hank Ballard is shown at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Awards in New York on Jan. 18, 1990. Ballard, the singer and songwriter whose hit The Twist ushered a nationwide dance craze in the 1960s, died Sunday, March 2, 2003, at his home, friends said. (AP Photo / Ron Frehm)
Was Ballard bitter over Checker’s success? Far from it – he thanked Chubby Checker (and Dick Clark) for helping make the song popular. And why not? Presumably Ballard earned a fortune in songwriting royalties.
Hank Ballard and the Midnighters disbanded in 1965, and Ballard pursued a solo career. He worked with Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Midnighters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Ballard toured with them only a year before his death on March 2, 2003, of throat cancer. He was 75 years old.