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The Midnighters Biography

Henry Booth (vocals; born March 7, 1934, died 1978), Billy Davis (guitar), Cal Green (guitar; born June 22, 1935, died July 4, 2004), Arthur Porter (guitar), Lawson Smith (vocals), Charles Sutton (vocals), Norman Thrasher (vocals), Sonny Woods (vocals; born March 6, 1935, died 1984)

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were one of the greatest R&B vocal groups of the Fifties, setting solid harmonies and sly, risqué lyrics to lively beats. As testimony to their crossover appeal, they scored almost as impressively on the pop chart (15 hits) as they did on the R&B chart (20 hits). Moreover, they topped the R&B chart three times over a six-year period with “Work With Me Annie,” “Annie Had a Baby” and “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go.” The Midnighters’ intricate, full-bodied vocal arrangements complemented Ballard’s forceful leads, and an unbridled electric guitar frequently added to the frenzied party atmosphere.

Ballard was adamant that he and the Midnighters were a group. In fact, he joined them when they were known as the Royals. Formed in 1950, the Detroit-based Royals – all of whom worked at automobile factories in the Motor City – included founder and bass singer Ardra “Sonny” Woods, tenor Henry Booth, baritones Charles Sutton and Freddie Pride, and guitarist/arranger Alonzo Tucker. Lawson Smith replaced Pride, who was drafted. Hank Ballard then replaced Smith, who was himself drafted.

Before the arrival of Ballard, the Royals sang slow ballads in the lush style of vocal groups like Sonny Til and the Orioles. They were discovered in 1952 at an amateur singing competition by Johnny Otis, who was scouting talent for King Records. They released 10 singles as the Royals before changing their name to the Midnighters (in 1954) and then Hank Ballard and the Midnighters (in 1959).

At first Ballard was a background singer, but gradually he began singing leads. His first was “Get It,” released in 1953. In addition to Ballard’s untamed lead, it included a recited passage by bass voice Sonny Woods on the bridge. “Get It” became the Royals’ breakthrough, reaching Number Six on the R&B chart, and it set the tone for the more ribald and uptempo style that would make them popular.

The group’s biggest hit was “Work With Me Annie,” whose blatantly sexual lyrics caused controversy. The song was deemed too obscene for airplay by the FCC, which further fueled its popularity. It was a Number One R&B hit  for seven weeks in 1954 and remained on the R&B chart for nearly half a year. However, it didn’t even crack Billboard’s pop chart.

As “Work With Me Annie” (originally written as “Sock It to Me Mary”) was moving up the charts, the Royals were rechristened the Midnighters. Syd Nathan – the head of King Records – ordered the name change to avoid confusion with the “5” Royales, another popular R&B group. Early copies of the single list the Royals on the label, while later pressings list “The Midnighters (Formerly known as the Royals).”

“Work With Me Annie” generated the sequels “Annie Had a Baby” and “Annie’s Aunt Fannie,” which were both banned as well. While denied radio play, all three songs were huge jukebox hits and big sellers. Ballard wrote and sang “Sexy Ways” (Number Two R&B) and “It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)” (Number 10 R&B) in a similarly suggestive style. Despite the raunchy subject matter, Ballard always contended that his biggest influences were gospel groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Sensational Nightingales.

Over the course of a 16-month period in 1954 and 1955, the Midnighters racked up half a dozen sizable R&B hits. Yet three-and-a-half years passed before they made the charts again.  There were more personnel changes during this period. Guitarist Arthur Porter, who first appeared on “Work With Me Annie,” took over from Alonzo Tucker in early 1954. Later that year, Porter was replaced by Cal Green, who remained through 1958 and was instrumental in guiding the arrangement of “The Twist.” He was replaced by Billy Davis. Charles Sutton left in late 1954 and was replaced by Lawson Smith, who’d returned from military service, and Norman Thrasher joined as well.

The Midnighters’ first run of hits ended in 1955 and resumed in 1959 with “Teardrops on Your Letter.” While the group’s early success often came with controversial material like “Work With Me Annie,” the hits in their second successful run at the turn of the decade were frequently dance records. Ballard not only recorded the original version of “The Twist” but also introduced the world to the “The Continental Walk,” “The Hoochi Coochi Coo” (Number Three R&B; Number 23 pop), “The Switch-A-Roo” (Number Three R&B, Number 26 pop), “The Coffee Grind” and “The Float.”

 “The Twist,” of course, was the biggest of them all, but ironically Ballard was not its main popularizer. Initially released as the B side of “Teardrops On Your Letter,” the Midnighters’ version became a minor R&B hit in 1959. Sixteen months later, in September 1960, Chubby Checker’s nearly identical cover version topped the pop and R&B charts, igniting the twist craze. A reissue of the Midnighters’ version at the same time fared somewhat better the second time round, reaching Number Six R&B and Number 28 pop. Checker’s version itself was re-released in 1962, hitting Number One for a second time – a still-unprecedented feat in chart history – at the peak of the twist phenomenon.

As a piece of music, “The Twist” had a complex and fascinating gestation. While sole authorship is given to Ballard, the song’s initial source was the Sensational Nightingales. Two of its members wrote an original song called “The Twist” and wound up giving it to the Midnighters, as being a spiritual group prevented them from singing secular material. Ballard and guitarist Cal Green reworked the song, adapting it to music that resembled the Drifters’ “What’Cha Gonna Do” whose authorship was attributed to “Nugetre,” a pseudonym for Ahmet Ertegun!).

Ballard cut an unreleased version for Vee-Jay Records in March 1958, during a brief period away from King Records, and then recorded the song for King, to which he re-signed, that November.

One of the most high-spirited and party-minded acts of the R&B era, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters had two of their biggest hits in 1960 with “Finger Poppin’ Time” (Number Two R&B, Number Seven pop) and “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go” (Number One R&B, Number Six pop). The latter was the second biggest hit of their career, after “Work With Me Annie.” At this point in their career, the Midnighters were performing up to 300 shows a year. They recorded prolifically for King, releasing numerous albums in the late Fifties and early Sixties, including three long players that appeared in 1961 alone. However, further personnel changes began taking a toll, and Ballard disbanded the group in 1962  to go solo.

With a resurgence of interest in their work, Ballard re-formed the Midnighters in the Eighties, and they performed and recorded into the Nineties. Ballard succumbed to throat cancer in 2003. Among the inducted members of the Midnighters, Henry Booth, Cal Green, Arthur Porter and Sonny Woods are deceased, as well.