This article originally appeared in Issue 12/13 of
on Nov. 1967.
In Daytona Beach it rains every afternoon for half an hour or so. When Hank Ballard arrived, it was raining. It’s hard to make a dignified entrance in the rain.
Arriving in a Cadillac helped. The Midnighters’ rather formal traveling duds helped too—for example, a cranberry banlon knit shirt, lemon metallic slacks, contrasting see-through socks, and patent leathers. The people standing around were impressed. Hank Ballard and the Midnighters have sold over five million records, so I guess the people should have been impressed (“Annie Had a Baby,” “Thrill Up on the Hill,” “Work With Me, Annie,” “The Twist”—he wrote and sang the original version—and “Finger Poppin’ Time”).
The group had come a long way from somewhere. They were tired, and they weren’t too enthusiastic about rehearsing. We were the house band at the club, and we were going to back them up for the show that night.
The rehearsal was short and quick. Hank gave the directions. He didn’t have any sheet music. “This one’s a pretty fast shuffle in B flat, you know, with a break as you come down from the fifth to the fourth, and a little intro like this…” We knew.
That night they did two shows. Hank sang his million-sellers, those uptempo shuffles with the break we knew about. They all had a happy, alive feeling you don’t hear too much today. Everything’s getting so down and serious. The crowd recognized most of them after a lick or two, but to keep things current and moving the Midnighters took turns singing tunes like “Mustang Sally” and “Hold On, I’m Coming.” They also went through a showtime comedy routine, although Henry, the comic of the original Midnighters who used to come on like Mr.
Clean, is no longer there.
Both shows were the same.
The people clapped and stomped and pointed and drank beer. Mostly southern college kids from Georgia and Tennessee come down to Daytona Beach to “raise a little hell.” Football jerseys, 69 sweatshirts, loafers (no socks), short blond hair.
A good part of the time Hank stood off to the side in his black-and-white-checked, skimpy-vent sport coat, slightly worn around the edges, and let his boys take care of the entertaining chores.
“Shout” was the finale. The crowd loved it, and went home satisfied or drunk or something.
I went home with mixed feelings. I was happy because Hank had been able to put over this basically sham routine on the yahooing, pseudo-soul set who had bugged us all summer with requests for “96 Tears,” or “Little Bit o’ Soul,” or “any of that wild nigger soul music, you know…” I was sad because Hank had to go through this in order to make a living.
Six or seven years ago Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were a top act—polished and clean. They were famous for their comedy routine along with the Coasters and the Vibrations, the great live comedy groups. To a great extent their act was entertainment and largely nonmusical, and of course many people today would say that’s terrible. But then again, light shows and Indian beads aren’t too musical either, and I’m rapidly getting tired of the anti-entertainment, screw-the-audience attitude—tuning up onstage, taking five minutes between songs, etc.
The music of the Midnighters is only important in historical context, but it is important. A commercial extension of the blues which was much happier and which moved faster in that easy, shuffle groove. It was back near the beginning of rock. And back near the beginning of rock is where a lot of people are going today. The purist blues groups are moving through changes in a matter of months that parallel the changes of the fifties when r&b developed out of the blues. Witness Spencer Davis’s rather thin remake of the pre-Spector Righteous Brothers’ “My Babe,” and Clapton doing Freddy King’s “Hideaway” with the Bluesbreakers, both shuffles. And Mike Bloomfield’s added horns! I knew it would come.
Hank Ballard hasn’t gone back to the fifties—he’s been forced to stay there because he hasn’t had a hit in six or seven years.
“I got a new one coming out, though. Should be out next week. It’s got that thing, that new sound.”
Me: “That solid, Memphis thing?”
“Yeah, that’s it, that Memphis sound. That’s what’s happening today, you know. I think this one’s going to make it. I haven’t had one in quite a while—I’m due. And a lot of the older cats are coming back—Lee Dorsey, Aaron Neville, King Curtis, a lot of ‘em.”
We were listening to a record called “l’m a Practical Guy,” by Lee Rogers.
“Now that tune you got on there, that tune’s a stone hit—got everything. But it never got anywhere, ‘cause it didn’t have the money behind it. You gotta have the money, you know. [I knew.] King—King Records out of Cincinnati—they haven’t been giving me the promotion backing they should have. I’m due, though. I’ll hit again one of these days.”
Without a hit, Hank has been forced to do the same routine for almost ten years now. In 1961 he came to Daytona for twenty straight nights at over $1,000 a night. He was doing basically the same thing but with a little more polish. This time he was booked for one night at about $400, and the Midnighters (none of whom were in the original group) were not very polished.
After a few years of constant one-nighters—playing to half-drunk kids in front of a longhair band who doesn’t understand you or your music, and with a PA that cuts off periodically and isn’t loud enough—the artist gets lost, and creativity dries up. The environment is just too hostile. It would happen with any artist. After a few drinks, the crowd can recognize the old licks, so after a few drinks, or whatever, Hank can still sing them, but it’s no longer the real thing. He knows it’s not the real thing. He’s just going through the motions.