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Rhythm Revue Spotlight on legendary soul and R&B singer-songwriter Hank Ballard (Part 1)

At the end of World War II, a weary country was ready for some music. Hundreds of new record companies were formed between 1945 and 1950, threatening the giants. Long established companies like Columbia, RCA Victor and Decca were feeling the heat. The new companies, the little Davids in the industry, were opening their doors to countless artists in the fields of jazz, pop, rhythm and blues, and country. King Records was founded in 1943 in Cincinnati, Ohio by Syd Nathan. It was originally a country label, but they soon started to release Race records, which was the music industry's term for rhythm and blues. By the end of the ‘40s, King was one of the major R&B labels in the U. S. King's biggest artists included Bull Moose Jackson, Roy Brown, and Wynonie Harris.

By the early ‘50s, the blues shouters were going out of style and were being replaced by vocal groups specializing in love ballads. One of these groups was signed to King Records. They were called The Royals. Their first record was the original version of a song that would become a big hit for Gladys Knight in 1961.

Every Beat Of My Heart

The Royals didn't get any chart action on their first releases. In 1953, they recruited a young singer and songwriter named Hank Ballard. I interviewed Hank at his home in the ‘80s. He talked a little bit about trend changes in group singing in the early 50s.

“First it was the Ink Spots, then the Ravens, then Sonny Til and the Orioles. This is what started all the group scenes. You know, a group on every corner in every town. The ‘doo-wah,’ Sonny Til and The Orioles. That was during the time when the romantic ballads were in. That was a trend then. Love songs. And here comes Clyde McPhatter, Billy Ward and The Dominoes. 'Have mercy, baby…' [He sings.] And that broke the trend. Everything went up tempo. Oh man, I thought this is me. This is me. I know I'm in now. He just opened the door for me. That's when I started writing.”

Hank Ballard's first record with The Royals was “Get It,” which put them on the charts for the first time. It was 1953.

The Royals - Get It

A year later, in 1954, Hank Ballard and The Royals would have their very first Number One R&B record. In fact, it was number one for seven straight weeks. It was the highly suggestive “Work With Me Annie.”

Work With Me Annie

Because of the success of “Work With Me Annie,” The Royals had to change their name to avoid confusion with another popular group called The Five Royales. So they became The Midnighters. Hank Ballard, their lead singer, told me what inspired him to sing.

“You would be surprised. My original music is country music. I used to listen to Hank Williams. The very first song I fell in love with was a song called “No Letter Today.” That was the very first song I was hooked on.”

No Letter Today

Our tribute to Hank Ballard will continue.

Listen, above.

Recommended tracks (1952-1956
“Every Beat of My Heart” (The Royals, before Hank Ballard)
“Get It” (with The Royals)
“Work with Me Annie”
“Early One Morning”
“I'll Be Home Someday”

Felix Hernandez started his career as a producer and radio journalist while in college. In the 1980’s, Felix independently produced the award-winning radio series BluesStage, which had a 6 year run on over 200 NPR stations. He also worked extensively as a journalist with WBEZ in Chicago, and NPR.