On this day in 1927, a baby named John Henry Kendricks was born in Detroit. He grew up to become an R&B belter named Hank Ballard, who in the early 1950s made some good old fashioned suggestive, scandalous rock 'n' roll, getting most of his well-known tunes banned on radio stations all across the land of the free.
As his page on the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame website says, "His success is a perfect representation of rock and roll appeal—it behaves so bad but it sounds so good."
Happy birthday, Hank.
Ballard died in 2003. But I had the pleasure of interviewing him by phone before a Santa Fe concert in April 1989 and then meeting him backstage before the show at the old Sweeney Convention Center. (I also got to meet Ballard's wife and manager Theresa McNeil, who was killed just a few months later in a hit-and-run crash.)
In that phone interview, Ballard talked to me about the state of music back when he recorded "Work With Me Annie."
"We was still in the Victorian Age," he said with a knowing laugh. "Man, as young as we were, we didn't think we wereb being insulting to anyone. We were just having fun."
But, as I noted in my story, Ballard wasn't claiming complete innocence. "The kids like them risque songs. They still do. ... It was a wonder that we didn't get arrested."
Ballard was born in Detroit, but, as he told me, his family moved to Alabama when he was very young, where he grew up singing in his church choir.
But another huge influence on his music, he told me, was cowboy music. "Gene Autry was my first idol," he said. "I also liked The Sons of the Pioneers. Remember `Cool Water'? Man, I still love it."
Ballard still is best known for this song, which, he told me, was about an old girlfriend from Louisville, Kentucky. "She's a school teacher in Chicago," he told me in 1989. "She's been doing that for about 25 years. We played a gig over there and she happened to be present. I introduced her as the real Annie and people lined up to get her autograph."
Work with me here:
I guess Annie had to take maternity leave. (Though Ballard insisted that his Kentucky sweetheart did not have his baby.)
In that 1989 interview, he told me that this next song was a rush job, recorded "at some woman's house in Washington, D.C. during a break in a gig." This version of "Annie Had a Baby" is from the wonderful old show Night Music, from around the same time I saw Ballard at Sweeney Center.
And the third part of Ballard's Annie cycle was an ode to Annie's Aunt Fannie.
"Annie" inspired a lot of 1950s singers, including Etta James, who cleaned up "Work With Me Annie" into a tune called "The Wallflower, which had the refrain, "Dance With Me Henry." Also Buddy Holly expanded on the character of Annie and put her to work on the "Midnight Shift":
And years after the Annie songs, Ballard wrote a little tune about a little dance. His version wasn't the hit one however. That distinction goes to a guy named Ernest Evans who Dick Clark reinvented as Chubby Checker:
And finally, a Ballard tribute from Ronny Elliott. As Ronny said, "I never liked Chubby Checker ..."