A Twisted Message
No doubt that this screaming editorial headline which appeared in an October issue of Cashbox Magazine in 1954 – was the result of a series of songs recorded beginning in early 1954 by the Midnighters, fronted by Henry “Hank” Ballard.
The first of these was “Work With Me Annie” which entered the R&B charts on April 24th of 1954 which then promptly skyrocketed to the top spot remaining there for seven straight weeks.
The success of that one prompted Ballard to quickly record two more of of his compositions, first one being “Sexy Ways” which landed at number 2 and then the “Annie” follow up “Annie Had a Baby” – another R&B number 1 (September, 1954).
Hank Ballard was born 1927 John Henry Kendricks in Detroit, Michigan. Somewhat surprisingly, young John Henry found his first musical inspiration in singing cowboy star Gene Autry.
Like many other successful R&B acts, he was first discovered by Johnny Otis when he was a member of The Royals and signed to Federal Records. After a short time the group would change their name to “The Midnighters” due to the presence of “The 5 Royales” out of South Carolina who were already established and had been since 1952.
Perhaps urged on by Cashbox Magazine’s stinging editorial, the FCC banned all of these recordings as well as a fourth, “Annie’s Aunt Fannie” which charted at number 10 towards the end of 1954 on the R&B charts.
There would be two additional ‘risque’ efforts “Henry’s Got Flat Feet” and “It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)”, before the ban took a firm hold. Then the hits quit coming until 1959, when Hank and the Midnighters would resurface with “Teardrops On Your Letter” backed by “The Twist” reaching number 4 & 16 respectively R&B in April of ’59. “Teardrops” would be Hank’s first entry into the Billboard Hot 100 reaching a very modest number 87.
And “The Twist”? No dice – going completely unnoticed on the pop charts. We all know the next part of the “Twist” story – The song was gobbled up by Ernest Evans out of Philadelphia and hit the top spot in the nation for one week in the summer of 1960.
Ironically, the song was viewed as a fun-filled and innocent dance tune – but in fact – like it’s ‘Annie’ predecessors, had it’s roots in sexual lyrical references. ‘Twist’ reference songs went back to as early as 1844 in a tune titled “Grape Vine Twist”. Jelly Roll Morton’s lyric line from “Winin’ Boy Blues” proclaimed “Mama, mama look at sis, she’s out on the levee doing the double twist” in 1938. These and many others were all references to the “dirty” references by the Cashbox editorial.
Both Hank and Chubby would enjoy an additional run with “The Twist”. First, Hank would enjoy a re-release in July of 1960 this time going to number 6 R&B and managing a number 28 showing on the Hot 100. Chubby would wait another year for the “Twist” to really take off, thanks to celebrities taking to the discotheques taking the American public with them – Chubby’s “Twist” would return to the number 1 position in early 1962 holding number 1 for two weeks this time (this time with a nice picture sleeve).
Chubby’s has the distinction of being the only artist to take the same song to number 1 twice with the same version in the history of records! A little side note – “The Twist” was nudged out of the number one position in 1962 by a little ditty titled “Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starliters.
Chubby would enjoy a steady diet of twisting hits including my favorite “Let’s Twist Again”, “Twistin’ U.S.A., “Slow Twistin'” (probably more of what Ballard had in mind), “Twist it Up” and sadly “La Paloma Twist” – a tango type arrangement, “(Twist To) Blueberry Hill”, “(Twist To) I Could Have Danced All Night”.
Ballard would continue on charting 11 additional records R&B with 9 of those entering the Hot 100. He did manage two top tens over on the pop charts, “Finger Poppin’ Time” (number 7) and “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go” (number 6). Ballard passed away in 2003 a victim of throat cancer. Hank entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 – a fitting tribute and was later followed by The Midnighters in 2012.
Another ‘naughty number’ also from 1954 sort of sneaked under the righteous ears of the censors. Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” reached the R&B top spot for three weeks in ’54. Amusingly, the song was covered by Bill Haley and His Comets that same year. It was Haley’s second rocker to chart – his first top 10 peaking at number 7.
Decca Records probably had no idea what the lyrics penned by Jesse Stone composing as “Charles Calhoun” were referring to. (Look ’em up when you have time). Stone’s grandparents were both former slaves in Tennessee. Several of his compositions were thinly disguised sexual references. Mr. Stone was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a “Non-Performer” in 2010.
A 2008 fire at Universal Studios in Hollywood destroyed much of Ballard’s original recordings, along with originals by others such as Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and more.
I wonder what that Cash Box editor would make of the lyrics today – or of just about anything today. In a bit of an ironic “Twist” – below is the October 16th, 1954 cover of Cash Box Magazine – uuummmmm??
For what it is worth – here is the full editorial: