One of the first rock vocal groups to span multiple distinct eras and cover the most of the respective styles from those changing times, from dreamy balladeers to racy uptempo rockers, then onto dance workouts and finally committed funkateers.

Not all of them were commercially successful and there were a few personnel changes along the way, along with an early name change, but the core of the group remained together for years and more than one way they were pioneers.

The group came together in 1950 as The Falcons, a name they never recorded under but competed regularly on the Detroit amateur scene led by Charles Sutton with Henry Booth, Lawson Smith and Sonny Woods comprising the vocalists while guitarist Alonzo Tucker handled the arrangements and much of the songwriting.

They were spotted by Johnny Otis in the fall of 1951 at a talent show in the city and he signed them to a personal management contract with the intent on bringing them with him to Federal Records when his contract with Savoy was up in December. Having lost his early vocal group, The Robins, and with the subsequent rise in popularity of groups in rock ‘n’ roll, he realized how vital it would be to get back into that field. But when Otis abruptly took a better offer from Mercury at the last minute he lost The Royals who’d already signed with Federal, though he gave them the parting gift of their first single, “Every Beat Of My Heart”.

Days after that first session Lawson Smith was inducted into the Army and his replacement was John Kendricks, a co-worker with Woods on the Ford assembly line, better known as Hank Ballard who at first merely played a supporting role to Sutton’s lead. But as time went on, though they stuck primarily to ballads at first, it was Ballard who began getting more time in the spotlight as lead singer, aided by his growing songwriting abilities.

The stylistic change that accompanied this immediately set them apart from most of their rivals in the field, for while there’d been more suggestive faster paced vocal group records, their net few songs blew the lid off what was acceptable, bypassing the merely racy into the downright raunchy.

Upon the release of their second such record, “Work With Me Annie”, they were forced to change their name because unscrupulous promoters on the road had advertised them as being The “5” Royales, a far more more popular group at the time and their management filed suit to prevent this. Choosing to call themselves The Midnighters, which was an appropriate moniker for the kind of deviant late night acts they were singing about, the group immediately hit #1 for the first time and followed it up with a sequel that did likewise.

While their ensuing records tried too hard to blatantly recapture that success with an ongoing saga centered around sex and the resulting aftermath of such activities, the fact this coincided with unprecedented crossover interest in rock vocal groups meant their records were blackballed, sometimes explicitly so, other times simply because disc-jockeys knew they’d be risking their careers to play such evil smut under the microscope of an uptight white society now on high alert.

Alonzo Tucker had left the group during this period and would achieve his greatest success as a songwriter, penning numerous huge hits for Jackie Wilson in the early 1960’s. His place was taken by Arthur Porter and later Cal Green. Meanwhile Smith had returned from the Army, replacing Booth for a tour and then Booth came back when Sutton had a non-cancerous tumor removed from his throat, never to return despite being given a clean bill of health. By the late 1950’s Norman Thrasher was brought on board and remained with them for the rest of their run.

During these years however they saw no further hits and it seemed on the surface as if they’d fade into memory, but in 1958 they shifted their approach again to broader more acceptable topics – while also putting Ballard’s name out in front on the label – and proved they’d lost none of their abilities to connect with ballads and dance-themed records alike.

While their most enduring composition, “The Twist”, would be relegated to a B-side even though Ballard was sure it’d be huge – it did hit the Top Twenty on the R&B Charts in 1959 – he gained a measure of vindication when Chubby Checker took it to the top of the charts a the next year and started the associated dance craze leading to a string of records to capitalize – and some cases invent – a new dance on the scene, many of which came from The Midnighters themselves.

While some of those were hits in their own right, their most successful songs during the early sixties however were with a pair of non-specific uptempo cuts that each hit the Top Ten on the pop charts, while giving them their first R&B Chart topper in seven years.

With the passing of that era it once again seemed as if their time was drawing to an end, and the group broke up in 1965. But Ballard’s labelmate James Brown revitalized his friend’s career by the late 1960’s by getting Ballard to further emphasize the funkiness that had long been a small part of their formula. He continued, with intermittent success, as a solo act for a dozen or more years before reforming The Midnighters in the 1980’s for touring as a revival act.

Ballard was inducted to The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame – without the group – in 1990, an oversight that was corrected in 2012 when some, but not all, of the most vital members from over the years were added.

That came nine years after Ballard himself passed away, a key figure in two distinct rock movements and a steady presence in the the field for more than three decades.
HANK BALLARD & THE MIDNIGHTERS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Federal 12064; March, 1952)
As The Royals… A pensive daydream put to music with an exquisite melody, a breathtaking lead by Charles Sutton, sublime harmonies and poignant lyrics by Johnny Otis somehow didn’t get them a hit but its timeless qualities have endured long after most hits were forgotten. (9)

(Federal 12064; March, 1952)
As The Royals… A loose-limbed song wherein the group is just singing the basic outline of a plot in harmony, but the raucous piano of Sarah McLawler and the unexpected guest turn by Wynonie Harris singing the bridge turn this into an energetic and fun surprise. (7)

(Federal 12077; May, 1952)
As The Royals… Another exemplary ballad with a terrific lead by Charles Sutton expressing love as a tenuous proposition borne out of inexperience but with hope and confidence seeping in while the delicate arrangement mirrors that view perfectly. (8)

(Federal 12077; May, 1952)
As The Royals… Displaying a conflicted perspective when it comes to loving someone who rejected him, Charles Sutton is fine here while Henry Booth’s bridge provides a slight shift in attitude even as the song remains slightly unfocused on the whole. (6)

(Federal 12088; July, 1952)
As The Royals… The best they’ve sounded vocally, as their harmonies are brilliant behind Charles Sutton’s brilliant lead on a song that is atmospheric and heartfelt with a sparse arrangement that only adds to the dream-like ambiance. (9)

(Federal 12088; July, 1952)
As The Royals…With its faster tempo and Henry Booth on lead this is a good change of pace from their usual Charles Sutton led ballads and thus is perfect for a B-side, but while they sing it well and the band is fine, the lyrics are disappointingly amateurish. (5)

(Federal 12098; September, 1952)
As The Royals… Undeniably sloppy, but enthusiastic, this marked Hank Ballard’s first turn singing lead for the group he’d go on to define in time with a more muscular brand of this kind of uptempo lusty performance that is kept from falling apart here by a good sax solo. (4)

(Federal 12098; September, 1952)
As The Royals… Another of the slow dreamy ballads that Charles Sutton handled so well suffers from a sense of repetitiveness as it keeps virtually all of the hallmarks of past songs which had better stories and lyrics than this one which is fairly nice, but hardly essential. (5)

WHAT DID I DO (Federal 12113; November, 1952)
As The Royals… Though Charles Sutton sounds fine here, and for a few moments really strong, the same can’t be said of the composition which wanders too much and doesn’t provide the others with enough to do behind him weakening the overall presentation. (5)

(Federal 12113; November, 1952)
As The Royals… The first evidence of Hank Ballard’s promise as both a lead singer and songwriter with his gospel-fueled uptempo style and brash persona, held back just a little by not crafting a tight enough story to jump out at you. (6)