Working with Annie –
How rock and roll was born
[The following piece was born out of a statement from my editor, who, responding to my piece on Rosemary Clooney, claimed that she had sung the Georgia Gibbs hit, “Dance With Me, Henry.” In order to prove him wrong, I did a lot of research – and out of it came this piece.]
Some curious things happened in the early days of rock and roll. The major record labels ignored it, dismissing it as a passing fad, for several years. This left the door wide open for the small, independent, often regional labels.
These tiny companies did not set themselves up originally as rock and roll labels, and often were taken by surprise by the regional breakout successes of some of their releases. Most specialized in R&B and Gospel music, marketed to black audiences – what had been until the late 1940s referred to as “race records.”
In 1951 the Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man” – which had already gone to the top of the R&B charts – “crossed over” into the Pop charts, climbing to No. 17. This was a major success for the tiny Federal label, owned by Syd Nathan, and it signaled the actual beginning of what would in a year or two become known as rock and roll.
The significance of this “crossover” was that a young white audience had found a record made for an adult black audience. The song had a heavy beat and suggestive lyrics and was a direct descendent of urban blues songs going back to the 1920s and the jump bands of the 1940s. It shocked the parents of many of the white teenagers who brought it home and played it. It thrilled the kids, who were hearing something which was viscerally appealing on a physical level – it made you want to move, to dance – and for whom sexual innuendo was titillatingly exciting.
Rock and roll was a grass-roots, underground movement among America’s teenagers in the first half of the 1950s, and presaged the move for racial integration ten years later. It was subversive in many subtle ways, and it made parents and teachers angry and repressive – this in an era of comic book censorship and Red-baiting witch-hunts. Churches organized gatherings where “evil” rock and roll records were thrown on bonfires – in direct parallel to those in which comic books were burned. If comic books weren’t the major cause of juvenile delinquency, then surely rock and roll was.
“I was being lambasted for dirty lyrics on ‘Sixty Minute Man’,” said Federal producer Ralph Bass. “The problem was that white kids were listening to those things for the first time. It was all right so long as blacks were listening, but as soon as whites started listening, it was no good. Then it became a big political thing.”
Adding fuel to this fire was Hank Ballard & the Midnighters. Ballard was born in Detroit and worked on a Ford assembly line. He joined the Royals, a local singing group, and they recorded a song called “Work With Me, Annie” for Nathan’s Federal label in 1954. Like “Sixty Minute Man,” its lyrics were considered “dirty:” “Annie, please don’t cheat/Give me all my meat” was too explicit, too suggestive for a white audience – although Bessie Smith and Ma Rainy had recorded lyrics equally explicit decades earlier.
Naturally, the controversy sold more records, and made “Annie” a word-of-mouth success. The Royals, in order to avoid confusion with the 5 Royals, changed their name to the Midnighters before recording “Sexy Ways,” another controversial single.
But “Annie” took on a life of its own. A west coast deejay told his radio listeners that if they liked “Work With Me, Annie,” they’d want the sequel, “Annie Had A Baby,” a sarcastic joke which immediately caused orders to come in for the nonexistent record. Nathan was no fool, and he had the Midnighters do the follow-up record, “Annie Had A Baby (Can’t Work No More).”
The Midnighters did one further sequel, “Annie’s Aunt Fannie,” but others picked it up and ran with it with both covers and further sequels, like “Henry’s Got Flat Feet (Can’t Dance No More).” Most notable was Etta James’ “answer” to “Annie,” co-written with bandleader Johnny Otis, with whose R&B band she sang, “Roll With Me, Henry.” It was subsequently renamed “The Wallflower.”
At this point the major record companies began to wake up. They began doing sanitized white cover versions of black-artist crossover hits. Pat Boone had hits, covering Fats Domino. “The Wallflower” was dusted off, its lyrics cleaned up, and given to Georgia Gibbs, renamed “Dance With Me, Henry.” In this version it went to No. 1 on the Pop charts. The lyrics might be about dancing, but kids could read between the lines, and the risqué reputation of “Annie” followed “Henry” closely.
Hank Ballard & the Midnighters went on to score another major hit with “Teardrops on My Letter” in 1958 but, ironically, the B-side of that single would take Chubby Checker to No. 1 twice, in 1960 and 1962. The piece, written by Ballard, was “The Twist.”
Hank Ballard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Etta James was inducted in 1992.