In rock & roll shorthand, Hank Ballard is the man who invented "the Twist," only to see Chubby Checker steal it out from under him. It is true but it's too simplistic, overlooking his earlier down-and-dirty -- very dirty -- R&B hits like "Work with Me Annie," how he twisted and expanded his Clyde McPhatter influence into a raw, gritty sound that influenced James Brown, how he and the Midnighters, the group he overtook in 1952, built a body of work that contains some of the best R&B and rock & roll of its time. Ballard embodied his time -- he worked with a vocal group, he didn't necessarily push sounds forward -- but he was a transitional figure because of his earthiness, how his voice dripped with carnality and his music had great, gritty rhythms. All this can be discerned on Rhino's excellent 2003 compilation Sexy Ways, but Bear Family's exhaustive box, Nothing But Good (1952-1962), winds up painting a fuller picture with its details, allowing a greater appreciation for his considerable talents.
That isn't to say that the five discs of Nothing But Good are nothing but good -- there's a fair amount of formative recordings and filler, not to mention novelties, and Ballard was not above attempting to get another hit by copying the last, at one time shoehorning all three of his big hits into one song. Some of this was standard practice for rockers desperate to score another hit, but Ballard enthusiastically embraced sequels and rewrites right from the beginning, cutting a series of answers to his first big hit, 1954's "Work with Me Annie." Within a year, he had "Work Baby," "Annie Had a Baby," and "Annie's Aunt Fannie," and he would repeat this pattern once Chubby Checker turned Ballard's B-side, "The Twist," into a hit. Surely, there's a streak of commercial opportunism more than a mile wide at play, but listening to disc after disc on Nothing But Good, Ballard never seems crass, he seems joyous and alive. His energy and phrasing were a clear influence on James Brown, as was the Midnighters' blend of doo wop, dance, and guitar-driven R&B, one that had strong elements of urban electric blues, best heard on the churning, grinding hit "Look at Little Sister" but elsewhere, like on "I Must Be Crazy." All this apparent comes into sharp relief due the heft of this five-disc set, a box that certainly has a few wrong turns if not necessarily slow spots, for it's all fascinating, often invigorating listening. In fact, the sheer volume of Nothing But Good works in Ballard's favor, proving that he was a tireless, infectious performer whose talents ran far deeper than conventional wisdom suggests.