Ballard was born in Camden, New Jersey and grew up in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. As a child he followed American Legion parades near his home, focusing particularly on the drummer. When he was about 10 years old, Ballard’s father bought him a set of drums from a pawnbroker and he began to take lessons for 75 cents each. He got the nickname “Butch” after Machine Gun Butch, a character in the film The Big House (1930). He attended Northeast High School in Philadelphia. When he was 21, he married Jessie, for whom he bought a house in Philadelphia in 1950.
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