By Richie Unterberger

It was Chris Kenner's lot to be remembered as a one-hit artist and a one-hit songwriter. Unlike many such figures, however, the hit he had as an artist was entirely different than the classic composition for which he's most renowned. The huge success of both of those tunes has tended to obscure his considerable talents as both a singer and songwriter, and as a man who was a key link between the 1950s New Orleans R&B/rock'n'roll sound and the 1960s brand of New Orleans soul. Both of those Kenner classics are contained on the CD reissue of his sole album, which was actually a collection of singles that were several years old by the time the Land of 1000 Dances LP was issued in 1966.

     Although Land of 1000 Dances was released on Atlantic, as the original liner notes disclosed, "all of the recordings in this album were originally issued on Instant, the New Orleans label owned by Joe Banashak." In fact, it was actually a compilation of the A- and B-sides of six of the first seven singles Kenner had issued on the Instant label between 1961 and 1963 (though, oddly, neither of the songs from his fifth 45, "Johnny Little"/"Let Me Show You How (To Twist)," were included). Why was Atlantic putting out the material in LP form so relatively long (by 1960s standards) after it was first released? It might have had something to do with the belated success of the title track, which, after Kenner had a modest national hit with it, became a yet bigger hit for Cannibal & the Headhunters in 1965—and then, a yet much bigger hit in 1966 for Atlantic soul star Wilson Pickett. The cover illustration—in which Kenner was nowhere to be seen in a rather abstract collage of dancers—perhaps inadvertently reinforced the impression that at this point, the song was bigger than the singer.

    Kenner had only scored one major hit under his own name by the time the Land of 1000 Dances LP  came out, but he'd actually been recording for almost a decade. The New Orleans singer started in a gospel quartet (also including R&B guitarist Earl King, perhaps best known for doing the original version of "Come On," later covered by Jimi Hendrix on Electric Ladyland) before moving into R&B with a debut single on the small Baton label in 1957. A 45 for Imperial shortly afterward, "Sick and Tired," was a #13 hit on the R&B charts the same year, but was eclipsed by the success of a Fats Domino cover, which made #22 on the pop charts in 1958. Dropped from Imperial, Kenner continued to record for the small Pontchartrain and Ron labels before cutting "I Like It Like That" for Joe Banashak's Instant label in 1961, with the great Allen Toussaint as arranger and producer.

    With its irresistible, impeccably smooth interplay between Kenner and the backup vocalists, its infectious stop-start tempos, and its witty near-punch line of a title phrase, "I Like It Like That" stormed up to #2 in the pop charts. Like many dance-oriented tunes of the time, it was made into a two-part song of sorts on the 45, though part two amounted to little more than a nearly identical arrangement minus Kenner's lead singing, its place taken by a honking saxophone. Kenner, however, was unable to wholly capitalize on its success. Several of his associates later remembered him as an erratic live performer who missed some gigs and sometimes forgot the words to his own songs, in part because of his excessive drinking. "I Like It Like That," however, wasn't forgotten, and the Dave Clark Five made it into a Top Ten hit all over again in 1965 at the height of the British Invasion.

    Kenner's follow-up, "A Very True Story"/"Packin' Up," didn't chart, and it might come as a surprise to some soul fans to learn that his third single, "Something You Got" (backed by "Come and See About Me," which is no relation to the similarly titled 1965 Supremes smash "Come See About Me"), didn't chart either. The song became a fairly familiar standard, however, in part because it was a pretty big hit in New Orleans itself, and in part because fellow New Orleans singer Alvin Robinson had a #52 hit with a slower interpretation in 1964. The song was also covered in 1966 by Them, with Van Morrison on lead vocal, though it should be noted that although Them released a song called "I Like It Like That" on their 1965 debut LP, that was a Van Morrison original, not a cover of the Kenner classic. A fourth Kenner single, 1962's "Time"/"How Far," made no commercial impact, though "Time" in particular showcases his vocal talents in on a slower, more gospel-influenced number than the more good-time uptempo soul dance songs with which he had his biggest records.

    Incidentally, it has long puzzled some fans why Fats Domino is listed as a co-author of "Something You Got" with Kenner, and why Fats and Chris share co-writing credits on a few other songs Kenner recorded, such as "Packing Up." Kenner and Domino are also often listed as co-writers of "Land of 1000 Dances" (though, as it happens, the Atlantic Land of 1000 Dances LP lists only Kenner on its composing credits for the title track). According to the chapter on Kenner in Jeff Hannusch's I Hear You Knockin': The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues, this was because upon its initial release, Kenner's sixth single, "Land of 1000 Dances" (backed by "That's My Girl"), "failed to catch on, even in New Orleans. This was much to the chagrin of Joe Banashak, who suggested that Kenner try to get Fats Domino to record it for Fats's new label, ABC. On the advice of his lawyer, Charles Levy, Fats agreed to cover the tune in return for 50% of the song's publishing and writer's credit. Kenner was broke again and was only too happy to get some advance money. But if that wasn't enough, Kenner also cemented a similar deal with Fats for the rights to 'Something You Got' and 'Packin' Up.'"

    Domino's cover didn't attract much attention, but before the song could fall into obscurity, Kenner's original recording began—more than a year after its release—to pick up some unexpected regional action in other areas of the country, as well as a distribution deal for the 45 with Atlantic. Eventually it peaked at #77 in Billboard in 1963, despite the surprising absence of a single instance in which the title "Land of 1000 Dances" is sung on the recording. Here's another mystery I Hear You Knockin': The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues clears up, revealing that the master recording "contains a ten-second introduction that was omitted from the issued record. On it Kenner moans in true gospel fashion, 'I'm gonna take you, baby, I'm gonna take you to a place. The name of the place is the land of a thousand dances,' and then the band falls in."

    "The Land of a 1000 Dances" was soon on its way to one thousand cover versions (at least if we count all the ones by bar and club bands that never recorded) when it was revived in 1965 by the Los Angeles Mexican-American band Cannibal & the Headhunters, which got to #30. That group was also responsible for adding the "na na na na na" chant, absent from Kenner's recording, that became standard in subsequent versions of the song, including the one that Wilson Pickett took to #6 in 1966. Since the mid-'60s, several notable recording acts have cut the song, including Jimi Hendrix, Roy Orbison, Tom Jones, the Action, the Walker Brothers, Johnny Rivers, the Rascals, and (as part of her epic song-poem "Land") Patti Smith.

    Kenner, however, didn't get to enjoy its success as much as one might expect. None of his subsequent dozen or so singles in the 1960s, most of them for Instant (and only one of them, "Come Back and See"/"Go Thru Life," included here), would reach the national charts. Worse, around the end of the '60s, Kenner served a three-year jail sentence at Louisiana's notorious Angola prison (where Leadbelly had famously done time) on a charge of statutory rape of a minor. A mid-1970s return to performing and recording ended when he died, apparently of a cardiac arrest, on January 25, 1976 in New Orleans. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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