Chris Kenner was a singer/songwriter who impacted the world of rock-and-roll in the 60's, most notably with two songs. Many have recorded his songs and drawn inspiration from his work.
He was born in Kenner, Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans, on Christmas Day in 1929. He moved to New Orleans in his teens and worked as a longshoreman for a time in the 50's. His real love was music. He would write songs in his spare time, and began recording with Baton Records in 1955. In 1957 he recorded his own composition, Sick And Tired, on Imperial Records. It met with some success as it made the top twenty on the R&B chart, and Kenner persisted.
Allen Toussaint was beginning to establish himself in the music industry in New Orleans around this time. Toussaint, eight years younger than Kenner, was a talented singer, songwriter, piano player, arranger and record producer who was assigned responsibility for the music at Minit Records in 1960, when he was 22. Joe Banashak at Minit left to start his own label, Instant, and brought Toussaint along as his chief assistant.
Kenner worked hard and had a strong desire to succeed in his chosen field, but he also had an erratic lifestyle and was battling a life-long problem with alcohol. He had approached established New Orleans recording star Fats Domino about recording Kenner's song Sick And Tired. Many local New Orleans artists struggled to get their records on the national radar, but Fats was a proven hit-maker. Domino agreed to record the song in return for being listed as a co-writer, and Domino's version cracked the pop top forty in 1958.
By this time Toussaint had worked on some projects with Chris Kenner, and Kenner began recording for Instant, under the guidance of Allen Toussaint. Kenner's songwriting was terrific, his vocals were raw. His stage performances however, left something to be desired. Toussaint was a master at arranging the songs, and often accompanied Kenner on piano. Chris recorded his self-written songs on Instant with titles such as I Like It Like That, Something You Got, and Land Of 1000 Dances.
One of these records took off. He had later recorded a slightly different version of I Like It Like That, so the first became I Like It Like That, Part 1 and the second I Like It Like That, Part 2. The first of these gained wide popularity and soared up the national charts all the way to number 2 in the summer of 1961. Kenner took his place along side other young performers who were turning out hit records in New Orleans, such as Barbara George and Ernie K-Doe, although I Like It Like That, Part 1 would prove to be his only top forty hit as a performer. It received a Grammy nomination that year.
A group from East Los Angeles, Cannibal and the Headhunters, later heard a version of the Kenner-written Land Of 1000 Dances on a Rufus Thomas album and added it to their act. Lead singer Frankie "Cannibal" Garcia sometimes had trouble with the words and so he added a na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na to it in the group's stage act which proved to be quite popular with audiences. They recorded it that way on Rampart and in 1965 it went top forty nationally, and proved to be a song that was popular with the many garage bands in existence in the mid-60's. Land of 1000 Dances was written at a time, the early 60's, when dances were popular with the American record-buying public; Kenner mentions no less than 16 dances in the lyrics of the song. Kenner was inspired to write it by an old spiritual that he had sung as a child, Children Go Where I Send Thee. In the version recorded by Kenner in 1962 there is a spoken introduction in which he says among other things "I want to send you to that land, the land of a thousand dances." This introduction was left off in most versions recorded after the original, and so the original recorded by Chris Kenner in 1962 -- which was never a big hit for him -- is sought after today by record collectors. And this introduction is the only place that contains the song title, which does not appear in other more popular versions. In 1966 Wilson Picket recorded a version of Land Of 1000 Dances that went top ten, and became his biggest hit ever.
Meanwhile Chris Kenner continued writing and recording at various labels in the New Orleans area. Earlier he had recorded Rocket To The Moon and Life Is Just a Struggle on the Ron label. Other songs from Kenner included They Took My Money, My Wife and Packing Up. Toussaint was drafted in 1963. Kenner carried on, working with other arrangers, and writing and recording songs, but none would match the success he had met with earlier in the decade, unless they were covered by other artists. I Like It Like That re-entered the pop top ten in 1965 in a version by British Invasion band The Dave Clark Five.
In 1968 Kenner was convicted of statutory rape of a minor and served three years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison. In the 70's money was coming in from royalty checks but he was not able to hold onto it for very long. His best recording days over, his problem with alcohol unabated, his financial problems and his status as an ex-con led to a downward spiral. Kenner suffered a heart attack on January 25, 1976, and died at the age of 46.
Many artists have recorded his songs over the years. In addition to those already mentioned, they include Bobby Womack, Barbara George, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Chuck Jackson, Fairport Convention, Maxine Brown, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen. Kenner turned out some great 60's-era New Orleans rhythm-and-blues. His most enduring songs are I Like It Like That, Part 1 and Land Of A Thousand Dances.
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