Chris Kenner

TrackSingle
Sick And TiredImperial X5448
I Like It Like ThatInstant VR-3229
Packin' UpInstant 3234
Something You GotInstant 3237
TimeInstant 3244
Land Of 1000 DancesInstant 3252
What's Wrong With LifeInstant 3263

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Chris Kenner photo

 

CHRIS KENNER: ANATOMY OF A ONE HIT WONDER #7

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Artists who flickered briefly then disappeared. One Hit Wonders, the media called them. Part of the fascination of fifties and sixties music.

 

Chris Kenner is something of a shadowy name to pop pickers. He had one hit, the extraordinary I Like It Like That, and was associated with one or two more before dying an early death in 1976 at the age of 47. AllMusic give him one paragraph. Only two of his records were released in the UK.

Included in my review of an anthology from Kenner on Amazon UK in 2012, was the following para:

“Chris was an anomaly in a way. Whilst associated very much with the newer sound of the Allen Toussaint regime, in fact he sounds like a throwback to much earlier days, so much so he makes the earlier generation like Domino and Smiley Lewis sound positively sophisticated. This is particularly noticeable on the handful of slower numbers in this set which have echoes of a church upbringing but with Chris wandering around the notes as if he was one of the few that never did get selected for the choir. On the faster numbers, some of which are variants of his hits, he slurs his voice as if he always had a few jars before the session started.”

My last sentence was tongue in cheek. I didn’t know at the time that Chris had serious alcohol problems throughout his career, and the cause of his death was a heart attack triggered by his condition.

On to happier things and that hit:

Come on – Come on let me show where it’s at
Come on – Come on let me show where it’s at
Come on – Come on let me show where it’s at
The name of the place is I Like It Like That

Okay, tell me it wasn’t poetry. That last line was for me. And the music was primitivism married to a rolling Allen Toussaint piano. A record that harked back to before the familiar New Orleans names to a time when voodoo ruled, later to be evoked by Dr. John in his famous Gris Gris album. I Like It Like That was released in ’61, hit the R&B Chart and then climbed to the #2 spot in the US Pop Chart. It was released in September that same year in the UK (by London, natch), and did nothing chart wise.

But as early as his second single in 1957, Chris might have found some chart glory. Though officially credited to Kenner & Bartholomew, I’m of the firm belief that Sick And Tired was penned solely by Chris. It had the sort of lyrics you’d associate with him if you’d heard later numbers.

Wake up in the mornin’ fix you somethin’ to eat,
‘fore I go to work I even brush your teeth
Get home in the evenin’ and you’re still in bed
Got yourself a rag tied ’round you’re head

Dave Bartholomew, band leader and co-songwriter with the mighty Fats Domino, wrapped Chris’ performance in a blanket of the patented New Orleans rhumba rhythm. A cracker of a record and it was just starting to climb up the charts when it was overtaken by a version which Dave had (later) put together with Fats at the mike. And the Domino record went on to be one of the classics associated with the man, to the detriment of the original of course.

Post I Like It Like That, Chris’ next near brush with fame came with another one of his compositions, Land Of 1000 Dances, another rolling piece of slurry New Orleansiana. Its attractions were highly apparent with the result that it received the dubious accolade of covers from all and sundry. I wouldn’t call Wilson Pickett sundry though. His much more adrenaline fuelled version was the one that hit the charts and deservedly so. Here are the two versions for comparison, and note that I have included the superbly ragged Kenner intro which wasn’t on the single, and was the only bit where the song title got a mention – “I’m gonna send you to the land of a thousand dances”:

 

The Na Nana Na Na bit got introduced in an intermediate record from Cannibal & the Headhunters. More on covers later.

The last one of what I’m calling the Kenner biggies is by far the most obscure, but is arguably the best of the bunch. Something You Got (sometimes called Somethin’ You Got Baby) came out in ’61 – after I Like It but before 1000 Dances – and it was closer to slow to medium paced soul than most of his discs. It was another one to get multiple covers, including one from Fats again. I have to say, though, that in this instance, my vote is for Chris’ original.

 

Back to the beginning. Chris was born on Christmas day in Kenner, Louisiana. Wiki describes Kenner both as a city and a suburb of New Orleans. In Chris’ youth he sang in his father’s choir and later in a number of other gospel outfits. He moved into New Orleans to get work as a longshoreman (or, what we in the UK would probably call a docker or dock worker). He started writing songs and managed to get a short term record contract with Baton Records.

That first record was Don’t Let Her Pin That Charge On Me/Grandma’s House. Black Cat Rockabilly Europe list Willie Mabon and Joe Turner as early influences on Chris and you can certainly see traces of the former in this stop-time blues.

There were then two records for Imperial and I guess you could say that Dave Bartholomew shot Chris in the foot over the first of these, Sick And Tired. Reportedly Lew Chudd, owner of Imperial, found Chris difficult to handle which is why his stay only lasted for two records. After making a couple of unremarkable singles for two small New Orleans indies, Chris moved to Valiant who were shortly to become Instant Records. At Valiant/Instant, he came under the guiding hand of Allen Toussaint and between them they created those records that I talked about at the beginning of this feature.

For a few years Chris did very nicely indeed. Even when he didn’t get hits himself he got songwriter’s royalties out of more successful cover versions. But, as with most pop careers, it didn’t last. In 1968 he was convicted for statutory rape of a minor (though it’s believed that he was framed) and spent three years in Angola. Comeback attempts following his release didn’t succeed and in January ’76 he was found dead in his apartment.

That period at Instant, which included a brief detour to Uptown Records in ’65, deserves closer attention. While there was little that could be realistically said to match the three records I’ve already highlighted, there was sufficient quality present to match much of what was coming out of the Crescent City in the time frame. In some respects, Kenner’s output was not unlike that from another New Orleans artist, the more successful (and somewhat more inventive) Lee Dorsey who also benefited from the maestro, Allen Toussaint. Both artists effectively started in the sixties with prominent piano (often from Toussaint but traditional in the city) and a backdrop of horns. As the sixties moved on, both moved more into funk, indeed into what many would term New Orleans funk. Dorsey was the smoother of the two while Kenner espoused a rougher sound, usually accompanied by a femme chorale with a New Orleans version of call and response.

I discovered one Instant track, Never Reach Perfection, that sounded distinctly gospel in overall sound. The words were only marginally secular in nature and, indeed, could be interpreted as religious. The treatment was straight gospel with the backing singers echoing phrases.

That performance was contained on a 1964 flip side. The A-side, What’s Wrong With Life, was medium to up tempo like most of his singles but its usage of the vocal backing chorus in an almost doo wop manner was as creative as most Dorsey records:

Another one of his rare slowies, Time, has Chris doing some soul testifying. Can I get a witness indeed. I’d also give a mention to another soul slowie, I’m Lonely Take Me. Unfortunately neither is on YouTube.

1961’s Packin’ Up is almost the archetypal Kenner single, medium tempo with 12 bar start before moving to a single chord declarative bit and back. Whether the title is a metaphor for leaving or whether jamming things into a suitcase is just part of the break up process, doesn’t matter. Chris is telling his lady in no uncertain terms, that he’s going.

 

I said I’d cover some covers so let’s do that. Sick And Tired attracted plenty (though they’re not always easy to find due to reuse of the song title). I’m partial to a couple of ska/reggae ones. Firstly, Ernest and Jackie, followed by the even better Ken Boothe with Delroy Wilson. Both neatly illustrate the musical linkage between New Orleans and Jamaica.

 

I Like It Like That attracted far less covers, possibly due to its more eccentric nature. However the Dave Clark Five didn’t do badly with the song in the UK:

Land Of 1000 Dances was the one that got loads of performers trying to outdo Chris, or more likely Wilson. Among the many covers was a surprising effort from the Walker Brothers – I think this one saw release in Germany in the group’s very early days. Note the Jagger impersonation from John:

For me though, this one was beaten to a pulp by the Little Richard version which even managed to outshine Pickett for sheer oomph. The song was seemingly made for the Georgia Peach.

There was also a version from Roy Orbison which is worth digging out.

The far less well known Something You Got also picked up its share of alternative versions. Alvin ‘Down Home Girl’ Robinson, was, I believe, the first artist to really slow the song down, but he was followed by others including the splendid pairing of Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown, who made a duet out of it:

 

 

So, was Chris Kenner no more than a minor footnote in that great big ole tome we call The Story Of Rock And Roll? I guess the answer has to be yes but the world would certainly have been a sorrier place without him.

Chris Kenner poster

 

FOOTNOTES

1. I must give credit to Black Cat Rockabilly Europe, who have the best biography by far of Mr Kenner.

2. Baton Records was actually a New York based record label in spite of its name, which might have implied some relationship to the Louisiana city of Baton Rouge. It was set up in 1954 by one Sol Rabinowitz, with the intention of recording and releasing R&B music. Their most famous record was undoubtedly Ann Cole’s original of Got My Mojo Working.

3. Willie Mabon was a jump blues singer from Memphis whose Got To Have Some has featured in many blues compilations in the dim distant past. He was noted for a particularly laconic style of delivery.

4. Instant, initially Valiant, Records was formed by music entrepreneur Joe Banashak in 1961. At that time, he already owned Minit Records, the label for which Ernie K Doe, Jessie Hill, Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas recorded many of their excellent singles. And the man who was at the centre of much of that creativity was Allen Toussaint, A&R Man and record producer for both labels.

5. Black Cat Rockabilly Europe reckon that Chris based Land Of 1000 Dances on the spiritual, Children Go Where I Send You/Thee. I’m not sure that I see a massive similarity between the two but it gives me the opportunity to post some Nina Simone:

6. The Na Na bit in the Cannibal & the Headhunters version of Land Of 1000 Dances apparently came about because lead singer Frankie Garcia forgot the lyrics (source Wiki).

7. The only album released in Kenner’s lifetime was Land Of 1000 Dances from Atlantic who sometimes distributed material from the Instant label. It is still available and there are also a couple of compilations which offer better value.

 

ONE HIT WONDERS ON TOPPERMOST
#1 Jody Reynolds
#2 James Ray
#3 Richie Barrett
#4 Mickey & Sylvia
#5 Scott McKenzie
#6 Blue
#7 Chris Kenner
#8 Dawn Penn
#9 Shep and the Limelites
#10 The Poni-Tails
#11 The La’s
#12 Thomas Wayne
#13 Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford
#14 Carl Mann
#15 Duncan Browne
#16 Harold Dorman

 

Chris Kenner (1929–1976)

 

Chris Kenner at 45cat

Chris Kenner on Discogs

Chris Kenner biography (iTunes)

The official website of Allen Toussaint (1938-2015)

Lee Dorsey Toppermost #185

Fats Domino Toppermost #576

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is available as an ebook and is described by one reviewer as ‘probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across’. “RocknRoll” contains further reflections on One Hit Wonders in its 1,000+ pages. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX.

TopperPost #614

10 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Mar 28, 2017

    Dave, thanks for this fine list. Kenner had a fine voice but he seemed to lack that extra spark/touch of genius which Fats, Little Richard and Wilson Pickett all possessed… By way of a curiosity, this is Brinsley Schwarz’s version of “I Like It Like That’.

    • Dave Stephens
      Mar 28, 2017

      Fair comment Andrew but I’d add a couple of remarks. Firstly to state that few who we classify as One Hit Wonders had sticking power or something well beyond the ordinary. Exceptions could include those who died very early or blow-ins from outside pop music. Secondly, merely to note that Kenner didn’t display the consistency of creativity of his peer Lee Dorsey as I remarked. That said, the world would be a greyer place without I Like It Like That.

  2. Cal Taylor
    Mar 28, 2017

    Thanks Dave, for another great posting. To my mind Chris Kenner is vastly underrated. I bought ‘Land Of A Thousand Dances’ LP (Atlantic 587008) forty years ago. It has ‘I Like It Like That’ parts 1 & 2 plus ten other tracks. All those tracks range from good to excellent and would all be candidates for a top 10. They were all from his Instant label recordings, so did not include ‘Sick And Tired’ from his Imperial days which would have also made my top 10 – so I am not sure why Dave has only listed a top 7 but I am sure he will have a good reason.
    Chris Kenner was not the world’s greatest singer. He wrote most, if not all, of his own lyrics which when analysed are not the best in the world either BUT they had something pertinent, infectious and catchy about them. Chris might have been his own worst enemy which precluded him from bigger success. I would like to judge Chris by his music alone.
    My life has been enhanced by listening to a bit of Chris Kenner and although most people might not realise it, his music has been heard and liked by millions, whether directly or through Wilson Pickett, Fats Domino or even the Dave Clark Five with classics such as ‘I Like It Like That’, ‘Land Of A Thousand Dances’, ‘Sick And Tired’ and ‘Something You Got’. Great 1960’s music. He should have been more than a One Hit Wonder. Thanks again, Dave, for jogging a few memories and for, hopefully, introducing Chris Kenner to new listeners.

  3. Peter Viney
    Mar 28, 2017

    The Atlantic LP is part of the budget Atlantic Japanese reissues 0n CD and yours for £5.99. I bought an original 45 of I Like It Like That on Instant in New Orleans three years ago for $2. The woman serving was my age and said ‘who the f-ck put Chris Kenner out for two bucks? These kids don’t know shit,’ but she sold it to me anyway. Notable covers of Sick and Tired, include Ronnie Hawkins plus Danko, Fjeld, Anderson and Rick Danko solo. The Hawkins version might be my favourite take on it. Great song.

  4. Alex Lifson
    Mar 29, 2017

    Great essay!

    • Dave Stephens
      Mar 29, 2017

      Cal, Peter and Alex, thanks for all your comments. Yes, I too own the Kenner Atlantic LP Cal, bought roughly at the time. I also have the first Lee Dorsey LP. I don’t have I Like It Like That on Instant, Peter but I might be prepared for a swap for an Excello Lightnin’ Slim. Pleased to see that people are prepared to read about, and listen to a blast from the past like Chris Kenner.

  5. Glenn Smith
    Mar 30, 2017

    I’m loving this series Dave and these incredible stories. This post and the Scott McKenzie are fascinating at so many levels, particularly the relationship between writing and performing the song. We are so overly familiar with the way the artist became songwriter etc it is easy to forgot how pop music was being so rapidly reshaped on both sides of the Atlantic. The Scott McKenzie story and how his career was shaped so much by the songwriting of John Phillips and compared to this story of Kenner. I reckon he’s a song writer who’s got to make a living by being a performer as they did then. You move on five years from when he started and Chris becomes Isaac Hayes. He’s writing just before Stax and the whole burgeoning soul movement, he’s rooted in r and b but clearly trying to head in a different direction. And that is shown with startling effect by what Wilson does to transform Land of a Thousand Dances. Same with when the Brits arrive and give it their treatment, and of course Dave Clark got his cues from what the boys from the north were doing with Isley Brothers tunes etc. And it works because the Kenner songs are damn good. Great writing again Dave.

    • Dave Stephens
      Mar 30, 2017

      Many thanks for your kind comments, Glenn. One Hit Wonders and normal Toppermosts are very different. For the second there’s a tacit assumption that the writer knows a lot about the artist(s) but for the first, the opposite could well be true. That was the case for my first three though less so on Kenner and McKenzie. But the surprises came thick and fast, and much enjoyment came from uncovering them. That left me with the task of conveying such enjoyment in text and clips/selections, which I hope I just about managed. With Kenner and Scott it was more a task of trying to persuade people to listen to artists who I feel are underrated ie. more like a normal T’most or one of mine anyway.

  6. Peter Viney
    Apr 2, 2017

    Hang on! What about The Nashville Teens? Their cover was the introduction to I Like It Like That for many people. It was the B-side of Tobacco Road, a great double-sided record.

    • Dave Stephens
      Apr 3, 2017

      Congratulations Peter. You’ve found one of yours truly’s blind spots. Mind you the Teens could have learned the words properly – “C’mon let me tell you where I sat” indeed!

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