|Sick And Tired||Imperial X5448|
|I Like It Like That||Instant VR-3229|
|Packin' Up||Instant 3234|
|Something You Got||Instant 3237|
|Land Of 1000 Dances||Instant 3252|
|What's Wrong With Life||Instant 3263|
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.
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.
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.