Born Christopher Kenner, 25 December 1928, Kenner, Louisiana
Chris Kenner was an important figure on the New Orleans music scene, both as a singer and a songwriter. He had his biggest success in the first half of the 1960s, especially with “I Like It Like That” and “Land Of 1,000 Dances”. But he ended up as a tragic figure who didn’t know how to handle his fame and his money.
Kenner was born on Christmas Day, 1929, in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans. Valuable singing experience was acquired in his father’s church choir and later in a number of gospel groups. After moving to New Orleans to work as a longshoreman, Kenner began to write secular songs and switched over to R&B, influenced by Willie Mabon and Joe Turner.
His first record, “Don’t Let Her Pin That Charge On Me”/“Grandma’s House”, was released in February 1956 on the Baton label. In spite of a good Billboard review, the disc didn’t sell and Kenner continued to work on the docks. Dave Bartholomew gave him the chance to record for Imperial in April 1957. The resulting single, Kenner’s self-penned “Sick and Tired”, was a # 13 R&B hit. In February 1958 the song was covered by Fats Domino, who took it to # 22 on the pop charts. Despite this success, Chris had only one more release on Imperial (“I Have News For You”/“Will You Be Mine”). Imperial’s owner, Lew Chudd, didn’t like him and couldn’t handle him.
After one-off records for the Ron (“Rocket To the Moon”) and Pontchartrain labels (“Don’t Make No Noise”) in 1960, Kenner was signed to Joe Banashak’s Valiant label in early 1961. Allen Toussaint became his producer and would play an important role in his career. Kenner's first session for his new label resulted in the two-part single “I Like It Like That”, a repetitive, but infectious number. Soon after its release in March, though, Banashak had to change the name of his Valiant label (to Instant Records), owing to conflict with the identically named Los Angeles label. This may have been a factor in the slow start of the record, but by August it was sitting comfortably at the # 2 slot on both the pop and the R&B charts, only being kept from the top by the biggest hit of 1961, “Tossin’ and Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis.
Kenner received a Grammy nomination for “I Like It Like That”, appeared on American Bandstand and toured with the Coasters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Jackie Wilson and Roy Hamilton. Unfortunately, Chris was ill-suited for rock n roll stardom. His drinking and spending sprees were legendary. He constantly frustrated promoters by missing gigs and forgetting the words to his songs. The next two Instant singles, “Packin’ Up” and “Something You Got”, sold few copies outside out of New Orleans, though “Something You Got” would later be widely covered and was a hit for Alvin Robinson, the Ramsey Lewis Trio and the duo of Chuck Jackson & Maxine Brown in 1964-65.
In 1962 Kenner wrote and recorded “Land Of 1,000 Dances”, based on an old spiritual (“Children Go Where I Send You”). Initially it didn’t sell. In April 1963 Fats Domino agreed to record the song (and also “Packin’ Up” and “Something You Got") in exchange for half of the song’s royalties. However, the first charting version of “Land Of 1,000 Dances” was Kenner’s original, peaking at # 77 in the summer of 1963. In 1965 it became a # 30 hit for Cannibal and the Headhunters, who were the first to add the “na na na na na” hook (by accident, when the lead singer forgot the lyrics). Many others have covered the song, including Tom Jones, Ike & Tina Turner, Little Richard and Roy Orbison, but the artist with the biggest success was Wilson Pickett. His version of “Land Of 1,000 Dances” went to # 1 R&B in 1966 and # 6 pop (Pickett’s biggest pop hit). Other artists who scored hits with covers of Kenner’s tunes were Alvin Robinson (“Something You Got”, # 52, 1964) and The Dave Clark Five (“I Like It Like That”, # 7, 1965). As a result , Kenner was on the receiving end of a tremendous amount of BMI songwriters’ royalties, but it would all be squandered within a few days.
Apart from a brief excursion to Uptown Records in 1964, Kenner continued to record for Instant until 1968, but there were no further hits. Throughout much of his career Chris was beset by serious alcohol problems. He had a reputation as a poor and unreliable live performer. In 1968 he was convicted of statutary rape of a minor (though he was probably framed) and had to serve three years in Angola prison, alongside James Booker. Released from prison, he attempted a comeback, which never came. Chris Kenner was found dead in his apartment in New Orleans in January 1976. The cause was a heart attack, triggered by his alcohol problems.
More info : http://www.waybackattack.com/kennerchris.html
Discography (singles) : http://www.45cat.com/artist/chris-kenner
CD : The best career overview is “I Like It Like That : The Definitive Chris Kenner Collection 1956-1968" (Shout Records, 2012, UK). 29 tracks.
Acknowledgements : Jeff Hannusch, John Broven, Wayne Jancik.
Dik, August 2015
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