His 1956 debut for Sol Rabinowitz’s Baton Records proved to be painfully prescient but many of his associates from that era claim that Kenner was framed for the rap that ended in a van ride to West Feliciana Parish.
The bulls saw it another way, and soon enough Kenner was being shipped to the Louisiana State Penitentiary where he “partied on the Ponderosa” with one James Booker.
Chris Kenner was born in 1929, just up the Mississippi from New Orleans in Jefferson Parish. Even at an early age he had a deep love for the bottle but that didn’t preclude his going to church and singing in local gospel band The Harmonising Four.
You’re not going to get rich and famous singing church music though, and Kenner quickly turned his energies towards the secular world. After moving to New Orleans as a teenager he found work as a longshoreman and began writing songs and showing up at auditions when record labels came to town.
The Baton Records experiment crashed and burned after one 45 but Kenner wasn’t about to shelve his dreams. He went looking for Dave Bartholomew the hitmaker at the time and as luck would have it he hit paydirt after auditioning Sick and Tired with the maestro recalling: ‘You got it!’ I didn’t need no more. Sure enough, we recorded it and it was a very big tune for Chris.”
Kenner’s affiliation with Imperial was brief as the label’s owner Lew Chudd held the hard-drinking r&b man in low esteem.
Chris Kenner’s manager Percy Stovall put paid to the singer’s love for drink thusly:
He would get so drunk he would forget the words the words to his song; they used to throw bottles at him.
After being dropped by Imperial, Kenner was at loose ends but did manage to get a couple 45s out on local labels Pontchartrain and Ron before catching another big break with Instant Records(formerly Valiant,) the new imprint from Joe Banashak and Irving Smith.
His deal with Instant also marked the beginning of a series of collaborations between him and Allen Toussaint.
They came out of the chute spitting fire with I Like It Like That. The cut barrelled to the no. 2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and was awarded best rock n roll record of 1961. That classic New Orleans stomper still sees heavy play at parties around southeast Louisiana nearly 60 years later.
It ended up selling 800k copies.
Dr John was impressed saying “Chris Kenner was one of the heaviest songwriters down there.”
But Kenner still had a longshoreman’s deep love for booze. His friend Earl King:
Chris was like Jimmy Reed… If he was sober it was abnormal. When he got money, he would put himself up in a hotel. Liquor and room service—that was his thing. He’d stay there until the money was gone. When he was broke, he was on the street and back to normal.
The 4th annual Grammy awards took notice of Chris in 1961 nominating him for best rock n roll record where he lost to Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again. Later that year Kenner would appear on American Bandstand and go on tour with the monstrously popular Coasters.
Fresh off the road and flush with success the suddenly hot r&b shouter went back into the studio, and after a couple misfires came out with Land of a 1000 Dances in 1962.
Dance songs were the thing back then with teenagers shimmying in living rooms across the US. Kenner was determined to dig into that goldmine by incorporating as many of the new dances as possible into one song.
While he didn’t get near a thousand, he did manage to namedrop the Watusi, the Pony, the Tango, the Slop, the Mashed Potato, the Chicken, the Alligator, the Twist, the Fly, the Jerk, the Fish, the Yo-Yo, the Sweet Pea, the Hand Jive, the Bop, and the Popeye.
It should’ve been a runaway hit but it stalled at no. 77 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Chris Kenner’s final downward spiral approached. He recorded several more songs for Instant as well as Uptown (a division of Tower) but success was becoming elusive.
Convicted of simple kidnapping and simple rape, Chris Kenner took the van ride to Angola on January 10th 1969.
After his release in ’71 he managed to put out just one 7″ record on Senator Jones’ Hep Me label before neighbors found him dead in a Jackson Avenue rooming house on January 25th 1976.
He was just 45 years old.
ed note: I Like It Like That was released on this day in 1961
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