This week we’re headed way down yonder to New Orleans to take a look at the life and work of Chris Kenner. I can’t say for sure, but since he was born in Kenner, Louisiana, a few miles west of the Crescent City, it seems likely that Kenner adopted the name of his hometown for professional purposes.
Kenner was born in Kenner in 1929, but by the time he was in his teens he was living in New Orleans and working on the waterfront. He began his singing career with a gospel group called the Harmonising Four. By 1956 he had signed with Baton Records and released his first single, “Grandma’s House.” But it took a move to Imperial Records the following year to enable Kenner to find his first success.
At Imperial, Kenner worked with Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew. He had a brief chart run with a song the three had written called “Sick & Tired,” in 1957. Domino had an even bigger hit with his version of the song. Unfortunately Kenner’s problem with alcohol convinced Imperial to terminate his contract after a couple of years.
It was the song “I Like It Like That” the brought Kenner back. The two-part single was written by Kenner and Allen Toussaint, and featured Toussaint on piano. It was released by Valiant Records in 1960. The single did so well in New Orleans that Minit Records decided to pick it up and release it for national distribution on their Instant imprint.
“I Like It Like That” turned into a huge national hit, reaching #2 on on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961, and achieving the same level on the R&B chart. The record was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock and Roll Recording. The follow-up, “A Very True Story,” didn’t do as well. Kenner’s song “Something You Got” wasn’t much of a hit for him, but had success a few years later in versions by Alvin Robinson, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio, and as a duet by Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown. “I Like It Like That” also had a second life, as a 1965 hit by the Dave Clark Five.
“Land of 1,000 Dances” became a hit for Kenner in 1963, but once again it was an even bigger hit in cover versions by Cannibal and the Headhunters, and Wilson Pickett. With four of his songs enjoying success in cover versions, Kenner was not lacking for income. What he was lacking was the ability to manage his money, a problem that was exacerbated by his drinking problem.
By the late ’60s Kenner was in trouble. Things got so back that he ended up in the notorious Angola Penitentiary in 1968. He served four years there. Sadly the prison stay did nothing to curb Kenner’s insatiable thirst for booze. He died of a heart attack, largely forgotten, in 1976. Chris Kenner was only 46 years-old at the time of his death.