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The land of a thousand dances

In which the man from New Orleans remembers some prelapsarian years reflected in the music of the times, "when “shaking your moneymaker” did not suggest manipulating one’s PAC"

Jim Gabour
23 April 2017

 

The Evening News.  My television is again awash with a blithering politician, blissfully framed by a network camera operator in center-screen, a tiny funnel-shaped mouth raving about the next country it may bomb.  A quick edit to the Capitol building, and the first soulless rant is immediately followed by thick, gushing platitudes as another elected official’s representative owns up to the fact that his minions have photoshopped separate pictures to make it seem that two mortal enemies of his boss were conspiratorially shaking hands.   He is asked why he falsified the record.  “All pictures are photoshopped these days,” is his answer.  

Lies and demagoguery, of course, have indeed become the norm in 2017.  “It’s dirty out there,” said one US Senator after the recent “nuclear” vote.  Indeed.

When was the last time this country felt “clean” or anything approaching “innocent” to you?  Sometime after the bitter memory of WWII began to fade, and before the horrors of Viet Nam set in?  Yes.  I look back half a century ago, when “shaking your moneymaker” did not suggest manipulating one’s PAC.  

Music had something to do with it.  Music and motion.  

A seminal sound of that time emerged from the suburbs of New Orleans, a repetitive and flimsy bit of melody and lyric that set the world scene in happy triviality.  Not from superstars Fats Domino or Lee Dorsey, and only indirectly involving the late musical kingmaker Allen Toussaint.  This was a tune that originated with a now-obscure singer/composer named Chris Kenner, who was living without a trace of irony in Kenner, Louisiana.  Kenner moved into town from a previous immersion in the gospel choirs of farm country, hoping to find a living in music.  

 

After a number of tries at writing and singing his own material, he physically moved into New Orleans proper to collaborate with Toussaint, and at age 29 had his first bonafide hit (#2 in Billboard) when Fats Domino covered his tune “I Like it Like That”.  

Interestingly enough, Kenner’s ditties were bigger hits for two Anglo boy bands in the same year, 1965:  Dave Clark Five for “I Like it Like That” and The Moody Blues for “Something You Got.”  Fats got the same treatment when lily-white Pat Boone had a mega-hit with an unthanking cover of Fats’ own “Blueberry Hill.”

Methinks Boone probably a Republican, Domino a for-sure Democrat.  Fats, however, did not refuse royalties on the larger hit.

But as far as signifying the age, the 1965 tune that made Kenner famous, and the world a better place, was “Land of a Thousand Dances.”  He had written and recorded it in 1963, then promised Fats co-authorship, and half the royalties, if Fats would cover it.  But it didn’t take off until two years later, when Cannibal & the Headhunters, a Chicano rock band out of East Los Angeles, added their “na na” version.  The “na-nas” were an accident, an impromptu riff when Frankie "Cannibal" Garcia, lead singer of Cannibal and the Headhunters, forgot the lyrics.

“Nah nahnahnah nah,
nahnahnah nah
nahnah nah nanhnah nah,
Do you know how to pony?”

Just goes to show how significant Kenner’s lyrics were:  three-quarters of them are lost, and the song becomes an even bigger hit.  There are actually only sixteen dances mentioned of the Thousand, but listeners lived in “The Land of a Thousand Dances,” were happy there, and proud of the mindless motion it provoked.  What else mattered?

The tune had its own life, the best-known version being Wilson Pickett's 1966 recording on his album of that year, which became an R&B #1 and his own biggest-ever pop hit.

On the other end of the musical spectrum, or maybe the furthest extension of the same, alt-folk-rocker Patti Smith covered the tune on her legendary “Horses” album in 1975.

But the age of innocence was long over by then.

In 1968 Chris Kenner was convicted of statutory rape of a minor and spent three years in Louisiana's Angola prison.  Five years after his release, Kenner died from a heart attack in 1976, at the age of 46.  “Cannibal” passed in 1996, at 49.

But the landmark hits of the decade still ring of its lack of concern about “important” issues.  People were there to dance, not worry about life.  I list a partial honor roll of the decade, still poetic after all these years:

  • The Twist (Chubby Checker, August 1960; became a #1 hit all over again in 1962)
  • The Pony (Chubby Checker's "Pony Time", February 1961)
  • The Bristol Stomp (The Dovells, September 1961)
  • The Mashed Potatoes (originally an R&B hit for James Brown under the name Nat Kendrick and the Swans in February 1960, made popular mainly by Dee Dee Sharp in March 1962 with "Mashed Potato Time")
  • The Watusi (The Orlons' "Wah-Watusi," June 1962) 
  • The Loco-Motion (Little Eva, July 1962) 
  • The Monster Mash (Bobby “Boris” Pickett: “...it was a graveyard smash...”,  and a #1 Billboard hit, 1962)
  • The Hully Gully (The Dovells' "Hully Gully Baby," September 1962)
  • Limbo (“Limbo Rock”, Chubby Checker, 1962, preceded by an instrumental version by The Champs, 1961 – derived from a Trinidadian folk dance)
  • The Hitch Hike (Marvin Gaye, March 1963)
  • The Monkey (Major Lance's "The Monkey Time", and the Miracles' "Mickey's Monkey," August 1963) 
  • The Dog (Rufus Thomas' "Walking The Dog," November 1963)
  • The Harlem Shuffle (Bob & Earl, December 1963)
  • The Swim (Bobby Freeman, "C'mon and Swim," July 1964, derived from The Chicken, but also inspired the Frug)
  • The Jerk (The Larks’ “The Jerk”, 1964; The Miracles, "Come on Do the Jerk", 1964; “Cool Jerk”, The Capitals 1966)
  • Barefootin’ (“Barefootin”, Robert Parker, 1966 – the ultimate NOLA dance)
  • The Alligator (This modestly obscene dance was the easiest way to get kicked out of any chaperoned sock hop.  The Us Four issued "The Alligator" in 1967, though the dance had been in existence since the mid-fifties, and was first revitalized by “Land of a Thousand Dances”, then had another surge in 1978, with its appearance in the “Animal House” movie.)The Tighten Up (“Tighten Up”, Archie Bell & the Drells, 1968 – Houston).  This anthem may well be on its way to a revival at the GOP national convention 2016.

I was, also none-too-ironically, proficient only at “The Jerk”.

I say this as I see that the seventh, and latest, edition of “Just Dance 2017” has again hit store shelves in 2016 to mild but still overwhelmingly successful sales.  This is a game/song-collection/subscription service that requires a dancer to stand alone in front of a TV and mimic the actions of an animated figure on a screen.  Which will then somehow electronically rate the dancer’s performance.

Numerous professional politico-choreographical pundits have assured me that the Yo-Yo, the Sweet Pea, the Hand Jive, the Slop, the Bop, the Fish, and the Popeye will not be featured at this year’s White House fetes.

Their inclusion would change politics as we know it, I am sure.  In the Land of a Thousand Dances.  

A much cleaner place.

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