Land of a Thousand Versions

My high school required students to attend cheering sessions (“pep rallies”) for the football team. The only redeeming quality of a pep rally was the school’s excellent marching band. Accidentally they educated me in one of the great pillars of rhythm & blues: Chris Kenner’s ‘Land of 1,000 Dances.’ The marching-band version (like this one) has no words, but then most people’s first impression of the song is only the NAs. (If you don’t know what I mean about NA, keep reading.)

New Orleans shouter Chris Kenner had already banked a hit with ‘I Like It Like That‘ when he penned a completely NA-free ‘Land of 1,000 Dances’ in 1962. His creation is distinctly wordy, in fact, cataloging all that month’s trendy dances, from the Twist and the Bop to the Sweet Pea and the Hand Jive. Kenner’s original puts a positively evangelical spin on all this dancing:

“Children, go where I send you!” he proclaims at the start.
“Where will you send me?” the chorus queries over a soft gospel piano.
“I’m gonna send you to that land – ” Kenner declares.

Now, if Kenner were, say, the Kingston Trio, there’d be no question what “that land” was – a sacred Promised Land of Biblical milk and honey. Kenner’s adoption of the gospel call and response, though, suggests that milk, honey, Paul, Silas, the four that stood at the door and so on aren’t much good without a dance floor. And, a few austere sects aside, who’d want to go to heaven if there was no dancing there?

” – the Land of a thousand dances!”

(By the way, you’ve got to know how to pony like Bony Moronie, Miss Moronie being the star of this Larry Williams classic.)

Sadly, ‘Land’s’ earliest fans didn’t hear the gospel call, since it was cut for length on the single release. Still, something of churchly power must’ve lingered about the song. Though Kenner’s side reached only #77 on the main US chart, it became a staple for countless musicians, even unto my high school marching band.

Hearing the call right now? Here’s the full playlist.

At first, Kenner seemed anxious about the song’s success, trading away partial royalties to Fats Domino in return for inclusion on the big man’s LP Here Comes Fats Domino. Domino’s version is less inspired than Kenner’s and made even less of a splash.

Then two other major artists picked up Kenner’s recording or Fats’ and put their own stamp on the tune. Rufus Thomas was Memphis’ Crown Prince of Dance, with such icons-to-be as ‘Walking the Dog.’ The Miracles, not yet featuring Smokey Robinson’s name in front, included it on their 1963 LP Doin’ Mickey’s Monkey. Both versions stick close to Kenner’s single, but with wildly different lead voices.

A few months later, a hot young Latino group sought the Promised Land where so many others have: in Los Angeles. Cannibal and the Headhunters waxed their version and killed it live in ’65. Of course, by then the Yo-Yo and the Slop were old news. Myth tells us that lead singer Frankie “Cannibal” Garcia lost track of the dances and stuck in NA instead. If so, it was an inspired scat, to be copied and digested by all future covers. The Headhunters’ ecstatic single rightly reached #30 on the Billboard chart. Cannibal and group opened for the Beatles across America in summer 1965, then faded from the charts – but they were the face that launched a thousand discs.

Nineteen sixty-five saw at least five other distinct takes on the song:

  • All-round entertainer Johnny Rivers (the future ‘Secret Agent Man’) included it Meanwhile Back at the Whiskey À Go Go, in a freeform version inattentive to the lyrics.
  • Danny and the Memories looked and sounded a bit clean-cut for a band later to morph into Neil Young’s Crazy Horse.
  • Thee Midniters snagged the perfect mid-Sixties groove.
  • By October 1965, England’s The Action got in on the action with their winning Mod sound, sophisticated, a little spacey, and dominated by a sexy new countermelody.
  • Things were lost and gained in translation to Australia: The Cherokees sped up the song and sang LA rather than NA.

From there, it’s but a short step to one of the most appealing number ones of all time, by Wilson Pickett, released 1966. Excitement’s high with a hyped-up tempo and a kicking horn section in place of any laid-back “oh yeahs” – plus constant demands for audience participation reminiscent of, yes, a gospel preacher asking for testimony. If you’ve only heard one recording, you’ve heard this one – it made #1 on the R&B chart, #6 on the overall US chart, and #22 in the UK.

  • Next, Pickett’s Stax Records rival Otis Redding closed the British television program Ready! Steady! Go! in true spirit-driven form, all but speaking in tongues.
  • The Kingsmen (you know their ‘Louie, Louie’) turned in an oddly tuned nick of the Action’s version on their LP Up and Away.
  • The Walker Brothers looked scrumptious lip-synching on German TV. (Note LA, not NA – have they been listening to the Cherokees?)
  • By 1967 Little Richard, no stranger to gospel stylings, tried to overtake Pickett literally via the tempo (appropriately, on his LP The Explosive Little Richard).
  • I wonder if the German group Soul Caravan borrowed their version from the Walker Brothers for their 1967 LP Get in High. They also lifted Elmore James’ ‘Shake Your Moneymaker’ and Muddy Waters’ ‘Got My Mojo Workin” for good measure.
  • Like my high school, the Young Rascals didn’t bother with the lyrics on their 1967 album Collections.
  • You bet knickers got thrown at Tom Jones, who worked himself into almost as much of a lather on television as Otis Redding did. (He also included the song on his 1967 LP Live at the Talk of the Town.)
  • And Bill Haley and the Comets sounded just as square as you’d expect from folks who went out of style a decade before their 1968 The King of Rock LP.
  • The completely-not-at-all-racist group Electric Indian should’ve stuck to singing NA in 1969. (Is that ‘Chopsticks’ I hear in there? Should they be excused on the grounds of evident drug use?)
  • With Roy Orbison (on his Big O album, 1969) I thought results might be painful – but he nailed it here live. That voice: we shall not hear its like again.
  • The Dynamics hooked it to the big funk sound of the late Sixties.
  • Around the time Rufus Thomas was performing at Wattstax in Los Angeles, the neighboring Watts Little Angel Band headed again for that promised land, with remarkable results (and a sample of Gary “U.S.” Bonds). WATTS up with these kids? Check this out.
  • Nobody, even Otis Redding, could do it with more soul than Tina Turner, despite the…distractions on 1969 television. Oh, yeah!
  • Once Ms. Turner proved it wasn’t just a boys’ song, Patti Smith gave a whole new meaning to that “pony” thing on her essential 1975 album Horses.
  • In 1980 the song brought the Grateful Dead together with the unexpected Joan Baez, who also included it on her 1983 Live in Europe album.
  • At the other end of the political dance floor, Ted Nugent screamed it in 1981.
  • The J. Geils Band revived the Pickett feel the following year.
  • Can’t forget the extremely peculiar World Wrestling Federation‘s The Wrestling Album (1985)…
  • …or the only slightly less peculiar Mummies on The Mummies vs. The Wolfmen (1991).
  • Stax ax man Steve Cropper dug for the roots in his nifty 1988 instrumental.
  • If you haven’t seen the 2012 film The Sapphires, let this super-shiny girl group sound shoot you there right now.

Almost nothing in this cover collage echoes Chris Kenner’s injunction to go where he sends us – to the Promised Land, the Land of 1,000 Dances. But they take the listener there all the same.* Perhaps it’s true, as another prophetic popster put it, that God is a DJ.

*except maybe the World Wrestling thing. Those guys are just weird.

Spot an inaccuracy in this post? It’s probably an honest mistake. Drop me a line and let me know.

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