The radio play, or audio documentary, is a media form that -- perhaps excepting NPR's well-modulated soundscapes for the intellectual commuter -- has slipped out of vogue with the sensory blitz born out of this age of digital cable and Internet video. It's a form that requires the listener to interact with it, and to engage the imagination in order to make the sonically sketched pictures come alive, the way that live dramas from the early Bakelite days of radio prompted listeners to imagine thunder or flying saucers out there in the ether at the suggestion of a rattled sheet of pressed tin or a theremin back in the studio. When they're done right, radio plays can be the most absorbing of any media because of that required participation. A producer lays out the information, and the listener fills in the blanks. Local freelance writer, music historian and longtime WWOZ-FM show host (and Gambit Weekly contributor) David Kunian consistently has shown himself to be a master of the form. His audio documentary projects over the years have looked at New Orleans musical treasures like Earl King (his two-hour 1998 Let the Good Times Roll documentary won awards from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters) and the legendary Dew Drop Inn nightclub. Now, he's turned his microphone on the New Orleans music scene -- probably the biggest small town in the world -- to craft an audible portrait of a genuine legend of the Crescent City sound.
Songwriter and performer Chris Kenner's story follows the familiar cycle of so many New Orleans musicians -- brief fame and a powerful legacy bookending a tragic personal life. He's hard to beat in terms of the sweeping inverse ratio between the popularity of his songs and the benefits he actually reaped from them. Kenner wrote the ubiquitous party song "I Like It Like That," the easy-sliding love song "Something You Got," and "Sick and Tired" in the '50s and '60s, while signed to both of local music magnate Joe Banashak's star-studded New Orleans labels, Minit and Instant Records, which were also home to artists like Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman, Chick Carbo and Kunian's interviewees Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint. Most importantly, Kenner penned one of the most iconic songs in the entire American musical lexicon -- the exuberant "Land of 1000 Dances," the song from which the documentary takes its title.
You Got to Know How to Pony: The Story of Chris Kenner is a starkly simple pastiche that lays clips of Kenner's most famous songs against reminiscences from friends and contemporaries like Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Robert Parker and James "Sugarboy" Crawford, that sketch out the high points and the low. Kenner grew up near Melpomene and LaSalle streets in Central City. His playmates at a young age were Robert Parker ("Barefootin'") and Sugarboy Crawford ("Jock-A-Mo"). One of the best parts of listening is imagining the three future shapers of the New Orleans R&B sound playing together at the Jackson Avenue YMCA. In the interviews, there are funny moments and pedestrian ones -- sometimes both at once -- when Kenner's old friends remember how he'd book multiple gigs in one weekend night on Broadway's frat row, only changing his shirt in between shows, or how his feet were freakishly small for a large man. Hearing master writer and arranger Allen Toussaint work to describe the magic inherent in Kenner's songwriting is also powerful -- the laid-back romance, nascent funk and powerfully evocative sense of place in the simple lyrics.
Still, a true picture of Kenner remains elusive, and it's hard to figure out why until the documentary's conclusion, when several people, including Toussaint, describe the day Kenner came to Toussaint's Gert Town home with the lyrics to "Land of 1000 Dances." The song, which was covered repeatedly over the rest of the 20th century by artists from Wilson Pickett to Patti Smith, is almost religious (Kenner's version, in fact, started with a gospel-like introduction that came from a rewritten, repurposed old Negro spiritual) and almost transcendent in its simplicity. It also could easily be the best dance song ever written. The song had so much of its own steam that it defies association with its city, its writer and anyone who performs it, and exists as a kind of perfect icon. It was the high point of Kenner's career. After it was released in 1963, he never scored a success anywhere near to it. Many other artists recorded his songs, but his increasing alcoholism and poor money management left him, finally, penniless and alone. When he died in January of 1976 at the age of 45, it took several days for the body to be found. "Land of 1000 Dances" lives on -- even though hardly anyone does the pony, the twist or the mashed potato anymore -- but Kenner himself remains a cipher.
You Got to Know How to Pony premieres on WWOZ-FM 90.7 at noon and 10 p.m. Thu., April 12, and runs at noon and 10 p.m. Wed., April 18. The premiere party for You Got to Know How to Pony and also for Total Funk Shenanigans, Kunian's new documentary about Michael Ward, is at the Maple Leaf at 10 p.m. Sat., April 14.
- Chris Kenner wrote several legendary New Orleans R&B hits.