September 20, 1966
“Land of 1000 Dances” by Wilson Pickett
#1 on the Billboard Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles chart, September 17–23, 1966
After years spent touring the soul circuit, often as an anonymous member of a vocal group, Wilson Pickett finally found success in the mid-’60s with a series of explosive recordings cut at Stax Studios in Memphis. Hits like “In the Midnight Hour,” “Ninety Nine and a Half (Won’t Do),” and “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)” — the last of which took its subtitle from the Tennessee studio’s nickname — not only made Pickett a pop star; they also raised Stax’s visibility.
Rather than taking advantage of the studio’s increased profile, however, Stax president Jim Stewart chose to close ranks. Tired of outside acts profiting from the studio’s acoustics, songwriters, and house band (Booker T. and the M.G.’s), Stewart banned all non-Stax/Volt artists from recording at the label’s studio. Pickett, who was signed to Atlantic Records, was forced to abandon his home studio, and possibly the sound that had made him a success.
Fortunately, Atlantic A&R man Jerry Wexler had found another studio about 150 miles southeast of Memphis, featuring a backing band every bit as soulful as the M.G.’s. FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, had already given the world the hits “Steal Away” by Jimmy Hughes and “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge.
Wexler believed that if anyone could replicate the chemistry Pickett had with Stax and the M.G.’s, it would be FAME and the Swampers — although he brought along Stax’s favorite brass section, the Memphis Horns, to hedge his bets. Wexler’s gamble instantly paid out: Pickett’s very first recording at FAME, “Land of 1000 Dances,” became his biggest-ever pop hit, peaking at #6 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B charts.
“Land of 1000 Dances” already had a storied history before Pickett cut it in 1966. The song had been written four years earlier by New Orleans singer Chris Kenner, best known for his 1961 hit “I Like It Like That.” Kenner’s version features a gospel-style spoken intro that was omitted from covers, leaving the title’s origin a mystery: “I’m gon’ send you to that land / the land of a thousand dances.” It’s more languidly paced than subsequent versions, and while it doesn’t pack the names of a thousand dances, Kenner lists about 16 — nearly three times as many as Pickett would manage. Kenner’s “Land of 1000 Dances” rode the success of “I Like It Like That” to #77 on the pop charts, but there was little indication that it was a classic in the making.
That changed in 1965, when a Chicano band from East Los Angeles called Cannibal and the Headhunters revived Kenner’s song, trimming down the lyrics and tightening it up with a rock ‘n’ roll energy. Most importantly, the Headhunters’ lead singer, Frankie Garcia, added a simple, wordless hook: “Na, na na na na / Na na na na, na na na, na na na / Na na na na.” This hook returned “Land of 1000 Dances” to the pop charts and made it a Top 40 hit, peaking at #30. That “na na na na na” would turn up in nearly every subsequent version of the song, including Pickett’s the following year.
Pickett added a hook of his own to the mix as well: the memorable “One Two Three! / (horn stab) / One Two Three!” intro. (Pickett is essentially counting to six, the same number of dances he mentions in the song: the pony, the mashed potato, the alligator, the twist, the watusi, and the jerk.)
The Headhunters may have pepped up “Land of 1000 Dances,” but Pickett, the Swampers, and the Memphis Horns send it to the stratosphere. Of special note are Junior Lowe’s virtuosic opening bass run, Roger Hawkins’ primal funk drums, and Andrew Love’s party sax break, but entire band is one cohesive soul machine, propelled by Pickett’s grunts, ad libs, and sly yet powerful vocals.
This “Land of 1000 Dances” may have been the third to chart in as many years, but its magic was undeniable. From its origins as a list song designed to remind people of Kenner’s previous hit (down to lifting an entire verse from “I Like It Like That”), Pickett and crew had salvaged the best bits and pieces from Kenner’s and Cannibal and the Headhunters’ versions and added their own flair. “Land of 1000 Dances” now sounded the way it was meant to, over and done with in under two-and-a-half minutes, presumably because few dancers could match its energy for much longer than that.
On a wider scale, its success solidified Atlantic Records’ relationship with FAME Studios. Not only would Pickett record several more hits there, including “Mustang Sally,” “Funky Broadway,” and “Hey Jude,” but in early 1967, Wexler would send the young Aretha Franklin there to lay down “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You),” the song that revitalized her career. As with his run at Stax, Pickett’s sessions at FAME didn’t just give him hits — he also helped put his studio on the map.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.