The Mistake that Immortalized Cannibal & the Headhunters

In a career that included signature songs like “In the Midnight Hour” (which he wrote) and “Mustang Sally,” it’s surprising that Wilson Pickett’s greatest success was 1966’s “Land of 1000 Dances,” a cover of Cannibal & the Headhunters’ hit from the previous year.

Pickett recorded “Land of 1000 Dances” with producer Jerry Wexler at Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Pickett’s cover was a faster, grittier, rhythm and blues cover of the Headhunters’ song.

Cannibal & the Headhunters were East Los Angeles garage band rockers who used music to escape their tough neighborhood. Lead singer Frankie Garcia got his distinctive name because his brother was nicknamed “Big Cannibal.” Frankie, naturally, became “Little Cannibal.”

The band’s raucous sound was achieved by packing the recording studio with people, including the many girls who followed the group. Recording engineer Bruce Morgan told Ben Quinones that he put microphones in front of the girls, who chanted the “naa na na na naa” background vocals. Cannibal recorded his vocals from a separate sound booth.

But the Headhunters’ “Land of 1000 Dances” was itself a cover; the original was written and first recorded in 1962 by Chris Kenner, a hard-living longshoreman and R&B shouter who had previously hit with “I Like It Like That.”

Kenner, who had been a member of a gospel group, told John Broven the inspiration for “Land of 1000 Dances” came from the spiritual “Children Go Where I Send You.” Kenner, hoping to take part in the dance song craze, incorporated 16 dances into his original, including the Pony, the Mashed Potato, the Chicken, the Alligator, the Twist, the Watusi, the Fly, the Jerk, the Tango, the Yo-Yo, the Sweet Pea, the Hand Jive, the Bop, the Slop, the Fish and the Popeye. But for all the dances mentioned, the title of the track is never heard in the lyrics.

The famous “naa na na na naa” chant so identified with the song was not heard in Kenner’s original. The song’s most memorable phrase began because Kenner’s litany of dances was so difficult for Cannibal to remember. It was at a performance that Cannibal, who’d lost track of the many dances, instead substituted “naa na na na naa.” It sounded so good that the phrase stuck.

The song became a staple of garage bands as it was so easy to sing and play. Dozens of artists have covered the song, including Tina Turner, Patti Smith and Tom Jones. Cannibal’s “mistake” was included in the Pickett hit and became the song’s trademark.

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