237: Wilbert Harrison, ‘Kansas City’

Posted by on Aug 26, 2020 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week |

coolWhat’s the coolest song you know?

I’m talking profoundly cool, street-smart, zoot suit, cigarette hanging out of the mouth, fedora rakishly tipped over the brow, dark shades keeping that ol’ world outside outside.

I’m talking so cool that there ain’t a need in the world gonna get you to work up a sweat. Not a wad of bills, not a plate of ribs, not even a loveseat full of your sweetie.

I got one for you.

In 1952, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were two 19-year old Jewish boys trying to write black songs for the black audience in LA. Their first song to hit the charts was Charles Brown’s ‘Hard Times’, which hit #8 on the R&B charts (there were segregated hit charts in those days, Virginia). Not bad, but not enough to put kosher grits on the table.

They set out to write a geographically specific but musically traditional blues for Little Willie Littlefield. Believe it or not, for LA circa 1952, Kansas City, with its bars and bordellos (not to mention Count Basie and Charlie Parker) was the epicenter of cool.

Little Willie Littlefield

Little Willie Littlefield

Little Willie (b. 1931) was a teenage wonder in LA, bridging boogie-woogie and R&B and even rock and roll, with his 1949 his ‘It’s Midnight’ popularizing the right-hand triplets which would inspire pianists such as Fats Domino. For 50 years he toured the chitlin circuit and played clubs in the San Francisco area. In 2000 he took a 5-year break to fish in Holland (“I know every herring in Holland by name”).

Lyricist Leiber played a standard 12-bar blues for melodist Stoller:

Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come.
Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come.
They got a crazy way of loving there and I’m gonna get me some.

Gonna be standing on the corner of 12th Street and Vine
Gonna be standing on the corner of 12th Street and Vine
With my Kansas City baby and my bottle of Kansas City wine.

I’m gonna pack my troubles, leave at the crack of dawn.
I’m gonna pack my troubles, leave at the crack of dawn.
My old lady will be sleeping and she won’t know where I’ve gone.

Well, I might take a plane, I might take a train,
But if I have to walk, I’m going just the same.

Mike-Stoller-Elvis-Presle-007The third verse was quickly dropped, and ‘crazy way of loving’ became ‘some crazy little women’. Oh, yeah!

Mike Stoller: I wanted a melody that you could recognize if it were played instrumentally. “No”, said Jerry, “It’s inauthentic.”
“The feeling is still authentic,” I argued. “And that’s all that counts.”

The hip melody stayed, the title got jazzed up to “K.C. Lovin’”. They taught the song to Little Willie, and it went nowhere.

They were a bit more successful with ‘Hound Dog’ for Big Mama Thornton (1953), ‘Love Me’ for Willy & Ruth (1954), and ‘Ruby Baby’ for the unknown young Drifters (1956), but only in ‘the race market’. The big money was of course in the suburbs, where the white kids were just starting to dabble in that black music. These early flops soon became a gold mine: Elvis’ ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Love Me’ (1956), and Dion’s ‘Ruby Baby’ (1963).

It wouldn’t be long before they began their string of hits made directly for the pop chart without the detour into authenticity: ‘Searchin’ and ‘Young Blood’ for the Coasters and ‘Jailhouse Rock’ for Elvis (1956-7). We had the pleasure of walking through Leiber and Stoller’s brilliant career of songwriting and producing back in SoTW 042, with The Coasters’ great ‘Yakety Yak’.

Wilbert Harrison

Wilbert Harrison

And then in 1959, at the height of their creative powers and commercial success (4 songs in the Top 10), what should resurface but a remake of Little Willie’s song by Wilbert Harrison (b. 1929)?

A Harlem entrepreneur named Bobby Robinson spent $40 on a recording session for the obscure sometimes-bluesman, sometimes calypsomon pianist-vocalist Wilbert, with Wild Jimmy Spruill backing him on guitar.

Wilbert pretty much copied Little Willie’s reading of the tune, and it went to #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts.

Wilbert had a minor hit in 1969 with his own ‘Let’s Work Together’, which was later a hit for Canned Heat, and later as ‘Let’s Stick Together’ for Bryan Ferry. So I guess we could call Wilbert a ‘One-and-a-half Hit Wonder’, and there the story ends.

Beatles, Little Richard

Beatles, Little Richard

Except it don’t.

In November, 1955, Little Richard recorded ‘Kansas City’ twice. Take 1 (released only in 1970) rather followed Little Willie’s reading of the song, albeit speeded up and Little Richardized to a restrained degree. Take 2 was all Mr Penniman, complete with hey-hey-hey’s and call-and-response backing vocals. It reached only #95 in the US, but a respectable #26 in the UK. This version just might ring a few familiar bells for many of you. Then in 1956, the right Reverend Penniman recorded ‘Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey’, basically an amplification of his (second) treatment of ‘Kansas City’.

4 Cool Cats

4 Cool Cats

Young John and Paul picked up the Little Richard version, married it with his ‘Hey-Hey’, and gave The Beatles one of their most highly-charged early covers (here’s their version from 1962, Hamburg). Check out this video from the very height of Beatlemania (Shindig, 1964) singing ‘Kansas City / Hey-Hey-Hey!’ live, with Beatle Paul at his very cutest. But if it’s bombast and wrinkles you need, here’s Sir Paul employing ‘Kansas City / Hey-Hey-Hey!’ as an encore in 1997 with a little help from his friends Phil Collins, Carl Perkins, Mark Knopfler, Sting, Elton John, and Eric Clapton.

dexter-p1139-750pxThe song’s been covered literally hundreds of times, by everyone from Jimmie Witherspoon and Little Milton to Ann-Margret and Pat Boone.

We were talking about cool. About not needin’ nuttin’. Well, Wilbert’s treatment is about as self-sufficient as anything I can think of. Oh, yeah, there’s this big, burning need to get back to his KC lover. He might take a train or a plane, but if he has to, he’ll walk all the way to Kansas City.

The only problem is that that Wibert’s song’s really a very cool shuffle; and at that rate, it’s going to take him a very long time to get there. Well, no hurry. Wilbert’s not running anywhere. Heck, Leiber and Stoller never made it there till 34 years after they wrote the song.

So if anyone says, “C’mon, Wilbert, pick up them feet, you shiftless shuffler you! The lady’s a-waiting!”, you just answer, “Hey, I ain’t sweating or fretting or agitating for no woman.”

Not even one from Kansas City.

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Mark L. Levinson
Apr 28, 2016 at 3:01 pm

I thought I read an explanation once, but I’ve forgotten: What does he shout at 1:24? Mustang? Muskrat? Mustache? Must have?

Recruiting Animal
Apr 29, 2016 at 12:54 am

This is a great article. I loved the links. But am I bad? I like Love Me by Elvis and Ruby Baby by Dion better than the originals and I like Take 1 of Kansas City by Little Richard over Take 2.

Recruiting Animal
Aug 28, 2020 at 2:22 pm

4 years later I still think this was great. I don’t know if I followed all of the links last time.

Maggie Evans
Aug 28, 2020 at 4:35 pm

This is one of my all time favorite recordings. I love everything about it.
Many worthy covers but this is the one and only for me. I love the way he sort of speaks the lyrics instead of singing them, And if I have to walk, I’m goin’ just the same….
And the shuffle, far and away the best feeling for this. He is Too Cool for School! Thank you for sharing, I always knew this was a great record, you validate those feelings.

Aug 29, 2020 at 7:05 pm

When I used to occasionally sing the song, I’d sing “I might take a plane, I might take take a train, but if I have to walk I’m gonna fly there just the same, going to…”

Ellen G Levitt
Sep 3, 2020 at 9:21 pm

i now can’t stop singing that song…

John Kehe
Sep 4, 2020 at 2:41 pm

Inarguably McCartney’s best vocal on the Fabs’ version. Instant, involuntary grin and singalong machine. As much as I like Wilbert’s and Richard’s versions, Paul and company’s exuberant, half-crazed, uptempo romp is my cuppa jo.



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