May 22, 2017

The man who sang “Kansas City” first

Britain's Ace Records has reissued the seminal "K.C. Loving" in this set.

Britain’s Ace Records has reissued the seminal “K.C. Loving” in this set.

While the song “Kansas City” is officially credited to rock ’n’ roll demigods Lieber and Stoller, the first man to record it, then-20-year-old Little Willie Littlefield, often claimed in the ensuing years to have written it himself.

It’s not hard to believe Littlefield had at least a hand in writing the song. After all, it was he who was hanging out on the corner of 12th Street and Vine in 1952, not Lieber and Stoller. They apparently never visited until 1986, to receive a key to the city.

From The Call June 20, 1952.

From The Call June 20, 1952.

According to articles and items in the “Running the Scales” column by Bee Flatt in The Call, Little Willie played the Orchid Room, located at the intersection made famous in the song lyric, in June and July 1952,
From The Call column "Running the Scales" by Bee Flatt, July 28, 1952.

From The Call column “Running the Scales” by Bee Flatt, July 28, 1952.

immediately before heading out to L.A. for an August recording session helmed by Ralph Bass. Those songs included “K.C. Loving,” released later that year on the Federal label.

In retrospect, “K.C. Loving” swings. It’s a happy meeting of boogie-woogie, jazzy saxophone and proto-rock ’n’ roll. But according to several sources, it hardly made an impact outside of the West Coast. It didn’t chart.

Apparently, though, Wilbert Harrison heard it, and his rollicking 1959 resurrection of the tune as “Kansas City” for the Fury label shot to Number 1 on the Billboard pop and R&B charts. That occasioned the re-release of Little Willie’s original, along with versions by Hank Ballard, Rocky Olson and Little Richard, with Richard adding different lyrics and welding it to his earlier “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!” Richard’s medley was the one covered just a few years later by those four lads from Liverpool, taking the song to new heights of popularity.

Meanwhile, Little Willie was fading into obscurity that was only to be relieved when he began touring Europe in the late 1970s. He moved to the Netherlands around 1980 and continued to perform in Europe — and occasionally the United States — until very recently. He played the Blue Room at 18th and Vine in 2008. According to his manager, Rolf Schubert, in this Washington Post obit, Little Willie Littlefield succumbed to cancer June 23.

Comments

  1. In May 1988 I was with Little Willie Littlefield on national radio In the Netherlands (Vara, Radio 2). Willie played 7 songs durig that radio show and he was interviewed between the songs he did. During the interview he said that he was the one who wrote Kansas City (K.C.Loving). He said: “I wrote that song. I was young at that time and I had a manager who sold the song. When it came out again it was published under another (writer/composer) name”. (I still have the tape of that interview.)

    Because of the word “again” I tried to do some research. I already had an original “KC Loving” Little Willie Littlefield record (with “Leiber/Stoller” on it) and I tried to find another one with Willie’s name on it as the writer/composer of the song. I didn’t find one so far (and it’s hard to find any of the original records anyway).

    Willie was a good friend of mine for over 26 years ( I met him in 1987) here in the Netherlands and we talked a lot about music, but I never heard him bragging about his own music. He always was very modest/humble about that, so for me it’s hard to believe that Willie wasn’t involved in the writing/composing proces of the song.

  2. Just saw Willie’s show at the Mountain Winery near Saratoga, CA. He ended his performance with a Peaceful Solution. What a cachty phrase. This could be the new anthem for this war as John Lenon’s Give Peace a Chance was for the Viet Nam War. Forward this to all your peace loving friends and let Willie’s voice sound the call for a Peace Revolution. Willy is right, it’s time to take back America . Thank you Willie. You are a National Treasure.TK

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