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.

The heavy sounds of Stone Wall

Greg Whitfield, (from left) Ken Mairs and Allen Blasco of Stone Wall at the Fun Fair, Municipal Auditorium, June 1969.

Greg Whitfield, (from left) Ken Mairs and Allen Blasco of Stone Wall at the Fun Fair, Municipal Auditorium, June 1969.

If the Classmen (clean-cut brothers, managed by their father) were Kansas City’s equivalent to the Beach Boys and the Chesmann its Beatles, Stone Wall could be likened to Kansas City’s Cream or Led Zeppelin.

A power trio with roots in the blues, Stone Wall was led by singer-guitarist Allen Blasco in combination with three different rhythm sections (1968-76).

Allen Blasco of The Clergymen at the Hullaballoo Scene club, March 1968.

Allen Blasco of The Clergymen at the Hullaballoo Scene club, March 1968.

As a young teen (1965-68), Blasco led The Clergymen, whose ever-changing array of musicians included Ray Goldsich, later to become known as radio personality Ray Dunaway. They were good enough to headline the Hullaballoo Scene club, a spinoff from the 1965-66 NBC television show that opened in 1967 on 85th Street just east of Prospect Avenue.

Stone Wall played many times at the summer Sunday Volker Park love-ins of the 1970s.

Stone Wall played many times at the summer Sunday Volker Park love-ins of the 1970s.

But with the coming of Hendrix, Cream and Blue Cheer, 17-year-old Blasco wanted to emulate that heavier sound, and he had the chops and the equipment to do it. He and his band mates (Ken Mairs, drums, Greg Whitfield, bass, v.1; Lee Cline, d, Rick Bacus, b, v. 2; Pete Jacobs, d, Alan Cohen, b, v.3) played venues ranging from Volker Park love-ins (there’s a great YouTube video here) to Municipal Auditorium, as part of then-future Cowtown Ballroom impresario Stan Plesser’s June 1969 Fun Fair.

Short-lived Aquarius attracted top-name local bands.

Short-lived Aquarius attracted top-name local bands.

While Stone Wall gigged all around town and at such outlying venues as St. Joe’s Frog Hop Ballroom and The Jolly Troll in Holton, Kan., they struggled to create original songs and thus interest from major record labels.

Blasco went on to form and/or play with such bands as Neon Blue and the reformed Riverrock.

The Soc Hop(s) rocked

Roger Calkins (center) and the Fabulous Silver Tones at the original Soc Hop.

If it was not the Kansas City area’s earliest and most consequential rock club, The Soc Hop was certainly one of them.

Created in 1960 in an old cattle barn near the northwest corner of 95th Street and Metcalf Avenue, The Soc Hop was part of the transformation of Johnson County, Kan., from rural to suburban. (Click on map/business card below right and all thumbnail photos on this page to enlarge.)

The owners of the original Soc Hop had these business cards with maps made.

It was the creation of brothers-in-law Mike Weaver and Ed Bowers, who saw it as both a money-making opportunity and a place for their seven teenage children and their peers to have some fun.

They transformed the barn into a club that packed in teens by the hundreds to dance to the blues-rockin’ house band, Roger Calkins and the Fabulous Silver Tones.

The barn's last incarnation -- a restaurant.

The fun at 95th and Metcalf lasted just two years, however. The Soc Hop predated the city of Overland Park, having gained a two-year operating permit from Mission Township. OP denied them renewal in 1961.

The partners didn’t miss a beat, though, turning the former Silver Spur Country Club at 8940 Quivira Road in Lenexa into a new Soc Hop by the summer of 1962.

The new Soc Hop opened in Lenexa in 1962.

Based around a swimming pool complex, the new Soc Hop also contained a barn-like auditorium with a stage and wooden dance floor, plus an outdoor stage.

The crowds followed the proprietors to the new Soc Hop, but so did some of the problems with crowd control. That and a broken filtration system that closed the pool during the summer of 1963 spelled doom for the second Soc Hop after just two seasons.

Ad for COYAS Castle

The place had once last hurrah when auto salesman Clair Beeman reopened it in 1967 as COYAS Castle. COYAS was an acronym for Club of Young Americans. But again, the club lasted only a couple of seasons.

So, did you attend a dance at The Soc Hop or COYAS Castle? What bands did you see? What was it like? Please leave a comment below.