October 25, 2014

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.

Starlight memories

The infamous 1977 show that drew noise complaints around Royals Stadium.

The nostalgic triple bill coming up at Starlight Theatre on Friday, May 10 — Styx, REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent — made me wonder just how many times those three acts have collectively played Kansas City.

A Chris Fritz presentation, circa 1972-74.

The poster at left shows that promoter Chris Fritz presented two of the three groups – along with Joe Walsh’s Barnstorm – at Memorial Hall in the early ’70s. Nugent was still billed as leader of the Amboy Dukes then, just a few years after their Top 40 hit from 1968, “Journey to the Center of the Mind.” Barnstorm existed only from 1972 to 1974, so this would have to be from that period.

Guitar battle poster

The Nuge had played KC before, and he came through many times thereafter, as did REO and Styx. Part of REO’s 1977 double-live album was recorded at Memorial Hall.

When Nugent was at his commercial, multi-platinum-selling peak, he even headlined two stadium shows for Fritz. The first of those, on Sunday, June 26, 1977, became infamous for drawing noise complaints from miles around the Harry S Truman Sports Complex. (See story above) Second on the bill that night was REO Speedwagon.

The Nuge headlined Summer Rock '79

REO also headlined a memorable show at Royals Stadium on Sept. 1, 1979, literally “Ridin’ the Storm Out” on a night so rainy they could barely finish their set. Someone is selling a vintage T-shirt from that show for $140 online here.

Next month’s show is a production of Live Nation, Starlight’s promotional partner for the current season. I was also trying to think, for the purposes of this post, about what were the first rock shows staged at Starlight. I remember seeing the Grateful Dead and Elvis Costello (in separate shows) there during the 1980s, but I’m almost certain rock shows were held there during the 1960s and ’70s.

What are your Starlight rock memories? Please leave a comment below.

Carney Rock

Len Barry's huge hit, "1-2-3," came out a few days after this show.

Kansas City amusement parks were often the site of rock concerts in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
The tradition of “School’s Out” concerts at Fairyland sponsored by Top 40 radio station WHB goes back farther than I realized in my earlier “World’s Happiest Broadcasters” post. Those events took place in the early 1970s. I have since found a newspaper ad (above) from June 1965 touting such a show with Len Barry of “1-2-3″ fame as the headliner. That song came out the following month on Decca Records and went to #2 on the pop chart. I wonder if Barry sang it here? Anybody out there recall that show, or others at Fairyland?

This poster is from the second Carney Rock, circa 1974.

I have heard the Shadows of Night played there once. And of course, Chris Fritz promoted multiple Carney Rock bills there in the mid-’70s featuring bands like Spirit. (See photo, below left)
As for Worlds of Fun, I recall seeing shows by Squeeze and Ray Charles in an outdoor amphitheater there, but it must not have been in 1980, the year this ad (below right) was published. The big-name headliners that year were Rick Nelson, Hall and Oates and Kool & the Gang.

An ad for summer 1980 concerts at Worlds of Fun

I contacted the folks at Worlds of Fun earlier this year, but they have no record of what acts played there when. The park is now owned by the Cedar Fair group, and they have not promoted a concert series. The 1980s-era shows took place under WOF’s original Hunt Midwest ownership. I don’t have any WOF-concert ticket stubs, and I’ve saved almost all of mine, so I wonder if tickets were even printed for these shows. It looks like some were free with regular admission, and some carried a 99-cent surcharge.

Ed Cassidy and Spirit at the first Carney Rock in July 1973

So who out there can help? Anyone recall seeing a rock concert at Fairyland or Worlds of Fun? Got any photos or memorabilia to share? Leave a comment below or contact rick@kcrockhistory.com