Thursday, June 01, 2006:

The Roots Canal: Goin' to Kansas City

Little Willie Littlefield -- K.C. Loving
Wilbert Harrison -- Kansas City
Little Richard -- Kansas City
Bill Haley -- Kansas City
The Beatles -- Kansas City
Now let's move from one of the least-known Leiber & Stoller songs (see I'm a Woman, below) to what might be their best-loved -- although one of the slowest to become a hit.

Have you ever heard the original Kansas City? Actually, it was first released as K.C. Loving by an R&B singer named Little Wille Littlefield in 1952. It went nowhere fast. In fact, it went nowhere at all until it was covered in 1959 -- actually, it was covered three times that year, first by Wilbert Harrison whose record shot up to #1 and was re-covered by Little Richard and Bill Haley before the end of the year. It's been covered endlessly ever since (allmusic's list goes on for six pages), perhaps most famously by the early Beatles.

I love the Leiber and Stoller story: two white kids from Baltimore and New York who became friends after school in LA and discovered a shared love of black music. They had their first song recorded (Real Ugly Woman by Jimmy Witherspoon) when they were just 17 years old. By the time they were 20 they had written Hard Times for Charles Brown, K.C. Loving for Little Willie Littlefield and Hound Dog for Big Mama Thornton. They went on to write a string of hits including Stand by Me, Jailhouse Rock, Charlie Brown, Love Potion #9, On Broadway, Yakety Yak, Searchin' and Dancin' Jones. There's a complete list of their songs and who sang them here. You could certainly criticize Leiber & Stoller for their role in bowdlerizing R&B from a bawdy adult music to the insipid teenage drivel of so much late-50s/early-60s rock'n'roll, but they didn't do it alone. Besides, you'd be too busy singing along to criticize them for long.

One of the interesting twists to Kansas City is there are two versions of one of the most famous lines in the song. In the original, Little Willie sings:
They got a crazy way of lovin' there and I'm gonna get me some.
Wilbert Harrison changed that line to:
They got some crazy little women there and I'm gonna get me one.
Sign of the changing times, I guess. It's interesting to listen to the different versions and see which lyric each artist chooses to use. Little Richard went with the original, Bill Haley with the rewrite (changing it to "they got lots of purty women there..."). The Beatles made up their own lyrics altogether.

Bonus track: Jerry Leiber's been quoted as saying that his favorite version of Kansas City was this recording by Joe Williams with the Count Basie Band. I can understand why. It's a great jazzy blues, much more in keeping with the jazz-oriented R&B that Leiber & Stoller grew up with than the teenage rock' n'roll they became famous for. I think it's my favorite, too (except he goes with the Wilbert Harrison rewrite).
Joe Williams -- Kansas City
Nice post. I love comparing different versions of a song, and this is a good song to do it with.

I don't think I'd ever heard Wilbert Harrison before.

That Joe Williams version is very nice.

I hadn't heard the Joe Williams before. Cool.

I found your post checking for Bill Haley posts at the Hype Machine. And this was the only one!

Haley's piano player, Johnny Grande died on June3rd.

There is a short post at The Doors Of The Kingdom.

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