Monday, May 18, 2009

50 years ago: Wilbert Harrison “Kansas City” hit #1

Kansas City

Wilbert Harrison

Writer(s): Mike Stoller (music), Jerry Leiber (words) (see lyrics here)

First Charted: April 3, 1959

Peak: 12 US, 11 CB, 3 GR, 12 HR, 17 RB, 13 CN (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): 1.0 US

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 4.98 video, 9.91 streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller met as students at Los Angeles City College in 1950. They became “the greatest songwriting team of the 1950s,” DM writing classics for Elvis Presley (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”), Ben E. King (“Stand by Me”), the Drifters (“There Goes My Baby,” “On Broadway”), and the Coasters (“Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak”). However, it was “Kansas City” that “was their first defining song.” SS

The pair wrote the “bluesy coming-of-age song” MM in 1952. Stoller said that Kansas City was “the home of swing, jazz, and the blues” MM and “was known as a pretty wild place.” MM Neither had ever been there, but asked R&B musicians for the names of big streets in Kansas City. MM Houston-born singer and pianist Little Willie Littlefield recorded it as “K.C. Lovin’.” It failed to chart but was revived in 1955 by Little Richard as “Kansas City.” Four years later, Wilbert Harrison “made the song a massive crossover smash.” SS

Harrison, born in North Carolina in 1929. After finishing a stint in the Navy in 1950, he recorded for several small labels without a hit. He headed back home to Charlotte in 1956 and didn’t make another record for a couple of years. Bobby Robinson, a Harlem record store owner and blues label owner, then brought him to New York to record some gospel records. Harrison brought “Kansas City,” a song he’d performed since hearing Littlefield’s recording, to the session. The session was held late at night in Manhattan with Ike Turner on piano. In less than 30 minutes and at a cost of less than $40, they recorded the song “as a relaxed stroll with a shuffle beat.” MM

It ranks as “one of the outstanding Number Ones of the rock and roll era” DM and became “a standard in the modern blues repertoire.” DJ “Without having ever set foot in the town they were writing about, Leiber and Stoller had touched something deep in American culture.” SS


First posted 8/8/2023.

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