This was written in 1952 by the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who went on to write hits for Elvis Presley, Ben E. King, and many others. Leiber, the lyricist in the duo, wanted to write a song like Count Basie's "Going To Chicago Blues," where Basie takes off for Chicago and leaves his woman behind. Leiber came up with a scenario where a woman is driving the singer crazy ("Well, if I don't leave that woman I know I'm gonna die"), so he heads for Kansas City, looking to find some of the "crazy little women" they have there.
Why is Kansas City the setting for this song? For one thing, it sings really well. For another, that's where Count Basie and Charlie Parker recorded, and Leiber and Stoller considered it a homage to the city.
Leiber and Stoller wrote this around the same time they composed "Hound Dog
" for the blues singer Big Mama Thornton (the song later became a huge it for Elvis). And while "Kansas City" was one of the first songs by the duo that was widely recorded, it was not the first song they wrote, or even their first published song. The book Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography
names "Nosey Joe," "Hard Times," "Real Ugly Woman," "Ten Days in Jail," and "That's What the Good Book Says" as previously written and released songs.
The song was first recorded in 1952 by the R&B singer Little Willie Littlefield. His producer, Ralph Bass, changed the title to "K.C. Lovin'," and the song went nowhere (the song's co-writer Mike Stoller said that the title change likely tanked the song).
In 1959, the song was suddenly revived, with cover versions (as "Kansas City") recorded by Wilbert Harrison, Little Richard, Rocky Olson, Hank Ballard and The Midnighters, and Jack Parnell. Harrison's version was a huge hit, and the song became a popular standard.
In the UK, this was a #26 hit for Little Richard also in 1959. He would play it in a medley with his song "Hey, Hey, Hey." In America, the song has charted five times:
1959 - Wilbert Harrison (#1)
1959 - Rocky Olson (#60)
1959 - Hank Ballard and The Midnighters (#72)
1964 - Trini Lopez (#23)
1967 - James Brown (#55)
In the opinion of the song's writers Leiber and Stoller, the best version of this song was Joe Williams' 1964 recording, as it had the Kansas City blues-jazz feel they were looking for.
The Beatles recorded a version of this song with Little Richard's "Hey, Hey, Hey" in 1964. In 1993, a recording of The Beatles playing "Kansas City" and "Some Other Guy" at the Cavern Club in 1962 was auctioned for about $32,000 at Christie's auction house in London.
One notable Beatles performance of the song came on September 17, 1964, when Charles O. Finley, the owner of the Kansas City Athletics baseball team, paid them $150,000 to perform at their stadium. Only 20,000 people came to the show in a stadium that could seat 35,000, as many fans stayed away in protest of Finley, who was taking some heat over his management of the losing franchise. The Beatles played 12 songs that night, and included a special rendition of "Kansas City" in their set. It was the only time The Beatles played the song in the United States - they performed it on the US TV show Shindig
, but it was part of a taped segment recorded in London.
In an interview with Leiber and Stoller in Mojo magazine April 2009, Leiber explained how the pair settle arguments over what sounds best. He said: "Each of us would give in to the other who really had jurisdiction over the choice. If it was words, most of the time it was in my pocket to make the music."
Stoller added that if it was music most of the time it was his decision. Leiber then illustrated his point by giving the writing of this song as an example: "I had a beef with the song, Mike was playing a tune (Leiber sings a different tune to the one we know), and I said, 'That's really corny, it sounds like Benny Goodman or something, let's do something that's really original.' And he said, 'Like what?' (Leiber sings a bluesy version). He said, 'I don't like that, that's like a hundred other blues.' He said, 'Who writes the music?' I said, 'you do'. And he wrote it the way he wanted and I came into it and we had a smash."
Mike Stoller claims it wasn't until 1986 that the songwriters went to Kansas City for the first time. He explained in an appearance on the UK show Songbook: "I wanted to make it have a melody that sounded like it could have come out of a little band in Kansas City, and so that if it was played as an instrumental, you'd still know what it was instead of just kind of 12-bar blues. And Jerry felt, as I recall, that that wasn't authentic enough."
Leiber replied: "Mike could go to a piano and noodle around and come up with a progression and a tune that was original. I couldn't do that. I wasn't a musician. I didn't play and I couldn't write. But I was singing my kind of a tune, and Mike heard it and didn't particularly like it. It wasn't a repeat blues, per se. It didn't have an original song, notes to it. And he insisted on writing it his way."
Here's a fun fact for you chart geeks: This debuted on the US chart at #100. Six weeks later it had climbed to #1, the first ever song to rise from the Hot 100's bottom position to its summit.