Kansas City

Album: Kansas City: The Best of Wilbert Harrison (1959)
Charted: 1
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  • 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. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Bertrand - Paris, France
  • 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.
  • Another chart fun fact: On May 20, 1959, exactly 30 years after this song hit #1, Paula Abdul's "Forever Your Girl" reached the top spot. That song was written by Jerry Leiber's son, Oliver Leiber.

Comments: 35

  • Jk from Arlington"Bust out" sounds like a real possibility and would solve the problem, except I'm hearing "M" moreso than "B," as in "Must out."
    I don't mean to bust any bubbles.
  • Jk from Maineville He’s saying “bust out” right before the guitar solo.
  • Jk from Arlington"Mercy" would have been a great call, Bryan.
    To be honest, though, I don't hear that word.
    But your comment opened my mind up. Listening a few more times, it sounds closer to "Mustah" -- as in "mustard" -- or "Mustad," whatever the heck THAT would mean.
    Maybe if we all kept brainstorming this, we might come up with something.
  • Bryan from NashvilleI'm listening in 2021, and reading the comments. Regarding the idea that Wilbur Harrison is saying "Mustang" right before the guitar solo, I'd like to suggest the possibility that he is actually saying "Mercy," which is a very common word for singers to interject in that tradition, i.e. R&B, gospel. His pronunciation of "mercy" sounds a lot like "mustang," which could explain why so many people think he's saying "mustang," which makes no sense.
  • Jk from Arlington, VaIt sounded to me like, "...ah, but ya know yeah... Mustang!" `Cause when you're in front of a mic, and ya gotta say something, sometimes you just say nonsense. I think we can all agree that he does say "Mustang." Perhaps he was calling out the guitarist, about to play a solo, though he wasn't referring to the guitar. ...Is it possible this was an inspiration for naming Fender's Mustang?

    One more thing: people are wrong to say the Little Richard version is "completely different." It is not. It is Lieber & Stoller's song, mixed with a song piece by Little Richard. From Wikipedia:
    In 1955, Little Richard recorded two different versions of "Kansas City" by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller: one on September 13 (supervised by Bumps Blackwell), and one on November 29 (with five vocalists, supervised by Art Rupe). The first version, which adheres closely to the original 1952 recording by Little Willie Littlefield for the first two verses, was not released until November 1970, on the compilation album Well Alright![citation needed] The second version, which had been substantially re-worked by Little Richard (in particular, it featured a new refrain starting with words, "Hey, hey, hey, hey; Hey baby, hey child, hey now") was released in March 1959 on The Fabulous Little Richard and in April 1959 as single after the success of the Wilbert Harrison hit.
  • Mike from HoustonIt's not crazy Lil women it's crazy Little Women
  • Bernd from Germany"Kansas City" is a rhythm and blues song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1952. First recorded by Little Willie Little-Field the same year, the song later became a chart-topping hit when it was recorded by Wilbert Harrison in 1959. "Kansas City" is one of Leiber and Stoller's "most recorded tunes, with more than three hundred versions," with several appearing in the R&B and pop record charts.
  • George from FloridaScott from Nj: If he does yell "mustang" he can't be referring to his guitar. Fender didn't introduce the Mustang model until 1964.
  • Garry S from Manahawkin, NjI always thought that Harrison shouted "On, yeah", Joe
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn March 15, 1974, The Butts Band performed "Love Your Brother" & "Kansas City" on the NBC-TV late-night program, 'The Midnight Special'...
    Both songs were from the band's 1974 album, 'Butts Band', "Love Your Brother" was composed by band member and ex-Doors' guitarist Robby Krieger, while "Kansas City"* was co-composed by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller...
    * And from the 'For What It's Worth' department; fifteen years earlier on May 18th, 1959 Wilbert Harrison's version of "Kansas City" peaked at #1 {for 2 weeks} on Billboard's Top 100 chart and it spent sixteen weeks on the Top 100...
    In addition; the week Mr. Harrison's version peaked at #1, there were two other versions of the song on the Top 100 at the time, by Rocky Olson {at #75} and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters {at #76}, while Little Richard had a completely different .song titled "Kansas City" at #95...
  • Scott from NjJoe - when he shouts out "mustang" he is referring to the Fender Mustang guitar he is playing.
  • Jennifur Sun from RamonaJoe, could it be the car he is referring to, or the fact that KC (as I recall ) was one of those western towns that had cattle and horses shipped from?
  • Jennifur Sun from RamonaDoes anyone know who played the piano on Harrison's version?
  • Jennifur Sun from RamonaFor some reason this is one of the covers I never liked.
  • Joe from IsraelBarry - Sauquoit, Ny... Trini Lopez couldn't have performed "Kansas City" on 11/23/63 on American Bandstand because all of the networks were covering the Kennedy assassination of the day before. Perhaps it was scheduled for that day and played later. Joe
  • Joe from IsraelAbout halfway or more into the song Wilbert Harrison shouts out "mustang"! Does anyone know what he meant by that?
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn November 23rd 1963, Trini Lopez performed his covered version of "Kansas City" on the ABC-TV program 'American Bandstand'...
    At the time the song was at #70 on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; and thirty-six days later on December 29th, 1963 it peaked at #23 {for 1 week} and spent 10 weeks on the Top 100...
    It was the follow-up record to his #3 hit, "If I Had a Hammer"...
    “Kansas City” reached #13 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary Tracks chart...
    Between 1963 and 1968 he had thirteen Top 100 records; his next biggest hit after "If I Had a Hammer" was "Lemon Tree", it peaked at #20 {for 2 weeks} on February 14th, 1965...
    Trinidad López III will celebrate his 78th birthday come next May 15th {2015}.
  • John from Des Moines , IaWilbert Harrison did a follow up song that said "Goodby Kansas City, New York City here we come". The music was exactly the same. Only the lyrics were different. The only time I heard this recording was on a juke box in Kansas City back in the early seventies. Anyone else ever heard of this song?
  • John from Des Moines , IaWilbert Harrison did a follow up song that said "Goodby Kansas City, New York City here we come". The music was exactly the same. Only the lyrics were different. The only time I heard this recording was on a juke box in Kansas City back in the early seventies. Anyone else ever heard of this song?
  • Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScI find it interesting that three versions of this song were recorded in 1959 and they all made it onto the pop charts; neither of the others, by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and Little Richard,were as successful as Wilbert Harrison's however. Imo Ballard's can function as sort of a bridge between Richard's and Harrison's.
  • Matthew from Greenville, NcI saw the video clip of Wilbert Harrison playing it on a TV show. It was in the key of Db. They showed him playing a Db walking bass line with his left hand and F, Ab, and Db in the right hand. Fats Domino also plays it in the original key of Db. I play Bb trumpet so I think in terms of Db rather than C#. They are both the same sound (enharmonically).
  • Bob from Kansas City, Mo, MoActually, if you look at that location in person, you will find that that corner DOES NOT EXIST. It is an extrapolated estimate of where those two streets *should* meet and is located in the middle of a small park. Due to the history created by this song, there is now a street intersection sign at the location where the streets would meet if they did continue through the park. It is located directly North of the Kansas City Jazz District and, my take on it is that it was maybe a hangout for after-hours drinking and carrying on by patrons of the Jazz District. Prostitution may have gone on there, but that park is too small to find any privacy.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn May 11th, 1959 "Kansas City" reached #1 on the R&B chart and stayed there for seven consecution weeks!!! {The song it replaced at the top spot was "It's Just a Matter of Time" by Brook Benton, that song was #1 for nine straight weeks}
  • Frances from Parkville, MoWhat Dave in Omaha is talking about it is the history of "12th street and vine" was a known prostitute area and he was going to look for some crazy lovin. Most KC people figure thats what the song is about.
  • John from New Orleans, LaThe song was probably recorded in C and sped up which was a very common thing back then. Many records were sped up to fit the shorter time restraints and to pick up the beat.
  • Genie from Seattle, WaFrom what I've read about the song's history, the original lyric was "They've got a funky [crazy] way of lovin' there and I'm gonna get me some." Not "... crazy little women ... get me one."

    In Peggy Lee's version, she sings "They've got some swingin' little fellahs there ... "

    Wilbert Harrison had by far the biggest hit with the song but he did not have the original version.

    Genie, Seattle
  • Steve Dotstar from Los Angeles, Cawhat ever key it was done in, I'm thinking 2 things...
    it was a "Head arrangement".. meaning it wasn't written down..
    and also that if it was in as our friend says
    in c#,i'm sure the musicians were thinking of Db instead.(samepitch)
  • Memphis "piano" Joe from Los Angeles, CaI just made my first YouTube of my piano playing...and I picked....."Kansas City" !

    Please have a look and post a comment there.

    Thanks fellow "Kansas City" fans!

    Memphis "Piano" Joe
  • Shirley from Houston, TxThe first time I heard the Wilber Harrison version of this song in 1959, I along with the young dancing club crowd...were blown away. We were a dancing generation and did a dance we called the "PUSH". The dance and this song were a perfect fit. There's been dozens of other artist cover this song...none can match Harrisons. It was a hugh hit in 1959 and I still think of it as an important notch in R&B and R&R history.
  • Jerry from Seattle, WaWorking girls and song keys aside, "Kansas City" by Wilbert Harrison is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT song than the tune by Little Richard, and later the Beatles. The only thing they have in common is the title!
  • Garrett from Nashville, TnBTW, the original hit version, by Wilbert Harrison, is in the key of C #.
  • Garrett from Nashville, TnSince when does "crazy li'l women" signify prostitution?
  • Sam from Shanghai, ChinaThe version by the Beatles is in G...
  • Dave from Omaha, NeI'm surprised how much commercial success a song about prostitutes had
    -great song
  • James Liedel from Monreoe, MiWhat key was Kansas City done in? Or was it done in more than one by Wilbert Harrison. Thank you
see more comments

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