This may have been his only hit until the Seventies. But in 1959, what a hit! – A Rock and Roll Classic!
(5 January 1929 – 26 October 1994)
Kansas City was #1 for two weeks in April of 1959
Perceived by some casual oldies fans as a one-hit wonder, prior to “Kansas City” Wilbert Harrison had actually left behind a varied body of work that blended an intriguing melange of musical idioms into something quite distinctive.
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Country and gospel strains filtered into Wilbert Harrison’s consciousness as a youth. When he got out of the Navy in Miami around 1950, he began performing in a calypso-based style.
After moving to Newark, NJ, Harrison wandered by the headquarters of Savoy Records one fortuitous day and was snapped up by producer Fred Mendelsohn. Harrison recorded several sessions for Savoy, beginning with a catchy cover of Terry Fell’s country tune “Don’t Drop It.”
What is significant about “Don’t Drop It” is the fact that back in those days, Harrison’s lyrics were regarded as “X-Rated“. For example, there’s a part that goes,
“I said I wouldn’t lay me ’til the day we were wed, but each time I kiss you I forget what I said. I’ll let you keep it tonight if you hold it real tight, Oh Baby, don’t drop it.”.
Now, this of course made the record all the more popular and sought after.
Another interesting fact about “Don’t Drop It” and a few other Savoy recordings: top New York sessioneers were used; arranger Leroy Kirkland, saxist Buddy Lucas and guitarists Mickey Baker and Kenny Burrell — but hits weren’t forthcoming.
That all changed when Harrison waxed his driving “Kansas City“: Miami entrepreneur Henry Stone signed Harrison to his Rockin’ logo in 1953; his debut single, “This Woman of Mine,” utilized the very same melody as his 1951 reading of “Kansas City” (the first rendition of the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller composition by pianist Little Willie Littlefield came out in 1952, doubtless making an impression). Its flip, a country-tinged “Letter Edged in Black,” exhibited Harrison’s eclectic mindset.
It wasn’t until 1959 that Harrison’s “Kansas City” went all the way to #1 on Billboard. He recorded for the Fire and Fury labels, which were owned and operated by Bobby Robinson at his Harlem record shop.
“Kansas City” is especially notable for the presence of the brilliant guitarist Wild Jimmy Spruill, whose barbed wire solo ignited Harrison’s no-frills piano and clenched vocal, propelling the hit to top position on the charts. This guitar solo is a classic – one of the most memorable in the history of Rock & Roll.
“Kansas City” paced both the R&B and pop charts soon after its issue on Fury Records (not bad for a $40 session). Only one minor problem: Harrison was still technically under contract to Savoy (though label head Herman Lubinsky had literally run him out of his office some years earlier!), leading to all sorts of legal wrangles that finally went Robinson’s way. Momentum for any Fury follow-ups had been fatally blunted in the interim, despite fine attempts with “Cheatin’ Baby,” the sequel “Goodbye Kansas City,” and the original “Let’s Stick Together.”
After the “Kansas City” success, Harrison continued to perform and record but it would be another ten years before his “Let’s Work Together” made it on the Billboard Hot 100.
Wilbert Harrison Discography (thanks to Soulful Kinda Music): click here
Video: Wilbert Harrison – Stagger Lee (turn up the volume)
In 1970, he had some success with “My Heart Is Yours”.
He toured for many years with a band known as “Wilbert Harrison and The Roamers” as well as a solo act.
Wilbert Harrison died in 1994 in a Spencer, North Carolina nursing home at the age of 65. Sadly, he was destitute.
In 2001, his recording of “Kansas City” was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. His recording has also been named as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.