Who has NOT heard of this song before?? “Kansas City” was written ‘way back in 1952 by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two nineteen-year-old rhythm and blues fans from Los Angeles.
Neither had been to Kansas City, but they were inspired by the records of Kansas City and by blues shouter Big Joe Turner who was an entertaining mainstay of Kansas City night life.
First recorded in 1952 by Little Willie Littlefield, it had the title “K.C. Loving”, but the song would not became a #1 hit until seven years later when it was covered by Wilbert Harrison in 1959.
“Kansas City” became one of Leiber and Stoller’s most recorded tunes, with more than three hundred versions, several appearing in the R&B and pop record charts.
- I’m goin’ to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come (2x)
- They got a crazy way of lovin’ there, and I’m gonna get me some
- I’m gonna be standing on the corner, of Twelfth Street and Vine (2x)
- With my Kansas City baby, and a bottle of Kansas City wine…
Through a connection to record producer Ralph Bass, “Kansas City” was written specifically for West Coast blues/R&B artist Little Willie Littlefield, who was a popular 20-year old Texas-born boogie woogie pianist.
Leiber and Stoller taught the song to Littlefield at the home of another record producer, Maxwell Davis. This was handy because Davis was also a musician and he arranged the song for 78 RPM recording and played the tenor sax on it.
The recording took place in Los Angeles in 1952. During Littlefield’s first recording session for Federal Records, a King Records subsidiary. Federal’s Ralph Bass changed the title to “K. C. Lovin’“, which he reportedly considered to sound “hipper” than “Kansas City“.
Unfortunately, Littlefield’s record had only mild success in parts of the U.S. and it failed to reach the national chart. This would prove to be its downfall because it left the door open for Wilbert Harrison to subsequently dominate the radio waves 7 years later with his ubiquitous version of “Kansas City“.
Little Richard versions
In 1955 Little Richard recorded two rather different versions of “Kansas City“: on September, 13 (supervised by Bumps Blackwell), and on November, 29 (with five vocalists, supervised by Art Rupe). The first version, which was very close to the original song, was released much later, in November 1970, on compilation album Well Alright!
n 1959 the second version which had the same name, but which had been substantially re-worked by Little Richard (in particular, this version featured the 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 (position 95 of US Charts, and position 26 of UK Singles Chart). (Later this particular version would be covered by The Beatles.)
In 1956 (May 9) Little Richard recorded his own song Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey, also known as “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey! (Goin’ Back to Birmingham)” which turned out to be very similar to a part of second version of “Kansas City” recorded six months earlier (and which had the same refrain as mentioned above).
So a new song had been introduced — it included most of the changes made by Little Richard to the second version of “Kansas City” and got a new name and new writer, Richard Wayne Penniman (Little Richard himself). This song was released in January 1958 as B-side of Good Golly, Miss Molly (Specialty 624) and in July 1958 on Little Richard.
So it happened that the public perceived the song “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey” (released in 1958) as an earlier work than “Kansas City” (released in 1959) and as its predecessor (while in fact it was actually the other way around). This allowed Little Richard to claim co-authorship with respect to this version of the song.
In 1964 when The Beatles would release their album featuring their version “Kansas City” as performed by Little Richard (the second version, as the first one was not yet released at that time) the attorneys representing Venice Music made a complaint, and as a result the record label was revised to read: “Medley: (a) Kansas City (Leiber/Stoller) (P)1964 Macmelodies Ltd./KPM; (b) Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey (Penniman) Venice Mus. Ltd. (P)1964.” Formally, however, this song could hardly be called a medley, as by definition a medley is a piece composed from parts of existing pieces. Moreover, when Little Richard was recording “Kansas City”, the song “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey” did not yet exist.
Wilbert Harrison version
In 1959, Wilbert Harrison decided to record his own version of Littlefield’s “K.C. Lovin'” after several years of performing it at at gigs. It rose to #1 on the charts and stayed there for 7 weeks.
In March 1959, just when the version of Little Richard was released on album, Harrison, with a trio including guitarist Wild Jimmy Spruill, recorded it in a New York studio for producer Bobby Robinson of Fury Records. “Kansas City” was released on a single by Fury, catalog number 1023, later that year.
Although the song’s arrangement varied little from Littlefield’s, it “struck such a solid shuffle groove that it was unforgettable”, with inspired rhythm and solo guitar work by Spruill. Harrison’s song was issued with Leiber and Stoller’s original name, “Kansas City“, but changed the refrain to “They got some crazy little women there, and I’m gonna get me one” and dropped one twelve-bar section.
Shortly after the song’s Wilbert Harrison’s version was released, several other versions appeared. Billboard magazine’s pop song pick of the week for March 30, 1959 listed five different releases of “Kansas City“: Harrison’s and versions by Hank Ballard and The Midnighters (King 5195), Rocky Olson (Chess 1723), Rockin’ Ronald & the Rebels (End 1043), and a reissue by Littlefield (Federal 12351).
A week later, the magazine announced the single release of a version by Little Richard. Although Ballard’s and Richard’s versions both appeared in the lower reaches of the Billboard charts, Harrison’s was a runaway hit, reaching number one in both the R&B and pop charts, where it remained for seven weeks, and became one of the top selling records of 1959. It was also the final No. 1 single in the US to be released on a 78 record.
Harrison also recorded an answer song to the same tune as “Kansas City“, called “Goodbye Kansas City“, which was released on a single by Fury Records in 1960 (catalog number 1028).
The Beatles version
In 1964, The Beatles recorded Little Richard’s “Kansas City“, calling it “Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey“. It was a song they began performing in their early Hamburg touring days. They had already played it in September ’69 at Municipal Stadium while touring in Kansas City as a one-time addition to their usual set list.
The Beatles’ version, which uses somewhat different lyrics, appears on the albums Beatles for Sale (UK) and Beatles VI (US) and was the B-side of the October 1965 single “Boys” as part of Capitol Records’ Star Line series. Piano on the track was played by George Martin.
An alternate take was released on Anthology 1 and a live version, recorded in Hamburg in 1962, was released on Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany; 1962. Other live versions appear on the albums Live at the BBC and On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2 and in the film Let It Be. The Beatles were also seen on the American television program Shindig! performing the medley live in October 1964.
The Beatles version is played following a Kansas City Royals victory in their home ballpark of Kauffman Stadium.
James Brown version
James Brown recorded a version of “Kansas City” in 1967 which charted #21 R&B and #55 Pop. Brown recorded live performances of the song for his albums Live at the Apollo, Volume II (1968) and Say It Live and Loud (1998; recorded 1968), and in his concert films James Brown: Man to Man and Live at the Boston Garden.
“Kansas City” has been recorded by literally hundreds of performers, including
- Bill Haley & His Comets from the album Bill Haley and His Comets (1960),
- Brenda Lee from All the Way (1961),
- Peggy Lee from Blues Cross Country (1962) and Miss Peggy Lee Sings the Blues (1988),
- Ace Cannon did an instrumental version on his debut 1962 album Tuff Sax,
- Trini Lopez as a #23 pop chart single (1963),
- Dion DiMucci on his album “Runaround Sue” (1961),
- Jan & Dean from Surf City And Other Swingin’ Cities (1963),
- Jay and the Americans from At the Cafe Wha? (1963),
- Fats Domino as a single (1964),
- Sammy Davis Jr. from Sammy Davis, Jr. Sings the Big Ones for Young Lovers (1964),
- The Everly Brothers from Rock & Soul (1965),
- Tom Jones from From the Heart (1966),
- Albert King from Born Under A Bad Sign (1967),
- Muddy Waters from Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live (1979), and
- Dean Reed from the album Rock’n’Roll Country Romantic”(1980).
Ten versions of the song are featured on the 1994 album, The Best of Kansas City. In 1995, it was included in Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the musical revue about the songs of Leiber and Stoller. Also, the Grateful Dead played the song on October 28th 1985 the day after the Kansas City Royals won their first World Series.
2001, Harrison’s “Kansas City” received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and it is included on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” In 2005, Kansas City adopted “Kansas City” as its official song, dedicating “Goin’ to Kansas City Plaza” in the historic 18th and Vine Jazz district. Due to redevelopment, the “12th Street and Vine” intersection mentioned in the song no longer exists, but a park roughly in the shape of a grand piano and with a path in the shape of a treble clef exists at the former location, marked by a commemorative plaque.