Wilbert Harrison’s 1959 version of “Kansas City” is the song’s most famous recording. Its lyric spotlights an intersection of 12th Street and Vine, even though natives say these streets never actually meet to form a true intersection. Instead, you can think of this as a mythical party point. It’s a place where a guy longs to visit to have a good time.
In the first verse, Harrison dreams of being with his Kansas City baby, “and a bottle of Kansas City wine.” The second verse speaks of how “they got a crazy way of loving there/And I’m gonna get me some.” This could mean wild women. It could also refer to prostitutes. But because songs about prostitutes didn’t get on the radio back in 1959, we’ll just need to use our imagination regarding what he truly meant.
Kansas City sure didn’t seem to have a great reputation among right living folks, though. In fact, Harrison tries his best to keep this party journey a secret.
I’m gonna pack my clothes Everybody will be sleeping Nobody will know where I’ve gone
Ironically, when Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller originally wrote the song, they gave it the title “K.C. Lovin’.” Little Willie Littlefield was the first artist to track it, seven years earlier in 1952. The Beatles and Little Richard also recorded the tune. On May 11th, 1959, Harrison’s version of "Kansas City" reached #1 on the R&B chart and stayed there for seven consecutive weeks.
“Kansas City” is a rollicking rhythm and blues song. However, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Kansas City had a thriving jazz scene. Today, it hosts the annual Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival.
Although the song has a basic blues chord progression, it bops along with a rocking dance beat. With its rolling piano part, it could easily pass for a Fats Domino song. In fact, Fats Domino also does a wonderful version of the song.
People don’t likely think of Kansas City when it comes to good-time destinations. Instead, the sin and gambling locales of Atlantic City and Las Vegas are probably the first party choices. However, with its classic Kansas City-style barbecue, which blossomed in the inner city and can be traced back to barbecue pioneer Henry Perry from Memphis, Tennessee, restaurants like Gates and Sons Bar-B-Q, which opened in 1946, made this downtown area a place for good music, crazy women, and tasty food.
Sadly, America in the 21st century has lost a lot of its original regional flavor. However, in the late ‘50s, back when Wilbert Harrison was riding high with this Midwestern road song, there was still good reason to hit any highway that would take you to Kansas City. Nevertheless, you can still hear this song sung and played by bar bands in nightclubs today. With a drink in one hand and dancing shoes on your feet, you can always go to downtown party central in your mind. Kansas City, here I come! ~ Dan MacIntosh
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." Album : Kansas City: The Best of Wilbert Harrison Released : 1959 US chart position : 1