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
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."
Album : Kansas City: The Best of Wilbert Harrison Released : 1959 US chart position : 1