60 years ago the song “Kansas City” hit #1 on the charts- here’s what you might not know about it

Every song has a story.

The story behind “Kansas City” just happens to be Guiding Light.

It’s been 60 years since an account of wild women, wine and song in the Jazz District reigned the charts. On May 18, 1959, “Kansas City” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The run lasted two weeks, until June 1, when it was dethroned by Johnny Horton’s rockabilly hit “The Battle of New Orleans.”

William Harrison
William Harrison

The success of William Harrison’s recording of “Kansas City” was a surprise to pretty much everyone involved — including the song’s authors,  Jerry Leiber and Michael Stoller.

Leiber and Stoller met as teenagers in 1950 and immediately teamed up to write songs. The prodigies reeled off a string of hits including the timeless tracks “Stand by Me,” “Yakety Yak,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Love Potion No. 9.” They went on to write 70 chart-toppers and have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They’re even credited on Warren G and Nate Dogg’s 1994 rap hit “Regulate,” which is based off a track they wrote for yacht rocker Michael McDonald.

“Kansas City” was one of their earliest collaborations, recorded in 1952 with another youthful prodigy, a Texas-born boogie-woogie pianist named Little Willie Littlefield.

From the very beginning, the immortal riff showed itself open to interpretation — a quality that helped it become a standard. It’s been recorded more than 300 times by everyone from the Beatles to James Brown, who asked it be sung as the finale to his funeral.

At first, the songwriting duo couldn’t agree on an approach to “Kansas City,” Stoller, 86, tells 435.

“Jerry wanted the song to sound just like a typical blues, blues intonations, without a specific melody,” he says of the late lyricist. “I said, ‘No, I want it to have a melody that, if it’s played by a band, you can hear it even without a lyric.’ So we had a fight about that. And I said, ‘Who’s writing the music?’”

Neither of the teens had actually been to Kansas City. They didn’t come here until the mid-80s, when they received the key to the city.

“I was a jazz fan, and Jerry was a blues and jazz fan,” Stoller says. “We fantasized about the great music coming from Kansas City — Lester Young, the Kansas City Seven and Count Basie, Jay McShann and Charlie Parker, Big Joe Turner — these were all names that resonated with us.”

Having never been to Kansas City, Stoller says the duo asked around the studio to get some local color: “We asked some of the local players what were the hot places in Kansas City, and they said ‘12th Street and Vine.’”

Kansas City Song
12th Street and Vine

They didn’t have to look far for sources. The artist recording the song, Little Willie Littlefield, had just played shows at the old Orchid Room at the intersection made famous in the lyrics. Littlefield’s shows were in June and July 1952, according to articles in Kansas City’s century-old black newspaper, The Call, dug up by Rick Hellman of the Kansas City Rock History Project blog. So Littlefield was singing about his own recent experiences.

According to Littlefield’s obituary in the Washington Post, he “often claimed that he had written” the song “Kansas City.” His authorship claim remains contentious among some rock history buffs and Littlefield’s friends. Stoller describes the claim as “kind of weird.”

“He didn’t write any of it,” Stoller says. “He at one point claimed that he did. I got a message years later from a British writer who wrote about rock ‘n’ roll, and so on, and knew Little Willie, had met him. He debunked [Littlefield’s claim]. He said, ‘No, he didn’t really write it, he admitted that he didn’t.’”

Littlefield’s version of the song nearly slipped into the dustbin of history. There’s a key lyrical difference between the original 1952 version and the one that became a hit seven years later, with the former scandalously referring to “a crazy way of loving” instead of “crazy little women.” The song was originally put on wax under the bizarre title “KC Loving,” which Stoller suspects deadened enthusiasm.

The song was “Kansas City” when Stoller put pen to paper and has been again ever since Harrison’s hit.

“The head of the record company contractually had the right to change the title of the song, and he did so. He changed it to ‘KC Loving.’ Why he did that, I don’t know,” Stoller says. “When Wilbert Harrison’s record came out, he apparently remembered the song, and he put its original title on it — since it’s kind of obvious.”

Social Media

Get The Latest Updates

Subscribe to our newsletters

Kansas City magazine keeps readers updated on the latest news in twice-weekly newsletter. 

On Tuesdays, Dish brings you food news and our critic picks. 

On Thursdays, The Loop offers exclusive news reports and our curated events picks.