My first exposure to “Kansas City” was Wanda Jackson’s rollicking version on Queen of Rockabilly, where Jackson was anything but demure in her plan to nab a “crazy little fella.” Wilbert Harrison’s version is a little more low-key, based around a piano riff rather than electric guitar. “Kansas City” was one of the first songs by Leiber and Stoller, written in 1952 and so pre-dating the rock and roll. Harrison’s version carries it across the threshold.
“Kansas City” sounds at first like a boogie-woogie, with its 12-bar blues structure and walking bassline. But there’s a bit of yearning in Harrison’s voice straight from country music. While Jackson’s version is a party song about chasing boys and painting the town, Harrison’s is melancholy: “If I stay with that woman, I know I’m gonna die/Gotta find a brand new baby and that’s the reason why/I’m going to Kansas City.” He doesn’t sound entirely convinced that his plan’s going to work out the way he hopes. His “bottle of Kansas City wine” is there for solace, not for having a good time. This fusion of blues and country created rock and roll. Wild Jimmy Spruill’s brilliant but brief guitar solo toward the end of the song drives the point home, sounding like neither of the parent genres but only like rock itself, coming into its own. 8
- Wild Jimmy Spruill also provided the guitar solo for “The Happy Organ,” the previous entry on No Hard Chords.
- The YouTube video linked above plays not only “Kansas City,” but the B-side “Listen My Darling” and follow-up single “Goodbye Kansas City” (virtually identical to “Kansas City,” but now Harrison’s headed to New York City).
- Wilbert Harrison also did a pretty good version of previous entry “Stagger Lee” (view here).
Hit #1 on May 18, 1959; total of 2 weeks at #1
14 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.45% through the Hot 100