The Number Ones is a new column where I’ll review every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The songwriting team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller cranked out hit after hit for 15 solid years, their resume going from “Hound Dog” to “Stand By Me” to “Is That All There Is?” But when they wrote “Kansas City” in 1952, they were just two blues-fan teenagers in Los Angeles; they’d never even been to Kansas City. And so “Kansas City” is a tribute to a place that exists entirely within the imagination: “I’m gonna be standing on the corner of 12th Street and Vine / With my Kansas City baby and a bottle of wine.”
Lieber and Stoller wrote the song for the piano prodigy Little Willie Littlefield, who released it in 1952. Over the years, other singers recorded it, including Little Richard, who later essentially rewrote it with his own song “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey.” But “Kansas City” didn’t become a hit until Wilbert Harrison, a North Carolina-born singer who never scored a second hit, took a crack at it in 1959.
It’s hard to say why Harrison’s version of the song landed and the others didn’t. In Harrison’s hands, “Kansas City” is a perfectly amiable R&B rumble. “Kansas City” is a song written from a position of desperation: The narrator has just suffered from heartbreak, so he’s determined to get to Kansas City and score with one of the “crazy little women” there. But Harrison doesn’t sing it as a desperate song. Instead, he’s clearly having fun with it, and so it becomes a fun song instead. The song’s highlight is probably the giddy guitar solo from session player Wild Jimmy Spruill, complete with Harrison yelling “awwww, yeah!” As luck would have it, Spruill had also played a guitar solo on Dave “Baby” Cortez’s “The Happy Organ,” the song that hit #1 immediately before “Kansas City.”
BONUS BEATS: “Kansas City” became a blues standard after Harrison’s version hit, and tons of artists, including the Beatles, covered it. James Brown had a minor hit with his 1967 recording of the song. Here’s some great footage of him performing it in Paris in 1971: