Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller form what is without a doubt one of the most well-known song-writing partnerships in the history of popular music. Hound Dog, Stand by Me, Jailhouse Rock and Searchin’ are just a few examples of the over-70 charted hits that came out of their pen. Another example is Kansas City, one of their earliest compositions as well as one that’s been covered extensively throughout the decades. The very first version was recorded by Little Willie Littlefield in 1952 (the same year it was written in). Little Richard then took it, added his own “hey, hey, hey, hey” section and made it a moderate rock ‘n’ roll hit (later also the inspiration for The Beatles’ cover). However, it wasn’t until Wilbert Harrison’s 1959 version that the song gained widespread success.
Kansas City tells the story of a man leaving his woman and going to the namesake city to find new love. What’s interesting then is that Leiber and Stoller have never been to Kansas themselves – instead, they took inspiration from the jazz records recorded there by artists such as Charlie Parker and Count Basie. The song played both as a blessing and a curse for Harrison: while it undoubtedly remains his signature hit, it’s also what stopped him from properly following it. Kansas City was released on a different recording label than the one the R&B was signed to, thus causing him to get sued at the height of his popularity. Other than a minor hit with Let’s Stick Together in 1962, Harrison never made anything else worth noting.
Kansas City spent 2 consecutive weeks at number one in Billboard Top 100 before being dethroned by Johnny Horton’s The Battle of New Orleans.