Wilbert Harrison didn’t write ‘Kansas City’ - it was written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, when they were still in their teens.
Wilbert wasn’t even the first artist to record it - that was Little Willie Littlefield, whose version was released in 1952 and was promptly ignored by the majority of the record buying public.
But not by Wilbert.
When Wilbert heard Little Willie’s original he must have heard something magical in the song that the majority of the record buying public had missed, because even though it wasn’t a major hit song, he immediately incorporated it into his live shows. And kept it there. For the next seven years.
Until finally, in 1959, he decided that he was ready to commit his version of the song to vinyl.
When he did, it became clear why that ‘something magical’ that Wilbert had heard all those years ago had eluded the majority of the record buying public back then – that ‘something magical’ wasn’t actually in the original at all. It was in Wilbert’s imagination.
Because when Wilbert listened to the perfectly competent but slightly flat-footed, even rooted to the floor, beat in Little Willie’s original, what he actually heard was a machine-gun-precise, but nevertheless continually shifting, urgent, shuffling, Rock solid beat.
And it had taken maybe all of those seven years of live performance to coax that beat out of his imagination and onto vinyl. When he finally succeeded, it not only provided the song with a different beat, but that beat also completely redefined every single aspect of the song.
It compelled Wild Jimmy Spruill to turn his guitar from the typical 50s instrument that normally provided lyrical touches and flourishes above the beat into a way-ahead-of-its-time, metallic rhythm machine apparently so hypnotised by the beat that all it wanted to do was match its pulse.
It forced Wilbert to turn his normally wide-ranging voice into a clipped, clenched, almost monotone beat box.
It even convinced his normally expressive piano that it too would prefer to be another member of the percussion section.
And with every single element of the song now standing to attention and pointing at the ‘something magical’ that had finally emerged from its hiding place inside Wilbert’s head, after seven years of occasional nocturnal sightings, this time the majority of the record buying public couldn’t fail to hear it too.
Which is why the same song, with the same arrangement, the same tempo and more or less the same words became one of the biggest hits of 1959 after flopping first time around, in 1952.
I’ll post Little Willie’s original for comparison purposes later today.
Available on the Wilbert Harrison album, Kansas City – His Legendary Golden Classics’: Amazon